The Culture Puzzle by Mario Moussa Book Summary

The Culture Puzzle, Harnessing the Forces That Drive Your Organization’s Success by Mario Moussa, Derek Newberry and Greg Urban


Mario Moussa, Derek Newberry and Greg Urban offer an entertaining and instructive look at the importance of organizational culture. They explain that people live in an ocean of inspiring, resonating stories. These tales provide collective insights that allow people to manage the present and plan for the future. This works for modern corporations as it did for communities in the past. The authors explain how to use stories as the building blocks for a narrative that helps employees navigate and contribute to your organization and its goals. They reveal how leaders can draw on shared stories to vividly demonstrate to their people how “we do things around here.”


  • Develop a sustainable vision of the future based on understanding your company’s culture.
  • Stories provide powerful insight into your organization’s philosophy and values.
  • Build your culture around a potent core idea.
  • Use clear language. 
  • Encourage bonds among different subgroups.
  • People create cultural practices unwittingly.
  • General Motors’ employees had to work around its cumbersome practices.
The Culture Puzzle Book Cover

The Culture Puzzle Book Summary

Develop a sustainable vision of the future based on understanding your company’s culture.

Leaders must take organizational culture into account to create plans for the future their people will embrace and their successors will follow. Otherwise, their vision can end in disastrous failure. Leaders may have the authority to mandate tremendous change, but orders alone don’t inspire people to act effectively.

Consider Pharaoh Akhenaten, who ruled Egypt in the 14th century BCE. He encouraged innovation, including creating a new religion with himself as the “Sun God,” but he did not endear himself to his people. After his death, Tutankhamun, his successor, brought back the old gods. The story of a Pharaoh defeated by his unwillingness to deal with the cultural norms of his day remains pertinent today. 

“If you merely proselytize from a perch, as Neumann and Akhenaten did, bulldozing ahead with wildly ambitious initiatives, you will find yourself mired in a minefield of resistance and even sabotage. You must solve…the culture puzzle.”

A modern example is Adam Neumann, who established WeWork. Neumann crafted a vision of an environment he hoped people would find so appealing it would boost their productivity. Investors bought into his vision and valued the company at $47 billion. But after a series of setbacks – somewhat fueled by Neumann’s hubris – the company’s valuation fell to $9 billion in 2020.

Stories provide powerful insight into your organization’s philosophy and values.

Salesforce, a leader in customer relations management software, holds a four-day boot camp during which storytelling plays a pivotal role. Event organizer Andrew Zinger highlights a particular story.

As he tells it, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff went to Hawaii, where he became enthralled with the Hawaiian term for family, “Ohana.”Benioff decided to make Ohana a chief element in his new company. The concept appealed to his belief that all people are connected to one another.

Benioff melds business competence with deep insight into what people want from their work. For example, he makes sure employees get information about the layout of the company’s offices on their first day at work so they can’t get lost. New hires visit a homeless shelter or hospital to observe Salesforce’s belief in giving back to others. Benioff wants his employees to feel good about coming to work and finds that encouraging them to help others is motivational. This philosophy is a pivotal factor in Salesforce’s position on the lists of best places to work.

Salesforce’s employees accept Benioff’s philosophy that corporations must go beyond making money. They are part of a culture in which stakeholders function interdependently while sharing a standard set of principles.

“Four major forces drive culture: Vision, Interest, Habit and Innovation. These forces have shaped every tribe, every organization, every nation, every society and every civilization since the beginning of humanity. ”

Your employees will tell stories about your organizational culture. Across a range of organizations, the Stanford Graduate School of Business found seven types of “prototypical” stories employees share, including:what happens when leaders flout norms; whether the leader displays human emotions; how leaders respond to errors; how the company deals with difficulties; whether a low-level employee can advance; what happens when the company fires someone; and if the company encourages people to strive to earn promotions.

Build your culture around a potent core idea.

