Building a successful startup is not a job for the Lone Ranger. Every entrepreneur must effectively collaborate with many people, including internal team members, partners, customers, and investors. Real collaboration requires leadership and initiative from the entrepreneur in order to drive the collaborative process and make the whole team better than the sum of its parts.
A few innovative companies, including the financial advice company The Motley Fool, are so convinced that collaboration is the key to their competitive advantage that they have added the role of “chief collaboration officer,” in the person of Todd Etter. Todd tells people that his primary role is to get people around him to creatively and intelligently think together. That’s the essence of effective collaboration.
While effective collaboration is easier said than done, it’s the backbone for any startup that wants to get their product off the ground. As Ken Goldstein, former vice president and managing director of Disney Online, said: “Products start with people… which means products start with collaboration.”
So how can growing teams not only embrace the idea of effective collaboration, a relatively abstract term, but actually use it?
For starters, it’s important to note that even the entrepreneurs who seem to have an innate ability to attract and inspire others can improve their collaboration skills. Regardless of our title or position in the company, we are all capable of learning from the experience of others. You certainly don’t have to be a natural-born leader in order to help your team find angles for collaboration.
Based on my years of advising entrepreneurs and investing, here are the three strategies that successful startups use to make effective collaboration an integral part of how they work:
Successful startups make communication a visible top priority. Nothing undermines team collaboration like poor communication. This includes written, verbal and body language. You can typically tell an unhappy, disconnected team by the way they interact and carry themselves throughout the day. All team members need to know what is expected of them on any given task, what their teammates are thinking, and what has changed since yesterday. Each individual teammate should be encouraged to be a positive role model through their actions, and should be discouraged from relying on the initiative of others.
As with all effective communication, episodes of conflict will surely arise. Successful startups encourage constructive conflict and view it as a way to explore alternative ways of thinking. Surrounding yourself with “yes” people, or people with no conviction, may feel good initially, but it will not produce the kind of effective collaboration necessary for a startup to succeed. You need smart people, with emotions as well as intellect, and this means that conflicts will occur as different perspectives are surfaced. Successful startups do not let conflicts turn into fights; they use conflicts to help drive consensus.
Effective collaboration also means being strong enough to employ the two basic, but oft-neglected communication skills: asking and listening. The leaders of successful startups must be strong enough to ask for feedback, listen deeply to that feedback, and then act on it. Every entrepreneur, if they are committed to improving their team and their own effectiveness, will benefit from soliciting and actively listening to team feedback.
Successful startups foster individual credibility and trustworthiness. The surest mark of a trustworthy leader is one who delivers on every personal commitment, no matter how small or seemingly trivial it may be. Their actions, day in and day out, should showcase their willingness to both listen to and work with others. Effective collaboration is maximized on teams where everyone is credible in their own realm, and everyone trusts each other, including the leader. Again, actions speak louder than words.
But successful startups also recognize that everyone on the team needs to be a decision maker. Collaboration is not an excuse for anyone to avoid making a decision, and the expert on a certain part of a project should be given the chance to lead. People who are able and willing to make sound individual decisions can make great decisions as part of a team if they’re given the opportunity to do so. The first decision of a startup leader must be to only team people who can make timely, good decisions.
Effective collaboration can also be built when the leader introduces advisors to make team efforts learning opportunities. Successful startups occasionally see team projects as an opportunity to bring in outside experts to mentor team members, and guide them through complex issues and unfamiliar territory. They provide liberal access to inside leaders, with the expectation that collaborative efforts will be productive both for business and for personal growth.
Successful startups build a culture where innovation and change are normal. Collaboration is wasted effort for a team when everyone knows that nothing is likely to change. An innovative team solution must be accepted with a positive attitude, and initial team instructions should always encourage creative thinking and solutions. Effective collaboration can only grow in an environment where change is exciting and expected, rather than rare and painful for all.
This type of environment can be built through encouraging and even incentivizing thinking outside the box, with a structured process. Chaos is the result of no structure, and is non-productive. Effective collaboration requires a balance of open-ended thinking within a leadership structure that drives to closure in a timely manner. Successful startups encourage each other to define parameters at the start of each project, and then measure progress along the way.
However, even a perfect environment must reward both effective collaboration wins as well as individual contributions. If a team only rewards individual achievements, collaboration, even in a team that embraces change, will be stifled. Rewards can come in a variety of forms—from appreciative words and extra days off, to paying for an employee’s travel and registration to attend a conference in their field. In my experience, a balance between team and individual drivers is the most effective approach.
While these three strategies are the backbone for successful startups, it’s important to note that they must always evolve with the times. The increase of remote teams, for example, may present new challenges to effective collaboration. Team members that do not work together daily, or barely even know each other, will require extra effort to build and maintain communication, credibility, and trustworthiness. It’s up to the leader or the entrepreneur to provide the bridge, the process, and the glue to keep the team efforts productive.
Thus, a positive approach to forming any collaborative team is to capitalize on preexisting or “heritage” relationships. Research has shown that when 20 to 40 percent of the members are already well connected, the team was able to provide stronger collaboration right from the start. It’s important to leverage these existing relationships, especially when new team members come on board and need time to understand the workplace culture.
Also, bigger doesn’t mean better when it comes to collaborative teams. Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, famously nailed this with the “two pizza teams” rule: If a team can’t be fed with two pizzas, it’s too big. Throwing more people into a critical team is one of the most common productivity traps that new entrepreneurs can fall into. It can stop effective collaboration in its tracks, and in my experience individual performance levels often diminish as more people are added.
Ultimately, an effective collaboration is one that strives for a win-win-win relationship for the individuals, the team and the company. Smart individuals working together realize that their collective results simply cannot be achieved alone. Each individual ends up learning far more than they contribute. Likewise, winning teams spawn winning individuals. The end result is this: focusing on and investing in individual-to-team development will mean a win for the organization.
In today’s rapidly changing and highly interconnected business environment, it takes more than a lone inventive genius to build a business. Successful startups realize that incentivizing effective collaboration for the entire team is a necessity, not an accessory. Those that embrace it will carry on. Those that don’t, won’t.
Have you done everything you can do to create this type of environment? What have you found to be the most challenging part of effective collaboration?