“ The secrets of highly successful groups ”

by Daniel Coyle

Book Cover

Best book I’ve read in a long while, surprisingly practical for such a topic, easy to read. Contained things that I was happy to discover I’ve been helping with, and blaring mistakes and gaps that I hope I’ll be able to correct.


Main idea: Culture is not defined by what you are but by what you do. There are three significant axises that create a successful culture: 1. Building Safety so that people feel comfortable working together ; 2. Exhibiting vulnerability so that people feel comfortable with failing, and therefor trying ; 3. Signaling purpose and a path to get there, by communicating goals very clearly, and being clear with expected behavior.

Significant idea: on idea that resonated with me a lot seats at the very end of the book, and spills very much into the idea of building a decision/delegation framework.

  1. Define priority (e.g. increase quality)
  2. Define keystone behaviors (e.g. refactor in each PR, push well thought through code, …)
  3. Define heuristics to link 1 to 2. These are either desired behaviors with a name (e.g High Quality Operator), catchphrases (e.g. “don’t push garbage”, “keep each other honests”, “do the right thing, not the expedient”), or simple rule of thumbs (“if you see something wrong, fix it right away”), that are overcommunicated to pass on their importance .

Safety comes from feeling valued (you’re important), being future oriented (we’re in this together for the long term), and creating positive energy (I feel good when I’m here). Send lots of cues about these3. Safety comes and contributes to feeling like “We belong”. When people feel safe, they relax, and focus on the task at end, create connection and collaboration, rather than focus their energy on maintaining their social status.

Vulnerability at all levels demonstrates that no-one is perfect, that everyone fails, and that everyone’s help is needed to achieve success. It fosters collaboration, and drives closeness between people. Everyone picks the slack, no-one is above menial tasks, leaders contribute to chores. It allows to review things honestly because everyone has limitations. Be candid but not brutally honest (not aggressive, more future oriented). Have a culture of continuous improvement that starts from everyone’s current limits.

Sharing purpose reminds everyone why we work here. This is done by communicating a steady stream of cues that “we are here for the same reason” and also contributes to sense of belonging. Sharing direction is done through overcommunicating priorities and desired behaviors. Name these behaviors and create heuristics to remind everyone of them. Priorities need to be listed as a first step, sometimes having the team work well together is all that’s required since everything else falls into place once this is done. Set the bar for the behavior, target for excellence.

Reading Notes

Marshmallow experiment - asked groups to build a tower from spaghetti and marshmallows. Kindergarteners outperformed professional groups. That’s because they experimented and communicated towards building the tower rather than seeking status. Professional groups were in status management mode, trying to find where they fit in in the group

Groups are more than the sum of individuals

Culture is not what you are, but what you do. It comes from X main factors

1: Build Safety (so that people feel comfortable to work together)

Culture leaders transform bad energy into positive. They react to negativity and make it safe.

Safety comes from cues in communication

  1. Positive Energy / positive intent
  2. Demonstrate that you’re a valued individual
  3. Future signaling - relation will be continued

It takes a lot of cues to build safety. Recognizing these flips people from a defensive mode into connection mode.

Bad apples signal that we are not safe. Good apples signal that we are safe.

Safe groups feel like family. They exhibit attributes

  • Talk and listen in equal proportions
  • Exchanges have energy
  • Lots of 1-1 communication, not just with leader
  • Backchannel communication out of group
  • Individuals break out and come back with information

Signaling belonging triggers connection and cooperation. sustained cues creates lasting connections. “We belong”.

Amigdala is producing hormones both for defense & fight/flight, and for the sense of belonging.

