How to Build a Team that Works Together
Ever since university, I've been working in teams to accomplish projects-- from academic conferences and trips, to business ventures. Some projects were overall successful, some not so much. It was not until recently though that I was hurt enough through a recent failure that I took a deep, months long reflection into team building.
I think failure combined with pain have a different effect on people. When things go right, we tend to not look back. We don't want or necessarily see the need to analyze why something is working. If it's working, why bother to shake up anything or reflect in what's driving success? This is a mistake too, but I will not go into that in this post. However, failure and pain on the other hand has a nagging, uncomfortable effect.
Maybe I'm just pedantic, but failure when combined with pain, forces me to sift through every detail to uncover as many causes to this anguish as possible, in an effort to never repeat those mistakes again. And there is hardly a rock I will leave unturned in this pursuit, knowingly anyway. People naturally seek to avoid pain and while a vague sense of happiness is not possible at a constant, pain, especially pain of the heart, is something we try our best to never experience in the same way twice. Failure, rejection, pain, anguish are all things that allow us, as humans and members of social networks, to learn quickly and grow.
Starting a business with your best friends is like playing with fire. You are taking strong social relationships and all the sudden adding in a monetary and professional component-- this can more often than not spell disaster, for your business and even for your relationships with each other. There are a number of reasons for this but for practical purposes I'm going to delve into only role and responsibility structuring for this post.
As a preamble, I think any forming team should at the very least be aligned on three essential components before jumping into a new venture together: values, commitment and risk tolerance. In the same breath, know what you are good at and want to pursue and would be willing to devote yourself to-- in essence, know your value and where you can contribute the most.
Team structure is like an engine-- a box made up of parts and gears that fit together and when gas is added it runs smoothly, accelerating and decelerating based on variable conditions. And the engine itself is your business model.
Your people-- your founders-- are the parts and gears. The quality of the parts, meaning how well made they are, represents the quality of your people. How resilient are they? Do they have capacity for problem solving and leadership experience? Can they implement the skills they've acquired? Do they have network support? Will they break under pressure or stress? Starting a venture can result in an extreme amount of stress and the psychological toll may really wear down individuals on a team-- it's important to make sure your people can withstand these pressures.
Now, how those parts fit together, just like in an engine needs gears that lock together in order to operate, is an essential factor to your team being able to actually work together. Too many similarities amongst co-founders can easily result in overlapping roles, skills, experience and networks. This deprives not only your venture of potentially essential resources and human capital, but also may result in unclear roles, opposing responsibilities and undefined decision making ability between co-founders.
At this juncture, it's important to think about what your ideal team would look like on paper, taking emotional connections to people out of the decision set. Some defining questions may include: which team members, if any, do you need to build out your business model at the early stage? What would you add later? Can you separate your needs from your wants? Are you only selecting co-founders because you love them as people? Are you just bringing on people as emotional crutches?
Overlapping skill sets and networks are a potentially dangerous combination for a co-founding team. Co-founders need to be able to fill essential holes in a new venture's operations and at an emotional level, people need to feel like they are adding value and contributing their best efforts towards a greater goal. Not only does a co-founding team all need to agree on a unified vision and buy into that vision together, they need to see that they, themselves, are a valuable and appreciated component in that vision. Feeling redundant or entitled or unable to contribute to the best of ones abilities given one's role can cause a ton of emotional strain on a team as well as on the business itself.
The final component in testing if an engine will work well, at least in the beginning, is by adding gas and seeing if it runs. Teams are the same way. Actual operations are far more testing than theoretics. The stress, the financing, the action, the required consistency of starting a business, building lines of communication, taking leadership, adding value, figuring out when and where to make hires, etcetera, all of these things combined really put a team to the test.
Excessive optimism, and I've learnt this the hard way, can be blinding to the realities of implementation and continued, sustained action towards growth. One of the best things that can be done to minimize damage potential is to really analyze a founding team's strengths, weaknesses and what they may have to lose in terms of personal relations, risk tolerance, time and finances. Hopefully the engine analogy can offer some basic guidance on things to think about when forming a cofounding team.