How to Build A Culture Primed to Perform

Primed to Perform

How do you create a culture that is primed to perform?

What does science say about changing organizational culture?

Is there any tool that can help measure and track your culture over time?


Build A Culture Designed to Perform

Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor have just written a book, Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation, that answers these questions and more. It is written as a guidebook for those who know how important a strong culture is, but they don’t know what steps to take to create one. I recently spoke with Neel and Lindsay to learn more.


“Culture is what tells your people why they should work.” -Doshi/McGregor


The Magic of a Great Culture

Often people think of culture as something that is like art, but you say that the “magic behind great culture is actually an elegantly simple science.” Tell us more about your research.

We all know that culture is important. We’ve felt it. Some cultures are filled with fear and stress, while others inspire creativity and enthusiasm. What has eluded us, however, is why. Our research provides an “elegantly simple” answer: culture is what tells your people why they should work, and why they work is what determines how well they work.

Here’s the kicker though: not all “whys” are created equal, and too often, cultures are designed to motivate using the destructive “whys.”

Our answer is not only elegantly simple, but also empirically powerful. Using our total motivation framework, we’ve measured the motives of over 20,000 people at more than 50 major institutions. We’ve observed an incredibly strong relationship between their culture and performance metrics like sales and customer experience. In one study, employees with high levels of total motivation (or ToMo for short) generated 38% more in revenues than their low ToMo counterparts.

Culture is an entirely quantifiable and engineerable asset—and the most important one. ToMo gives leaders the tools to unlock the highest levels of performance in their people and company.


“Why you work determines how well you work.” -Doshi/McGregor


Why You Work Determines How Well You Work

What is total motivation? How does this drive performance?

Total motivation is simply the notion that why you work determines how well you work. The effectiveness of the “why” depends on its distance from the work. Let’s take a mid-level management consultant for example:

Play is when you work for enjoyment of the work itself. Play is the most powerful motivator: twice as potent as purpose and almost three times more than potential. Our fearless consultant might enjoy conceptual thinking and the process of breaking down big puzzles into digestible, actionable pieces.

Purpose is when the outcome or impact of the work is why you do it: maybe she values seeing how a new strategy improves a client’s well-being and helps his customers.

Potential is when the work enables a future outcome aligned to your personal goals: she might want to manage operations at a big company or a company of her own down the line, and this job will help her achieve that.


“Culture can’t be managed by chance.” -Doshi/McGregor


63 Innovation Nuggets (for aspiring innovators)

Gold nuggets isolated on white background. Gold currency.

Innovation Nuggets

I’m always studying the world’s greatest innovators. From Apple’s Steve Jobs to Tesla’s Elon Musk, we can admire and emulate some of the practices that inspire creativity. Whether you are looking to boost your own innovative spirit, create an innovative team, or power your creative genius, you may find that regularly reading and studying others sparks new ideas.


“Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” –Steve Jobs


One spark may be a new book by George Barbee.

63 Innovation Nuggets (for aspiring innovators) is a practical guide to boosting your innovation. George Barbee developed these nuggets during the span of his 45 year career as an entrepreneur and corporate leader. For the last 15 years, George has taught at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business.

I recently spoke with George about his many decades of teaching and living the subject of innovation.


“An innovative network can change the culture of an organization.” -George Barbee


Don’t Underestimate Your Ability to Innovate

George, I have heard you say, “Yes, Steve Jobs is a genius, but what about innovating for the rest of us?” What exactly do you mean by that?

Steve was in fact a true genius of “Invention.” He could imagine what people needed and wanted even before they realized it or could verbalize it themselves. He could see around corners into the future.

unnamedBut I believe most of the rest of us way underestimate our ability to “innovate”—especially with focus on techniques and methods within our control to improve this skill. And yes, it is a skill and an art, not an innate ability or something we are necessarily born with. I’ve witnessed this in my business career and the last 15 years teaching at University of Virginia, and interestingly across 40 countries. It’s a major theme underlying the book.

“Invention” is part of the broader scope of “innovation.” In fact, only a slice.

For example, the rest of us can be gifted and train ourselves to “innovate” in new and different ways. Key to the word “innovation” is doing something in a “meaningfully new and different way.” This takes us well beyond just product invention, but “innovation” now incorporates anything that is new and meaningfully different.

