Business development 31 March 2016

No time for team building Three ways to keep your startup’s culture on track in tough times

Startup owners have to work hard to develop the kind of culture they want in their team
Managing team dynamics and team culture can be a low priority for micro business owners thatoften struggle with tight deadlines and a fast-paced, all-hours working environment. Writing exclusively for Business Advice, the authors of new business book Committed Teams? describe why it is exactly in moments of rapid change that a workforce has to work hardest to stay on the same page.

The half-formed question hung in the air between the puzzled speaker and a room full of students. We were hosting Larry, a founder of three successful energy startups, as a guest lecturer in our seminar on corporate culture at the University of Pennsylvania. We had just asked the veteran entrepreneur what we thought was a simple warm-up question: How do you create a high-performing culture on a startup team?

Larry pondered the question, scratching his head. Having spent the previous night preparing for an upcoming board meeting, he looked more than slightly disheveled. Well, he responded, when you’re in a startup you’re going at 100 miles an hour, 24 hours a day. You don’t really have time to think about your team culture.

Admittedly, it might seem odd that startups should pay any attention to company culture. How can you think about the softer side of a business when you’re working at lightning speed just to keep the lights on? Our answer is simple you have to.

Co-founding Twitter taught Biz Stone that he would have to find ways to shape team rules and behaviors while exponentially growing the social media messaging service. As he learned: A culture is going to form whether you like it or not, and if you pay attention to it, you can craft something that makes the company stronger. Stone realised that the company’s success depended in large part on his team’s ability to build and reflect on itself during each major organisational transition.

So how do you reflect when you can barely keep up with your product cycle, let alone your team dynamics? Our research on effective teamwork tells us that checkpoints? predetermined triggers that lead to certain actions are a powerful tool to keep a team aligned at critical points, even when time and resources are tight. Establishing the following three types of checkpoints might just garner the type of culture you want your startup to have.

Participation checkpoints: Create ground rules

Startup teams are unique in that many are created between friends. These teams grapple with a tough question: is it a good idea to do business with your buddies? Tim Brady faced this dilemma when he mulled over an offer by his old college friend Jerry Yang to become the first employee at Yahoo!. What enabled Brady to take the leap was a conversation with Yang that helped them separate professional decisions from their personal relationship.

one of the things that really helped me was that he and I had a conversation before I joined, where he set out some ground rules. And this is really what made me think about it, said Brady.

I thought: Okay, if this happens, I walk away. We had the conversation in order to preserve our friendship, having no idea what was going to happen, but that conversation got me thinking about it and why was I involved, he added.

By establishing ground rules, Tim and Jerry were able to come to a clear understanding of the terms of Tim’s involvement in the company, his reasons for being there, and what would cause him to break the commitment. Creating these agreements makes it easier for everyone to buy in to a transition or a founder’s exit when the time comes.

When you bring in team members, create checkpoints that flag major decisions about their level of involvement in a startup. If they are only with the business part-time to begin with, what would make them go full-time, and how will you know when you have reached that moment? What would cause them to leave the company? The answers to these questions become your checkpoints that trigger discussions around promotions, firings, or divestments.

Problem checkpoints: Raise the yellow flag

Another aspect of communicating well is to know when to slow down and raise a yellow flag. The term comes from athlete-turned- entrepreneur, Jeremy Bloom. Bloom believed that his marketing company was hitting snags, in part because he and his co-founder were not on the same page about when to take risks. His partner had a driver-like communication style and didnt pick up on Jeremy’s subtler cues about feeling discomfort with a big decision.

When Jeremy had finally had enough of feeling like his input was ignored, he came up with a rating system for yellow flags points of caution before proceeding. The partners would put a number on their level of discomfort with a decision or pressing issue from one to ten.

Sometimes, Jeremy felt mildly unsure of a decision, but not enough to block it. Other times he would say: This one is an eight for me. We need to reconsider. Their system was based on a clear, easy-to-understand way to raise discomfort.

Startups move quickly and the stakes are high, and assessing a team’s appetite for risk regularly is crucial to keeping them aligned with major decisions. Simple ideas like Bloom’s comfort scale reading or a 15-minute stand-up meeting are effective ways to ensure your teammates are in sync.

Pivot checkpoints: Prepare to fail ?