Bestselling author Daniel Coyle relates a fascinating story: Four-person groups of lawyers, CEOs, business school students and kindergartners were given a challenge: Build the tallest tower using uncooked spaghetti, tape, string and marshmallows. Who do you think built the tallest tower? The children outperformed all the others. They stood shoulder to shoulder, working energetically and shouting out suggestions. “Their entire technique might be described as trying a bunch of stuff together,” Coyle writes in The Culture Code, which looks at the qualities that make successful teams. The CEOs, lawyers and business students may have had more skills than the kindergarteners, but their focus on individual status created distraction and inefficiency. “Individual skills are not what matters,” Coyle writes. “What matters is the interaction.”
During the four years that Coyle spent researching teams and what makes them tick, this finding was borne out again and again. The scientists who filed the most patents at Bell Labs were those who ate lunch with a particular engineer who asked great questions. The most successful engineering teams, according to a study at another company, were those whose desks were closest together, encouraging open and constant communication. In a competition where entrepreneurs presented their proposals to investors, researchers could predict winners based not on the quality of the proposal but on the social cues that the presenters exchanged with investors.
If it’s discouraging to think that a great proposal might go unfunded because of social signals — or that kindergarteners collaborate more effectively than CEOs — the good news, according to Coyle, is that anyone can learn the behaviors that contribute to winning teams. “[Culture is] not something you are. It’s something you do,” he writes. And in The Culture Code, Coyle teaches you how to do it.