Authors Ram Charan, Dennis Carey and Michael Useem taught business at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School for years. They suggest that successful business leaders should encourage the development of a culture built around a “central idea.” To define such an idea, leaders should construct a short story that answers two questions: “Why do we exist, and what steps will we take to achieve the results we need?”

When Steve Jobs made a presentation at the 1997 MacWorld Expo, he initially faced vehement opposition from Apple fans when he talked about collaborating with Microsoft. Some even booed.

Jobs drew support from his audience when he said people who bought Apple computers were a class apart from the average computer user. He reminisced about how Apple revolutionized the computer world. At a time when mainframes filled rooms, the Apple computer sat on a desk and consumers could use it in their homes, offices or classrooms.

“By telling origin stories, you build a bridge to an envisioned future.”

Though he started with a story that seemed to be an attack on the company’s treasured past, Jobs turned his attention from Apple’s customers to Apple as a business, outlining how it would alter its approach. Ultimately, he won back the audience by linking the company’s new approach to a clear path into the future.??

Use clear language. 

Anna Wiener left a career in publishing to join a new big-data company. She discovered people there spoke in jargon, which she called, “garbage language.” Leaders relied on this kind of slang, which made it hard for them to articulate to employees where they saw their business going.

“Garbage language is the abstract, buzzword-laden verbiage that, like sugarcoated junk food, contains more empty calories than good nutrition.”

To cultivate a compelling narrative, combat ineffectual language and pay attention to:

  • Common story patterns that depict how people actually think and behave.
  • Colleagues’ novel experiences that illuminate the essential features of your business.
  • Tales that explain the genesis of your organization. These legends clarify the present and create a road map for the future.

Without the framework of a well-crafted, engaging origin story, a recitation of noble principles becomes irritating background noise – incomprehensible words that provide no direction for routine activities.

Encourage bonds among different subgroups.

Psychologist Harry Reis, who explored the factors that encourage people to build relationships, highlighted three crucial elements of that process: “understanding, validation and caring.”Instead of exploring these areas, people often make the mistake of assuming they already understand what motivates the distinct subgroups in their organization. As a result, they believe they can speak to different groups using their internal language. Needless to say, they often end up just talking to themselves and no one else.

To avoid that trap, become a “culture virtuoso” who tries to see the world through a variety of perspectives. Barrett Rollins, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s lead scientific officer,sought to do just that to help scientists from different disciplines collaborate. 

“When culture virtuosos like Rollins engage in frequent and open conversations with their people about the organization’s vision and mission, and how it connects to their needs, they create a much stronger bond with their tribes than incentives ever provide.”

Most scientists focus on a particular niche area; the Institute encouraged that approach. However, the Institute realized over time that cancer research requires an integrated approach that encompasses various disciplines. Rollins faced challenges trying to encourage these scientists – who thought quite highly of themselves – to work together.

He and other scientists selected 10 areas that required collaboration and established “integrative research centers” to work alongside existing laboratories. Dana-Farber used a range of incentives to encourage its scientists to lead these centers. Rollins built strong links with the centers’ leaders. He held conferences and invited specialists from different areas to speak, so employees could draw on practices that other institutions had implemented successfully.

Presentations also provided a boost for the National Basketball Association head coach, Brett Brown of the Philadelphia 76ers. Brown was trying to build his team’s spirit when his players seemed incapable of working together. He cultivated the players’ sense of “interest” in one another by hosting monthly presentations at which players could speak about subjects that were meaningful to them. These presentations helped players see each other as fellow human beings.

As different subgroups find areas of agreement and conflict, leaders must accept, share and explain the interests of the entire group to inspire people to successful collaboration. Even a leader’s impressive presentation might fail unless people forge bonds among their co-workers.

People create cultural practices unwittingly.

An anthropologist who studied practices in the Brazilian jungle watched a woman cook a pork roast. The woman cut off both ends of the roast before putting it into her pan. The anthropologist discovered this practice originated with the woman’s grandmother – but the cook was not presenting an example of indigenous cooking. She cut off the ends of the roast because she had only a small pan and a full roast would not fit. Her mother followed the grandmother’s practice without questioning it and, in turn, the woman emulated her mother.

