The quote above comes from Peter Drucker, “the founder of modern management”, a brilliant thinker that left us with abundant theory on how to succeed in building and running a business.
Business, and any other human endeavor for the most part, can be reduced to a very simple pattern: “groups of people working together”.
This basic tenet speaks volumes on the relevance of understanding and dedicating targeted effort towards enabling those groups of people to efficiently work as a collective.
All teams and organizations express a culture, which accounts for the common patterns in thought and behavior the members of the group consistently perform and which represent their current state of evolution.
However, not all cultures evolve in the same way, and only a subset of those collective patterns enable the achievement of dramatically superior results and perform at a very much increased capacity than others.
In The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle studies this subject by looking at examples of groups that perform markedly better than others across business, academy, sports and the military. His aim is to identify the characteristics that these cultures demonstrate, and help leaders identify how they can build and influence such highly effective cultures.
In this article I’ll talk about the three core areas that leaders should focus on developing, towards building a culture that is self-perpetuating, and which drives teams onto common objectives and operating with high levels of cohesion.
Then I’ll talk about my own perspective in terms of culture building, and what I consider very present challenges in the new “remote-first” world, a pattern that has gained traction in recent years, and that was solidified as the norm by the pandemic.
Three core skills
Ok, let’s get to business! You’re a leader that is looking to build and grow a culture capable of consistently performing above and beyond expectations. According to Daniel Coyle, there are three skills you will need to master to get there.
Skill 1: Build safety
You are safe here
This is the basic but important message that should be clear to all members of the group working together: it is safe to fail, you are not alone and we’re in this together.
A leader must dedicate focused effort on both creating a connection with her team, as well as support the connections between the team members themselves. We humans are wired to look for safety in groups.
The objective is to create conditions that communicate a clear message of “togetherness”.
Cohesion happens not when members of a group are smarter but when they are lit up by clear, steady signals of safe connection.
People are moved to do more if they know somebody’s got their backs, and they will not be reckless when they know others are just as dependent on them.
Building a culture of safety requires cues delivered consistently and over time, the narrative of safety and togetherness must be ever-present.
How does one build belonging
Nothing builds cohesion in a group like having to solve problems and struggle, together. The leader should be candid, direct yet present and caring for her team.
One misconception about highly successful cultures is that they are happy, lighthearted places. This is mostly not the case. They are energized and engaged, but at their core their members are oriented less around achieving happiness than around solving hard problems together.
Designing for belonging
Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappos, shares some great advice for leaders to design environments that promote the sense of belonging.
Hsieh speaks of the concept of “collisions”. Collisions are those serendipitous instances where people bump into one another and communicate.
In order to promote a sense of belonging, the leader should design environments that increase the likelihood and amount of such fortuitous encounters.
An experiment performed by the US during the cold war to evaluate why some teams succeeded and others did not in research and development of new technologies and weapons demonstrated something surprising: the one consistent difference across successful teams vs those that were not, was the distance at which they sat!
Closer means more communication, and more communication means a stronger sense of belonging, more collisions and as a result more ideas. This concept is known as the Allen Curve
Skill 2: Share Vulnerability
Belonging is about cohesion, but that is not enough to produce outstanding performance. That cohesion must be transformed into actual actions that result in remarkable performance.
Vulnerability is the key component that, once you have a team where everybody has a clear sense of belonging and safety, triggers the drive that results in outstanding performance.
Every culture studied in The Culture Code promote moments of intense vulnerability, a couple of examples are:
Pixar uses BrainTrust meetings, meetings where movies get assessed and critiqued.
SEAL teams use After-Action Reviews, events that take place within the team immediately after a mission to evalaute what worked and what did not.
In these events members of the team open up to one another to dissect and transparently evaluate their own performance and that of their peers. Other than the obvious benefit of allowing for a continuous improvement cycle, these rituals expose the team to a state of shared vulnerability.
To promote vulnerability in teams, leaders must take the lead and clearly signal their own vulnerability first. Every open demonstration of vulnerability creates a virtuous cycle that promotes other members of the team will also open up, and in every iteration, increase the closeness and trust of the group.
The story of the Red Balloon Challenges strikes us as surprising, because most of us instinctively see vulnerability as a condition to be hidden. But science shows that when it comes to creating cooperation, vulnerability is nto a risk but a psychological requirement.
The other aspect of enabling cooperation and sharing vulnerability is providing teams with the autonomy to cooperate and to think for themselves.
Being vulnerable together allows teams to challenge each other, and trust each other as equals. The leader should generate a series of signals that influence the team away from the natural tendency of following authority mandates, and into new tendencies for interdependence and cooperation.
To work at Google was to enter a giant, continuous wrestling match in which no person was considered above the fray
Finally, to truly connect with every individual in your team or organization, leaders must master the skill of listening and asking questions. Your role is to discover, empathize and engage.
