Running a small business is like conducting an orchestra. You have a collection of individuals, each with their own strengths and talents, playing a variety of instruments that have their own distinct sounds. The result could easily be a cacophony akin to nails on a blackboard, but when things go right, the notes flow together, creating a powerful sound that touches the soul.
You have to build a team of extremely diverse people, hoping that you have the right talents and skills to bring your vision to life. Only, sometimes, the team never gels. Why is that?
In small businesses, unlike orchestras, the players don't usually get a note-by-note musical score. Contrast that with large companies, where there might be a highly refined production process designed to ensure a consistently flawless product. For small businesses -- particularly those looking to foster innovation -- it's often crucial that the musicians improvise, more like a jazz combo than an orchestra. Improvisation in business, however, is complex. The key players may not be performing in the same room together. They may not even know they're supposed to be playing together at all.
When people are divided, business value is lost. But connecting disconnected people is not easy. I've found the key to success when you bring together business partners and employees from diverse backgrounds is trust. Trust equals growth, and your actions can foster that trust.
Here are four steps to bridging divides that can make your team -- of whatever shape and form -- hit the right notes:
Ask yourself: Who is not collaborating with whom? Sometimes people don't work together because they don't know they should. Take a step back from your team and look at which members aren't connecting. Are they not talking at all? Are they talking, but not communicating or bonding?
Break down the barriers between them, whether based on culture, geography or distrust. Find ways to encourage conversations between disconnected team members.
Don't just focus on your employees. Look outward. Distrust outside your team, such as in your supplier and vendor ecosystem, can be detrimental to its performance. Not surprisingly, these can be the most difficult divides to bridge, as the goals of outsiders may not align completely with yours. Even so, building these bonds is important, because the vibrancy of your team is dependent on the vitality of your extended network.
There are more people outside your current network than in it. Their attitudes shape your business, often in invisible powerful ways.
Improve existing activities. There may already be structures in place for bridging social divides that you don't know about. For example, employees might already be organizing activities together, creating their own virtual "water cooler." See if it fits your needs, because leveraging what exists is much cheaper than creating something from scratch. It's also more likely to succeed. You empower and motivate employees by supporting their bottom-up initiatives to make the company culture better.
Modify incentive structures. Most businesses evaluate their employees based on tangible accomplishments or goal-driven performance. But this overlooks the business value of strong social bonds, both inside and outside of your organization.
Change your evaluation methods. Give awards and bonuses to people who build the "invisible cultural infrastructure" of your company. Sometimes you have to offer rewards to nudge the behaviors you want. Align employees' incentives with the company's "soft" needs, not just its "hard" goals.
Victor Hwang is CEO and co-founder of T2 Venture Capital, a Silicon Valley firm that builds startups and the ecosystems that grow them. He is also the author of The Rainforest Blueprint: How to Design Your Own Silicon Valley (Regenwald, 2013).