In the book we talk about dozens of “nuggets” or little gems that provide insights as to how to innovate. It is, in fact, remarkably easy to develop these skills. Like exercising a good muscle, the more you use it and focus on it, the better it gets. It’s a form of building innovative confidence through practice.

It’s learnable. It’s teachable.


“Innovation is best led by vision.” -George Barbee


Make Observation and Art

Of the 63 nuggets in 63 Innovation Nuggets, do you have one that is a favorite?

That’s a tough question. I started with over 140 nuggets and in an effort to winnow it down to 52 (one per week) I couldn’t bring myself to cut any more, so I went with 63. Not necessarily brilliant, but sincere.

So, a favorite? Well, not necessarily only one favorite but it’s a good place to start: Nugget #19: Observing as an Art. The power and concentration it takes to observe what is around us is quite challenging. As we say, put yourself in “receive mode.” Just take things in around you. Listen. Look. Smell. Maybe even feel and taste. We observe with all our senses. This is time out to THINK. The key is sensing. Thinking.


“Successful innovators have a keen sense of observation.” -George Barbee


We go on to encourage note taking. Practice alone or with a like-minded friend and confidant. Have some fun with the process.

We then go on to tell some stories about observing. Practical situations where innovation around us is often under our noses, but we haven’t taken the time out to appreciate it or document it. One example is ATM or teller lines at banks. It used to be that we would go up to one of three tellers or machines and pick one and hope for the best. Woe to the person picking the wrong line! The tendency was then to hop over to the faster moving line. Then came the great innovation in line management—the “I” formation, or lining up in a single line, with the front person going to the next available opening. Brilliant. It takes the early guesswork out of picking the right single line. Happier customers. True Innovation.


Innovation Tip: Start conversations with “imagine if…”


Think ACROSS to Progress in Your Career

37 Quotes on the Creative Force Within

Man praying, meditating in harmony and peace at sunset. Religion, spirituality, prayer, peace.


“Creativity is intelligence having fun.” –Albert Einstein


“Creativity doesn’t just love constraints; it thrives under them.” -David Burkus


“To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.” –Joseph C. Pearce


“Creative people are curious, flexible, persistent, and independent with a tremendous spirit of adventure and a love of play.” –Henri Matisse


“Quiet people have the loudest minds.” –Stephen Hawking


“Creating open teamwork is the best way to encourage innovation.” -Kay Koplovitz


“You can’t harvest big ideas unless you sow the right seeds.” -Rowan Gibson


“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living.” –Dr. Seuss


“A thousand dreams within me softly burn.” –Arthur Rimbaud


“The earth has music for those who listen.” –Shakespeare


“No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.” –Robin Williams


“Creativity takes courage.” –Henri Matisse


“Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.” -Albert Einstein


“Innovation is the act that endows resources with a new capacity to create wealth.” -Peter Drucker


“The world is but a canvas to the imagination.” –Henry David Thoreau


“The best way to predict the future is to create it.” –Alan Kay


“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.” –Vincent Van Gogh


“To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.” -Thomas Edison


“Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance.” –Carl Sandburg


“Every artist was first an amateur.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

5 Lessons on Innovation from Outlander’s Diana Gabaldon

A Creative Force

One of the most innovative people I have ever met is my friend Diana Gabaldon. Last year, her wildly popular Outlander novels became even more popular as the new television series was released. Whether you are reading her Outlander series or her Lord John novels, you will be hard pressed to categorize her writing. Most critics give up and classify her work with a list of descriptive words ranging from historical fiction and romance to mystery and adventure.

However you describe her novels, you may find it even more challenging to describe the author. Diana is equal parts scholar, writer and historian. Mix in a bit of archivist; stir in comic book writing, and the unique recipe begins to take shape.

When I first met Diana, I had not read any of her books. She captivated me by the way she told a story. How she went from college professor to best-selling author was a story I will never forget.

Here are a few lessons I learned from the impossible-to-describe creative force named Diana Gabaldon:


Lessons from A Creative Mind

1. Try….why not take a chance? 

It seems that most people have an idea, think they should do something, and then push that dream into a drawer. They never really give it a go.

