Think You Know the Key to an Outstanding Team? Chances are You’re Wrong

Recently I’ve asked top-performing advisors this simple question: To build a high-performance team, which of these three factors is the most important:

  1. The right team members – hiring people who are talented, motivated, hard-working and collaborative;
  1. The right incentives – putting in place the optimum combination of rewards and recognition; or
  1. The right culture – communicating clear norms about what is expected and giving team members the scope to experiment and fail.

Many advisors say that the most important driver is hiring outstanding talent or having the right reward structure, but a new book builds a compelling case that what makes organizations like Google, the Navy Seals and San Antonio Spurs truly excel is the third answer, creating the right culture.

Why team culture matters

Author Daniel Coyle has written best-selling books on topics ranging from the drivers of outstanding performance (The Talent Code) to the Tour de France. At a recent talk he discussed the research on what creates winning team cultures, which he outlined in his latest book The Culture Code.

He began by pointing to research from the Harvard Business School, in which companies with strong cultures outperformed those with average cultures by a factor of seven over a 10-year period. And he talked about baseball’s Cleveland Indians, for which he is a special advisor. Despite spending $400 million less than the Yankees and Red Sox on their payroll, over the past five years the Indians had a superior record and in 2017 had the longest consecutive win streak in 100 years.

Coyle argues that a positive culture is the most powerful predictor of winning performance. That’s begun to be broadly acknowledged – as witnessed by the “no jerks” rule at many tech companies. No matter how technically capable someone is, if they’re incapable of being a team player the cost of having them on board outweighs the contribution.

In his talk, Coyle said that there is little debate about what organizations with strong cultures look like: For any group to operate effectively, it needs to connect, to share accurate information and to operate cohesively in a clear direction.

The question is what makes people behave in those ways. To try to understand what drives the right culture, Coyle spent two years at varied organizations that are recognized as having winning cultures, looking for commonalities that drive their success. His conclusion: Much of the conventional thinking about what it takes to create a winning culture is unhelpful and is either too vague or flat out wrong. Instead, he identified three traits or rules shared by organizations with winning cultures.