Belonging in the worst environments can create connection (e.g. soldiers of opposite sides in trenches at christmas), lack of belonging in great environment can trigger absence of commitment (e.g. Wipro who was losing employees to turn around till they created identity centered on the individual)

Let people connect together. Proximity is one of the best predictors of success

how to create safety through cues

  • Over express intentful listening. Tell me more. What do you mean. Etc.
  • Vulnerability: don’t try to cover errors, limits, on the contrary over express on themselves
  • Indicate future orientation, signal where people will be in few year, communicate that the relation is to be continued
  • Over express thankfulness - say thank you a lot. This expresses proximity. Thanks for the most menial things
  • Eliminate bad apples, dont tolerate bad behaviour, name bad behaviour
  • Create safe collision spaces
  • Make sure everyone has a voice. Utilise mechanisms. E.g no meeting can be finished without everyone expressing opinions. Andon cord. Q&A. What would you change if you were captain. Give credit to the originator.
  • Pick up trash. Leader does the menial work. Muscular humility. Be egalitarian, signal that we’re all in this together
  • Capitalize on threshold moments. Remind of the moments shared by the team. Acknowledge the arrival of new persons, signal that we are together now.
  • Dont use sandwich feedback. Handle negative by dialog, in both way. Radiate delight on positive behaviour.
  • Embrace fun

2: Signal Vulnerability

Short discussion mode when in emergency called “notifications” - explaining what we observe and do in short collaborative bursts. Offer vulnerability “I need your help on XXX”

Brain trusts - review meetings focusing on what’s wrong and needs improvement. Hard, but triggers improvement.

Vulnerability signals that collaboration is desired. It signals “I need you”. Lots of vulnerability cues signal that it’s a safe place to produce ideas and encourages proactivity. It signals that we are imperfect, suffer the same anxiety, social angst and limits as everyone else, encourages others to jumping in.

Vulnerability loop is when signaling vulnerability calls for vulnerability, which establishes connection and triggers collaboration.

Collaboration events drive closeness between people. Seal teams do exercises that reinforce collaboration through vulnerability - people pick up the slack when others start failing. Everyone participate (and fails) disregarding rank. Lots of collab events creates strong bonds.

Courage is to tell what you see is wrong. It takes vulnerability from others to be opened to receive that feedback and actually listen to it, but this is how things move forward.

Create habits of group vulnerability e.g after action reviews or brain trusts. Set collaboration expectations often.

Leader should be vulnerable first and foremost.

Be candid but not brutally honest. Difference between the two is that it’s less aggressive and less targeted.

Decouple performance review from personal development.

3: share a clear common purpose and path to get there

Performant organizations share a common goal, that they keep repeating. A common future and way of acting that is clear for everyone

People who are told they’re great perform better.

“this is why we work”

Send a stream of purpose cues “we are here for the same reason”. Creates sense of belonging.

Framing - present project in light of its purpose

Signals of direction and meaning are directing all individuals, even skilled ones.

High purpose environments send streams of handful steady signals. Not a big one. They focus on consistency and clarity over big inspirational speeches.

Push a clear beam of signals: this is where we’re going.

Have clear priorities

Don’t just teach, name. Give specific names to behaviors. E.g. athletic hospitality, writing a great final chapter, are you an agent or a gate keeper. These act as a simple set of rules that stimulates complex and intricate behaviors benefiting the customer. They are decision making heuristics.

To summarize:

  1. Define priorities
  2. Define keystone behaviors
  3. Define heuristics to link 1 and 2.


  • name and rank priorities. Making the group work could be the most important and only one, as things can naturally fall into place once relations are solidified
  • Over communicate on priorities, to ensure everyone knows them
  • Understand where group needs proficiency or creativity. Proficiency can be helped with rule of thumbs like if x then y. Creativity can be helped with empowerment and making it safe to fail
  • Create catch phrases. Cheesiness is a feature. Make them simple, action oriented, forthright. “talk less, do more”
  • Measure what really matters. E. G. Instead of # of calls, # of personal emotional connections
  • Use artifacts that signify “this is why we are here” (eg trophies)
  • Focus on bar setting behaviours. Always be excellent.

About Reading Notes

These are my takes on this book. See other reading notes. Most of the time I stop taking notes on books I don't enjoy, and these end up not being in the list. This is why average ratings tend to be high.