Read: The Culture Code

Just finished reading The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Dan Boyle. I read it even though I pretty much think the key to highly successful groups is having great individuals rallied together by a clear purpose and a selfless leader. That’s no secret — it’s just that getting that right mix is what’s elusive. Anyways, the book was a quick and easy read peppered with Ideas for Action (that’s literally the title of 3 chapters) on how you (but ideally your leader) can help in 3 things: (1) building safety, (2) sharing vulnerability, and (3) establishing purpose.

Actionable ideas

Be mindful of 3 basic qualities of belonging cues — Energy, Individualization, Future Orientation. So in your interactions with your team mates, invest energy by giving attention and being present in the interaction. Acknowledge the individual, don’t make him or her feel like he’s just another random person. Hint at a future, don’t make it feel like it’s just a hello and goodbye interaction.

Build Safety — We are safe and connected.

  1. Overcommunicate your listening – Start off with actually trying to listen, and hopefully your posture, expression, and whether you give a steady stream of affirmations (yes, uh-huh, gotcha) or encouragement to the speaker to keep going would shine through. If not, watch out for whether your posture, expression, reactions are conducive towards the speaker continuing to speak up.
  2. Spotlight your fallibility early on–especially if you’re a leader – Radiate humility and actively invite input with simple phrases like “This is just my two cents,” “I could be wrong here,” “What am I missing?”, “What do you think?”
  3. Embrace the messenger – When someone shares a truth especially bad news or tough feedback, don’t chew off their head. You have to make it feel safe for people to speak the truth.
  4. Preview future connection – Hmm… similar to above on future orientation. Maybe share some vision of the future that you have for the person (like if you see him or her as possibly the next great thing) or with the person.
  5. Overdo Thank-yous
  6. Be painstaking in the hiring process
  7. Eliminate bad apples – Bad apples like jerks, slackers, and downers just aren’t good for the psychological safety of the team.
  8. Create safe, collision-rich spaces – By “collision” he means serendipitous personal encounters. I guess this is about trying to increase the chances of interactions among the team. Could be as elaborate as setting up an extremely nice team area to something as simple as the team having coffee.
  9. Make sure everyone has a voice – Not just the loudest person gets heard. Everyone gets heard, and I guess what follows through is more important i.e., when it actually converts to change or action.
  10. Pick up trash – “Muscular humility”–a mindset of seeking simple ways to serve the group. Other examples could be allocating parking places, picking up checks at meals. “These actions are powerful not just because they are moral or generous but also because they send a larger signal: We are all in this together.”
  11. Capitalize on threshold moments – It’s not just in day one. In successful groups the author visited, they also paid attention to moments of arrival. “They would pause, take time, and acknowledge the presence of the new person, marking the moment as special: We are together now.” Think about it: A warm greeting to a team mate when he arrives versus not even batting an eyelash.
  12. Avoid giving sandwich feedback – Separate handling of negative and positive feedback — negative through dialogue, positive through “ultraclear bursts of recognition and praise.”
  13. Embrace fun

Share Vulnerability — We share risk here.

