Want Stronger Culture? Stop Leading, and Start Designing

Designer-in-Chief David Hornik

Every leader wants to create strong culture. After all, culture drives group performance (a tidy 756 percent increased in net revenue over 11 years). As the old saying goes, culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and midnight snack.

The problem, of course, is that creating culture is a wildly mysterious process. It’s hard to measure, impossible to mandate, and easy to mess up. As such, it’s easy for leaders to fall into the trap of treating culture as something slightly beyond your control; to presume that certain people are born with the uncanny knack for creating culture; others aren’t.

There’s a better way. And I recently bumped into an excellent example, on the big island of Hawaii, home to a unique gathering called The Lobby.

The Lobby is a three-day gathering of 200 or so tech people and investors. It began eleven years ago when a venture capitalist named David Hornik grew weary of sitting in darkened rooms listening to people speak, while all the fun and useful conversations happened outside in the hallways. So Hornik hit upon an idea: to create a conference that flipped the conventional model on its head. No speakers, no auditorium, no official theme or agenda; just the lobby.

I can report that Hornik has succeeded to a wildly impressive extent. To put it simply, The Lobby is a complete blast: a high-energy gathering that leaves you brimming with new ideas and new friends. If my new book weren’t already written, I’d be tempted to include The Lobby as a case study because, to use the term that many longtime attendees use: it’s addictive. Hornik has built an amazing group culture, seemingly out of thin air.

The key is that Hornik doesn’t “lead” in the conventional sense of the word. He doesn’t outline a vision, or mandate actions from the top down. Instead, he thinks and behaves like a designer, engineering the culture from the bottom up. His main tool is a set of what psychologists call signaling behaviors: actions that carry the power to influence others.

Here’s how he does it:

• Before you go, Hornik’s team helps attendees create and share something personal with the entire group. It might be a postcard with biographical details and a photo of their favorite place, or short video tour of everyone’s office, or a baseball-type “trading card” — the only rule is that it conveys their personality and backstory.

• When you arrive, Hornik sets out the prime directive: everything said at The Lobby is 100 percent private. No social media, no journalists, no publicity.

• The first morning, you are randomly combined into six-person teams to play The Game, a three-hour series of puzzles and riddles. It’s silly, fun, complex, and creates high levels of cooperation, effort, and excitement.

• The core of the conference consists of “User-Generated Conversations.” These are questions, suggested by attendees, which focus on questions that people really want to talk about. (Examples: Is a 4-year college a waste of time and money? What does the future of work look like? How can we help kids deal with anxiety?)

• In the conversations, there are no chairs; just beanbags strewn on the lawn or in a room. People carry them to choose what conversations they want to be part of.

• Through it all, Hornik plays the role of pied piper, donning goofy outfits, connecting people, and modeling a kind of openness that creates more openness (he even brought along his parents).

When you look closer, Hornik is using two core signaling behaviors:

  • Signaling Behavior 1: You are safe.
  • Signaling Behavior 2: We share risks. 

Every element of the Lobby — the sharing of bios, the rule of secrecy, the shared games, the shared conversations, the beanbag chairs — toggle between two these core signals, either creating a sense of safety (we are connected; we share a future) or shared vulnerability (we take interpersonal risks together).

When combined, they create a feedback spiral of interactions that generates every-higher levels of group closeness and cooperation. Safety generates vulnerability, which generates even more safety, which generates even more vulnerability, and so on. The group chemistry and connection this creates might feel magical, but in fact it’s closer to inevitable.

So if you want to think like a culture designer, here are a few pointers:

• Make sure the leader is vulnerable first: this grants the group permission to do the same. One trusty method: share an embarrassing story.

• Ruthlessly eliminate default forms of status and power: the best way to do this: give each person a voice and a genuine opportunity to use it.

• Beware bad apples: they can destroy group safety in an instant. As Hornik puts it, all the social engineering in the world won’t fix a dysfunctional group of people.

PS – If you want to read more about Hornik, please check out Adam Grant’s terrific book, Give and Take).