“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” so the saying goes. I learned that lesson early on in my first management classes, via books like The Score Takes Care of Itself. The idea is to build a strong cultural foundation first, which will shape the team that conforms to those norms and leverage them to exceed expectations. It follows that successful companies often feature influential cultures; certainly, they like to publish puff pieces mythologizing their rituals1.
As any leader will tell you, culture is difficult to nail down, and even more so to change. The Culture Code is a book that studies the topic in detail, everything from academic sociological experiments to observations of Navy SEAL training to the synthesis of tech startups’ “best practices.” Along the way, it provides some quick tips for the reader on aspects that are important and transferrable to other domains, particularly around work and business contexts, thus following the tradition of business management books transmogrifying any aspect of life into the capitalist pursuit of efficiency.
Lest I sound overly cynical, I did enjoy the book and its well-researched conclusions on what develops great cultures. It’s able to explain, for instance, why startups started to wordsmith proper nouns for their employees: “Googlers”, “Affirmers”, “Dashers” can be cringey, but they’re strategically important to emphasize a sense of belonging for employees. Where it falls flat—and you can argue our current spate of layoffs doesn’t help—is when the nouning of employees is merely a performative gesture, an empty platitude that isn’t reinforced by stronger initiatives to reinforce inclusion.
The hypothesis around physical proximity as a catalyst for developing culture is interesting to gauge in our post-COVID world of remote work. Of course, this has been a point of tension; employees want the flexibility to work from home, but executives pine for a return to the office precisely for driving real social interactions, which in turn creates and reinforces that company culture. According to The Culture Code anyway, being in person in the office, seated close to one another, facilitates the types of spontaneous interactions that lead to great teamwork and rapport.
But we also know that the architectural manifestation of this phenomenon—the open office plan—often ends up decreasing productivity by making it harder to focus and amplifying stress. It doesn’t invalidate the above idea of building community via proximity, but it does suggest a trade-off; prioritizing mechanisms that make for more culture-building isn’t straightforwardly positive.
The book uses an example that unintentionally drives home this observation: the Vegas Downtown Project. At the time of publication, the Downtown Project was getting off the ground, with Zappos moving its headquarters to Vegas into a building designed for surreptitious employee interactions and investing hundreds of millions of dollars into the surrounding neighborhood to be a civic equivalent. A decade later, its founder suffered what seemed like psychologically damaging withdrawal from the community brought on by COVID restrictions2, and the project itself has not produced the vibrancy that it set out to create. It’s a reminder that success is not as formulaic as simply driving culture, and culture is not as formulaic as a playbook.
On a more positive note, there are many tidbits that I found useful in explaining peculiar behaviors. For instance, the act of laughing doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it’s an important signal not only that things are fun, but that it’s safe to laugh and make fun because it’s a safe space. Similarly, expressing vulnerability is powerful because it creates trust, which is the prerequisite for further, more meaningful collaboration. The behaviors can be contagious, but they need to be bootstrapped; putting yourself out there to change the tenor of the group is itself a form of leadership.
The Culture Code is less convincing when it focuses on the “what” and the “why” of organizational cultures, yet I found it more insightful when it tackles the “how” in establishing positive cultures. It’s the day-by-day tactics—the essence of a training exercise here, the implications of an experimental study there—that clicked for me, both translatable and applicable in engineering management. It doesn’t make shaping culture easy; just a bit more tractable.