Years ago, Diana read comic books. She felt the writing quality was declining and that she could do it herself. Have you ever felt that way? You see something and think, “I can do better.” Most of us have. What sets Diana apart is that she didn’t stop there. She investigated. She found out who was in charge and then turned in a submission.

Years later, Diana would take a different chance. She thought that she would like to try writing a novel. That try, what she calls the novel she was writing for “practice,” became Outlander.

What idea have you had that you have left in that drawer? What could you do to give birth to something new?


2. Study…for the love of creating.

Long before her mega success as an author, Diana spent years as a university professor.  She has a PhD in Quantitative Behavioral Ecology. She also holds degrees in marine biology and zoology. That type of academic success shows an underlying love of learning.

And it’s that same love of learning she uses in the meticulous research for her books.  Her fiction books are known for their accuracy, and it is no wonder.  Her personal library includes thousands of books. Her Arizona home alone contains over 1500 reference works on topics such as warfare techniques, poisons and history. Some of the topics are very specific, such as the art of passementarie (the knotted tassels on 18th century furnishings) or the 126 books on herbals. If you have been searching for Sam Johnson’s Dictionary (1755) or Captain Francis Grose’s A Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811), look no further.

Often people look for the shortcuts to success. You may hear that Diana decided to write a book and then found herself on the NYT list. The truth is that great public success is almost always the result of planting, tilling and working in private.

Diana Gabaldon's bookcase, Used by Permission Diana Gabaldon’s bookcase, Used by Permission


3. Fail…and keep going!

Why the Best Innovators Are Unreasonable

New Idea

The World’s Most Creative

  • What does it take to make it into the history books as one of the world’s greatest innovators?
  • Do creative geniuses have any unique characteristics?

Rowan Gibson, one of the world’s foremost thought leaders on business innovation, previously shared some of his thinking about his new book, The 4 Lenses of Innovation: A Power Tool for Creative Thinking.  Part of what makes his research unique is that he studied innovators throughout history to understand their thinking, their characteristics, and their methodology.  What he shared with me about history’s greatest innovators may influence the way you manage, the way you look at your boss, or the way you look at others we label as stubborn.  Because, as we will see, the best innovators are often the most unreasonable people.


Why the Best Innovators Are Unreasonable

Rowan, throughout your new book, you give examples ranging from da Vinci to Richard Branson. By studying these innovators, you developed a unique perspective. What does one need to possess or do to get mentioned in the history books?

I think those that make it into the history books are to some extent unreasonable people. George Bernard Shaw put it best when he argued that, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Innovators like the ones I just mentioned – Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk –these are not reasonable people. They don’t just accept that the world is the way it is. They have this deep, insatiable urge to improve it or radically change it to fit their own vision of how things should be.


“You can’t harvest big ideas unless you sow the right seeds.” -Rowan Gibson


Unreasonable Innovator: Leonardo da Vinci

Take da Vinci. Was he a reasonable person? Here’s a man who filled 13,000 pages of notebooks with scribbles, drawings, scientific diagrams, and designs—everything from human anatomy and facial expressions to animals, birds, plants, rocks, water, chemistry, optics, painting, astronomy, architecture, and engineering. He once coated the wings of a fly with honey just to see if it would change the sound of the fly’s buzzing noise in flight. Why would anyone do that? Da Vinci did it to establish that the pitch of a musical note is connected with the speed of the percussive movement of the air. In this case the fly’s wings became heavier due to the honey, so they couldn’t beat as fast, resulting in a lower-pitched buzzing sound–which of course might be interesting at some level, but reasonable people don’t do things like that.


Unreasonable Innovator: Richard Branson

Let’s say you opened a little record store in London, UK. That’s nothing out of the ordinary. But would you call it “Virgin”? And would you then create your own record label and start backing unknown musicians like Mike Oldfield or controversial bands like the Sex Pistols? Would you try to grow your one little record store into a national chain of media hypermarkets? I mean, if you did all of that, it would be quite remarkable. But would you then decide to start your own transatlantic airline and go up against British Airways on their own turf? Would you try to build your own mobile phone business from scratch and then your own bank or take a big risk by investing in a space tourism company? These are not reasonable things to do. So clearly Richard Branson is not a reasonable man.


Unreasonable Innovator: Elon Musk