“Eventually, [the woman’s] daughter, receiving a bigger pan as a wedding gift, might write a new rule that keeps the pork roast intact. ”

This story underlines the process by which most people – in families, governments or businesses across all cultures and groups – do things: through unconsciously learned habits and rituals.

The psychologist William James calls this never-ending reproduction of habits the “great flywheel of society.” Anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu speaks about acquiring a “feel for the game.” This could apply to athletes participating in a sport, cooks preparing food or a team of employees carrying out a corporate project. People often feel that a “puppet master” creates rules. In fact, everyone takes part in creating how cultures behave.

Ray Dalio, founder of the investment firm Bridgewater Associates, chairs a weekly seminar on the state of the world. He bluntly questions and confronts associates if he disagrees with them. Senior executives at other firms should strive to answer their colleagues as straightforwardly as Dalio does, but too often they take an ineffective approach, either hectoring co-workers or not communicating clearly.

To prevent such behavior, Bridgewater uses an app called the Dot Collector. It enables people to rate how their colleagues are adhering to the company’s central values. The app helps counter people’s tendency to push their perspective without being open to other people’s evaluation of their suggestions. The app illustrates how organizations can refine practices that make them unique and shape their culture.

General Motors’ employees had to work around its cumbersome practices.

Amazon, Apple and Google transformed their industries by pursuing innovation. General Motors operated differently in the 1980s. As a result, its market share declined from 60% to 45%. To fight this decline, General Motors’ leaders attempted to implement a manufacturing approach called “Total Quality Management” (TQM), which had helped Japan become a leader in manufacturing cars and electronics.

Senior leaders at GM hoped employees would adopt the TQM system. Yet only a massive shift in GM’s culture could change its orientation from boosting production at all costs to producing high-quality vehicles on its assembly line. Elizabeth Briody, a corporate anthropologist, spent almost 20 years helping GM implement its quality program. She noticed that employees innovated and adapted – of necessity – within the crevices of GM’s archaic culture.

“Nothing less than a cultural transformation could align the traditional GM emphasis on productivity (pushing a specific number of vehicles out the factory door on every shift) with TQM (pushing top-quality vehicles off the production line).”

In one conversation, Briody spoke to Bill, a worker on GM’s production line. He explained that people working at GM felt uncomfortable admitting their mistakes. Instead, they had to protect themselves from blame. This made Bill’s job more complex because, without ever acknowledging or correcting errors, he had to address two imperatives that seemed unattainable under GM’s culture: improving quality while meeting production targets. GM invested in training workers to maintain quality and encouraged them to collaborate, but the company made no substantive changes. As a result, teams had to covertly stockpile components and tools and use their secret supplies to keep the production line functioning.

Steve, a material handler on the production line, excelled at trading with other departments for parts he needed. However, in certain instances, he had to make do with whatever he could find. Often, other departments could allocate only a few parts to him. Steve felt that made him look more effective than if he received no components at all. Steve worked frenetically finding and engaging in deals, wasting time he could have spent simply doing his job.

In small and large businesses worldwide, employees play similar games. Senior executives might consider these exercises a waste of people’s time – and that view has merit. But these employees display enormous creativity to accomplish their jobs. Organizations should honor such efforts while directing their employees’ energy into more productive directions and rectifying ineffective processes. Building upon your workers’ savvy can help you implement new, successful business practices and enable you to design a culture around shared values and goals.

About the Authors

Mario Moussa

Mario Moussa is the president of Moussa Consulting. Derek Newberry is an affiliated faculty member in the College of Liberal and Professional Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where Greg Urban is the Arthur Hobson Quinn Professor of Anthropology. Moussa, Newberry and Madeline Boyer co-wrote Committed Teams: Three Steps to Inspiring Passion and Performance.

Derek Newberry
Greg Urban

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