Recently I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what makes a team great. Why do some teams have great people but fail to deliver comparably great products and services? Conversely, how do some companies ingest people with all sorts of different skills sets and qualities while continuing to scale and produce quality product like a well oiled machine? Of course things like business strategy matter, but at some level, this can be boiled down to the function of the team in the organization. There are loads of great literature on this from business school professors (some of which I have probably read and most definitely already forgotten). However, there are also a handful of times in my life where I’ve had the privilege to witness, first-hand, the power and capabilities of high performing teams. One of the most memorable of those occasions was at the birth of my 2nd daughter, who had a significant complication at birth. There’s too much to that story there to get into on a tech blog, but suffice to say, we found ourselves at the NICU where she spent the next few days getting better. During this experience, I found myself inspired by the staff.
Here’s what I noticed, and why it should matter to you at your startup:
1. Mise En Place (aka Everything in its Place aka Get your shit together)
What would happen if a drug wasn’t where it was supposed to be? Or if you couldn’t find the right sized syringe or tube when you needed it? All of those failures of not being able to find things you need, when you need them, add up to big hindrances to doing a good job. The staff at the NICU was on point. Everything was in its right place. I heard the lady at the front desk get called out for not being at her station as a phone sat and rang several times during her absence. These people were serious about running a tight ship.
I take a lot of pride in being a part of the data team at Lookout. I see my job as not only providing insight and analysis using data, but in also providing the tools and capabilities for people to get at those insights on their own, when they need them. I believe it’s of the utmost importance to have data and tools in place to get the job done, when you need to get it done, and with the confidence that the output is correct. As an individual contributor, figure out how you can streamline your operation and get your act together. As a manager, figure out what constantly slows your team down from an organizational perspective, and focus on tearing down those walls and hindrances with a vengeance. And lastly, take pride in the excellence that comes from being an outstanding operator.
2. Anybody can be challenged
It was clear that everyone had a role in the NICU, but that nobody was above being challenged. There was a case where a treatment that the doctor ordered for my daughter was called into question by a respiratory therapist. The respiratory therapist agreed with the treatment, but challenged the delivery methodology and let the doctor know as much. The doctor and the therapist discussed the issue, and it was decided to use the alternative suggested method. The outcome was optimized because people weren’t afraid to speak up and challenge more senior members of the team.
It’s management’s job to encourage this level of dissent and open discussion. Many people will shy away from confrontation and most people are taught at a very young age to not challenge authority. Or in other words, these are unnatural acts. But this is toxic behavior. A company of yes men and women never delivers great products or services. Each person’s opinion matters and each team member should know that it’s not only encouraged, but expected for them to speak up if they disagree.
3. Broad understanding, but functional expertise
Each staff member at the NICU had their strengths and weaknesses, just as each individual contributor in a company does. But, most importantly, each of these folks had great functional depth and expertise. Whether it was respiratory treatments, insurance issues, breast feeding, drawing blood, and so on, there was an expert in each of these fields who knew exactly what they were doing AND was better at what they were doing than anyone else in the room.
One of the most valuable nuggets of management advice I received as a young manager was this: make sure that each person on your team knows something more about a particular domain or subject than anyone else in the company, including yourself. In a startup, it’s valuable to be a jack of all trades, but it is equally as important to have one or two places where you can really hang your hat. And most importantly, as a manager, don’t be afraid to let people do that. Empowering employees to have topical and domain expertise that outstrips your own creates pride and ownership; and most importantly, it scales.
4. Everyone’s job is critical to the mission
There was a fellow who held an oxygen mask to my daughter’s face for 3 hours. While everyone was running around ordering x-rays, blood tests, and all sorts of other things, this guy was a real hero just sitting there and making sure my daughter could breath. What’s more, there was a clear sense of excellence and pride in executing that job. He was passionate about making sure that the mask was on just right as he optimized positioning to improve her oxygen saturation levels.
Clearly, his job wasn’t the most exciting per se. But, I can’t think of anything more important to the overall mission. The same is true of every role at every startup. There’s not a single job that isn’t important (I assure you – it’s a startup, you’re resource constrained ). Every single person contributes to the overall mission and is absolutely critical to success. Embrace that as a contributor and re-enforce it everyday as a leader.
5. Feedback loops should be direct and immediate
The example above about the oxygen mask is applicable here, in a data driven sort of way. The gentleman holding the respirator had one eye on the mask position, and the other on the oxygen saturation indicator. He would frequently make small tweaks and changes to try to optimize positioning and increase the O2 levels. Eventually, he dramatically improved the saturation levels through these micro optimizations.
Similarly, tiny tweaks like these are vital to unlocking huge performance improvements in your own team. Make sure you have the tools, systems, and data in place to get feedback loops from your products and customers in short order. Make sure you’ve developed manager/employee expectations that everyone will get feedback often and candidly. And, that the feedback won’t always smell like roses and definitely not come in sandwich format. Operationalizing constant improvement feedback loops takes the edge off of receiving feedback (as everyone understands it’s a part of the on-going improvement process) and ensures that each person is focused on continual improvement.
6. Strong, direct, & constant communication
Communicate, communicate, communicate. At the NICU, I was blown away by how nurses and staff talked to each other so directly and to the point. It’s impossible to over communicate in a fast paced intense environment such as a NICU or a startup. People need to be in the loop. They need to understand what’s going on and why. And, it absolutely must be “direct” (can’t emphasize that enough here). In that type of environment, there’s no time for sugar coating tough messages or contemplating the best way to drive hidden agendas. The same is true for your startup. Frank conversation leads to discussion about facts, deliverables, and actions. The moment a team starts focusing on sugar coating messages and massaging hurt egos, they’re losing the game to their competitors (or losing the lives of their patients).
7. It’s is *never* too late to change your mind
On the fifth day in the NICU, we were ready to leave. But, the hematologist decided that she wanted to look at our daughter’s levels of something or another one last time to make sure that it was trending appropriately. We were frustrated – only a few hours earlier, she felt comfortable with how things looked. Why was she pulling this last minute change on us when all we wanted to do was get home? Ultimately, although we were certainly annoyed that we had to stay longer, we truly respected her gut instinct and that she called an audible to make sure that things were great before we left. At the end of the day, it’s not about hurting feelings or inconveniencing people, it’s about producing the absolutely best outcome.
Keep in mind that 95% of the decisions you will make in your startup are reversible. Most companies aren’t making huge capital investments decisions that will drive billions of dollars of physical assets being deployed in either Oregon or Taiwan. This is a luxury and an advantage that you should not be afraid to use. Never be afraid to change a decision you just made (even if it’s only a few minutes since you just made it). Great minds consider it a mark of intelligence, dare I say “gift”, to change one’s mind. You should never be too proud to change directions or a decision because your gut or new information tells you that you should. Just do it.
What I’ve Learned
Most people don’t get to save babies at their jobs. For those who do, I’m sure it can be incredibly rewarding at times and equally as heart breaking when things don’t go as planned. Regardless, everyone can take pride in being part of an amazing team that can accomplish incredible things. I hope these steps are helpful for you in thinking about the teams that you’re a part of.