… the most important moments in conversation happen when one person is actively, intently listening.
Skill 3: Establish purpose
The last piece of the puzzle, after having built a safe environment, where people share a sense of belonging and can share risk and vulnerability, is to answer the question: What are we working towards?.
Defining a mission is not subtle amongst the studied high performing groups, the beliefs and ideas that define purpose are ever present across all facilities, interactions and communications.
And they are reinforced in the daily discourse using recurring statements and signals. Cultures that are exceptionally performant constantly build, tell and retell their story.
But the past is not enough, successful cultures link the past with a future ideal.
Purpose is also established by associating meaning to the actions of the team, providing a vision of how their efforts affect and impact a grander objective.
To establish purpose, the environment must constantly produce an ongoing stream of clear signals aligned to this shared goal. It’s less about inspiration and more about consistency.
Purpose isn’t about tapping into some mystical internal drive but rather about creating simple beacons that focus attention and engagement on the shared goal. Successful cultures do this by relentlessly seeking way to tell and retell their story.
Developing for proficiency or creativity require different approaches
Most teams will require a combination of both proficiency: doing a task with extreme reliability every time, in cases where the goal behaviors can be clearly defined; and creativity: building something that has never existed before.
Each of these two different types of ability require different mechanisms to promote excellence.
When developing for proficiency you want to train using high-repetitions and high-feedback, honoring the fundamentals of the skill by constantly demonstrating models of excellence. Another important aspect when developing for proficiency is the need to build and reinforce vivid rules of thumb.
On the other hand, the actions a leader must take in order to build a culture skilled in creativity should focus on the team composition and dynamics, the team’s autonomy and its tolerance and acceptance to failure and feedback. The leader should encourage initiatives and establish routines of celebration when team members demonstrate independence and candidness.
The impact of remote work in culture - my opinion
As an engineering leader, I’ve witnessed the accelerated transformation into remote work. Engineers are uniquely positioned so they can perform their knowledge work from anywhere as long as they have an internet connection.
I see, and experience a lot of the personal value of that approach, I for one also work from home, and perform my role as CTO for a company that is almost 4000km away. I’m fully present in the lifes of my three children, and feel quite satisfied with my balance in terms of personal objectives (eg. work) and my family and collective life.
However, I’m not completely satisfied with this new paradigm, or at least with the tools we currently have towards building solid cultures in this new remote-first world.
A key takeaway from reading The Culture Code is the importance of proximity, unstructured and random encounters and the subtle signals that enrich present communication, from eye contact to touch.
Our current tools and remote-first patterns of work lack in every aspect: from the fact that no communication happens really at random, every communication must be scheduled, and the sole action of having to establish a “bridge” for the communication to occur completely removes the component of serendipity.
Latency breaks the natural rhythm of communication, and cameras, regardless of resolution, do not transmit eye contact and the many subtleties of non-verbal communication, that is, if they’re used at all.
I had experienced this inability to bond and clearly communicate before: with my kids every time I travel. I’m a frequent flier, spending about 25% of my time (that is, before the pandemic) away from home, and having to communicate with my kids through a screen always demonstrated the ridiculously poor evolution of our technology to enable really powerful and personal communication.
A strong culture increases net income 756 percent over eleven years, according to a Harvard study of more than two hundred companies.
The failure of corporations to build solid cultures
The pandemic accelerated a pattern that was already well underway, but to me it also surfaced the fact that companies have failed in building cohesive teams and strong cultures.
I find the sense of loss from not being able to directly engage one another remarkable absent from social media and day to day communication across teams.
This to me, demonstrates the failure of most companies in building a solid culture. I want to build teams that suffer if they can’t see each other, just like you suffer from not being able to connect personally with your family, because the team is family as well.
The work ahead
Nevertheless, remote work came to stay, and it’s a futile effort to swim against the current. Which means technology and human patterns of interaction will need to rapidly evolve hand in hand. Video conferencing both as a technology as well as the ecosystem of tools that enable it must dramatically evolve before it is able to provide a model of engagement that more closely resembles the experience of being closely together.
This is the opportunity for us engineers to revolutionize - enabling means of true human-bonding communication digitally will become more critical as we progress as a species, think of space travel alone! Our current ability to communicate digitally, when put in the context of inter planetary communication is the equivalent of letters delivered by horse.
To me, the future will inevitably require a mixed balance between at-home work together with shared spaces where physical collaboration and random encounters can happen. Some companies may choose to do remote-only work models, but they will have a steeper hill to climb if they are looking to build solid cultures and cohesive teams.
Engineers will also find themselves in a spot where their choices in terms of collective contact and participation define, even more than in the past, their ability to move forward in their careers and become part of teams that become larger than the sum of their parts - this will no longer be something that “just happens” but will require conscious effort.
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