That All-Star Startup Team Might Be Killing the Company

Teams of sincere amateurs who work well together are a better bet than teams of highly skilled experts too inhibited by ego to cooperate.
That All-Star Startup Team Might Be Killing the Company
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Very few things in life will challenge your ego more than being beaten by a five-year-old.

An experiment conducted by Peter Skillman, director of design for Skype and Outlook at Microsoft, measured two groups whose tasks were to construct a single fixture using dried spaghetti strands, string, tape and a marshmallow. The group who built the tallest fixture with the marshmallow on top would be the winner.

The first group consisted of MBA students. These were brilliant minds who strategized, asked smart questions and developed creative ideas for how the group could move forward. Unfortunately, they lost to the second group: a group of kindergartners. Here’s why.

The MBA students were worried about how they showed up. They were worried about offending the person next to them and what others might think if they asked a silly question or made a suggestion. As a result, they withheld ideas, decisions and intentions because they were too focused on managing their own social status. Rather than working as a team, they worked as a group of high-performing individuals who simply shared the same space.

The kindergartners operated differently. Because they didn’t care about social status, they worked as one system rather than as a group of individuals. After all, they were five- and six-year-olds who only cared about that precious marshmallow. The point is, how the kindergartners worked together was more important than what they brought to bear (skill-wise) as individuals.

This same experiment was tested against CEOs and lawyers with the same results.

Clearly, if you want an effective team you need to either get rid of all the adults or start acting like a five-year-old. Just kidding. In my experience coaching teams, I’ve seen teams full of experts flounder and fail, and teams full of newbies and middle managers crush everything in their way once they learned how to work together as a team. The difference between the two was how they tackled the marshmallow. Here’s how your team can, too:

Set the environment.

This same question always comes up after I give a speech: “How do I motivate people on my team who aren’t motivated?”

My answer is, you can’t. Motivation is intrinsic, which means, by definition, it must come from within. You can, however, create the right environment for motivation to occur. You do this by giving trust, setting a clear and compelling direction for the team, identifying the consequences of not achieving the team’s goal and creating an environment of shared accountability.

Related: Good Results Are Worth the Wait. Self-Control Will Get You There.

Determine team makeup.

No, not a shade of lipstick. By “makeup” I’m referring to typology -- group or team. Some tasks can be achieved by individual contributors who seldom collaborate because the outcome of the task impacts each person differently. Others need collective input because everybody shares the same fate. The former is a group, the latter is a team.

Related: 7 Steps to Defuse Workplace Tension

Lead with curiosity.

Very few leadership skills pack the same punch as leading with curiosity. I recently held a workshop for an international group who wanted to solve a complex problem, and I gave them two rules. First, statements could only be made in response to a question. Second, the team coach could intervene at any point to emphasize a learning opportunity. What they learned as a result was the power of questions to mitigate individual opinion, think strategically, build trust and clarify an ambiguous problem. The group’s trust score also increased six and a half percent in an hour. 

There are only two things that threaten a startup’s survival more than having the wrong team, according to CB Insights.: lack of capital and low demand, To keep your startup team thriving, take a lesson from kindergarten.

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