  1. Make sure the leader is vulnerable first and often – Recommended 3 questions for leaders to ask their people:
    • What is one thing that I currently do that you’d like me to continue to do?
    • What is one thing that I don’t currently do frequently enough that you think I should do more often?
    • What can I do to make you more effective?
  2. Overcommunicate expectations – People aren’t psychic and things don’t just magically fall in to place. “[Be] explicit and persistent about sending big, clear signals…”
  3. Deliver the negative stuff in person
  4. When forming new groups, focus on two critical moments – “At those moments, people either dig in and become defensive and start justifying, and a lot of tension gets created. Or they say something like, ‘Hey, that’s interesting. Why don’t you agree? I might be wrong, but I’m curious and want to talk about it some more.’ What happens in that moment helps set the pattern for everything that follows.”
    • The first vulnerability
    • The first disagreement
  5. Listen like a trampoline – Not just about nodding attentively, you add insight. “The most effective listeners do four things:…”
    • They interact in ways that make the other person feel safe and supported
    • They take a helping, cooperative stance
    • They occasionally ask questions that gently and constructively challenge old assumptions
    • They make occasional suggestions to open up alternative paths
  6. In conversation, resist the temptation to reflexively add value – Don’t try to end the conversation with your own solution. Let the discussion flow (except maybe if time-boxed or if the folks are going in circles).
  7. Use candor-generating practices like AARs, BrainTrusts, and Read Teaming – AARs are After-Action Review done by Navy Seals — It’s like our Retrospectives. BrainTrusts are by Pixar. Red Teaming is a way for exposing risks by creating a team to purposely think of ways to make you fail. One good AAR structure is to use five questions:
    • What were our intended results?
    • What were our actual results?
    • What caused our results?
    • What will we do the same next time?
    • What will we do differently?
  8. Aim for candor; Avoid brutal honesty
  9. Embrace the discomfort – “One of the most difficult things about creating habits of vulnerability is that it requires a group to endure two discomforts: emotional pain and a sense of inefficiency. But as with any workout, the key is to understand that the pain is not a problem but the path to building a stronger group.
  10. Align language with action
  11. Build a wall between Performance Review and Professional Development
    • Performance evaluation tends to be a high-risk, inevitably judgmental interaction, often with salary-related consequences.
    • Development is about identifying strengths and providing support and opportunities for growth.
  12. Use Flash Mentoring – Hours, instead of months or years
  13. Make the leader occasionally disappear – Not to be confused with toxic absenteeism. Given the right foundations and having set them up to know what to do, the team should still be able to perform.

Establish Purpose — This is what matters.

  1. Name and rank your priorities
  2. Be ten times as clear about your priorities as you think you should be – “Leaders are inherently biased to presume that everyone in the group sees things as they do, when in fact they don’t.” It doesn’t help when all the leader sees are nodding heads. Overcommunicate priorities.
  3. Figure out where your group aims for proficiency and where it aims for creativity – “Building purpose [for proficiency, machine-like reliability, usually for service] is like building a vivid map: You want to spotlight the goal and provide crystal-clear directions to the checkpoints along the way…. Generating purpose [for creativity, for empowering groups to build something that has never existed before] is like supplying an expedition: You need to provide support, fuel, and tools to serve as a protective presence that empowers the team doing the work…. Most groups, of course, consist of a combination… The key is to clearly identify these areas and tailor leadership accordingly.
  4. Embrace the use of catchphrases – No way, Jose. Corny. “They aren’t gentle suggestions so much as clear reminders, crisp nudges in the direction the group wants to go.
  5. Measure what really matters
  6. Use artifacts – “Their environments are richly embedded with artifacts that embody their purpose and identity … they all reinforce the same signal: This is what matters.
  7. Focus on bar-setting behaviors – Example given what about a hockey team that rallied their culture around a specific behavior they called “Forty for Forty” — it’s something that they do as part of their play and I guess it captures who they are in some way. I guess the closest analogy I can think of is for testers, we often said “Trust and verify.” Because that was really what was happening and what needed to continue happening. You have to take care of the relationship between you and the devs where you show them you trust them and you can be trusted; and that it’s not about distrust towards them when you do your checks or tests on their work; it’s because you have to do what you have to do i.e., to test.

That’s it. Summarized the 3 chapters (and I guess pretty much the whole book). Of course, the book can provide better context. Go buy it if you want, or buy me a hardcopy which I’ll gladly leave lying around in the office for sharing. Thanks for reading this far (or skimming this far, it’s ok), now maybe you can go over the list of actionable ideas again and this time look for what you can apply or explore further.

One thought on “Read: The Culture Code

  1. Pingback: Testing Bits – February 23rd – February 29th, 2020 – The Late Edition | Testing Curator Blog

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