What do you look for in a startup team? Most would mention what’s been said in this popular Mashable article: complimentary skills, mutual respect, alignment of mission and passion, open-mindedness and personality match. I’d like to add something to that list – Startup teams need to be able to fight.
Of course I’m not talking about a full-on, knee-to-groin, childish name-calling, kind of fights. I’m talking about time-boxed periods of healthy and productive disagreements about product strategy, customer interview outcomes or other important issues.
The Danger of Groupthink
One of the greatest danger of being so involved with a startup is that you start drinking your own Kool-aid to your own destruction. Groupthink is one of the surest paths to a startup’s quick demise.
James, a friend of mine and CEO of Scorpio Media, once told me this great story. A new CEO was hired for a company. The company had advisors that he noticed would say yes all the time. No one questioned anything or anyone. So, one time, to test his theory that they would always say yes to everything, he suggested the most absurd strategy that would surely bankrupt the company in a few months. Lo and behold, everyone of his advisors said yes, except the youngest advisor. He goes on to fire every single advisor who said yes.
This is the reason why I recruit people who are not only happy, humble and hungry, but also people who don’t think like I do. They’re my guardrails to make sure that I’m not driving the car on the wrong side of the highway to our bloody deaths. People who disagree with good grounds can open up the perspective of the whole team. Some say two heads are better than one. I’d add that this is true if and only if the two heads are not the same.
Ground Rules For Good Team Fights
But of course, there has to be ground rules for teams to have good and productive fights:
1/ Time-box the argument. Set a time limit to your discussion. Talk for 30 minutes, then try it out and build it for the next 30 minutes. Keep what works. Remove what doesn’t.
2/ At no point does anyone ever say anything to provoke or put down someone. This seems obvious. But I’ve heard startup teams fight, where one of their team member’s threatened to kick out one of the other person. That’s a no-no.
3/ It’s so important to listen. The tendency in arguments is to just hold on to your own ideas like it’s the end of the world. Listening involves putting yourself in their shoes and trying to understand what they’re trying to say. Often, that involves you shutting up, being quiet and absorbing what others have said.
Why Startup Teams Need To Fight
Startup teams need to have healthy, productive conflicts. But it doesn’t always happen automatically. It must be worked at and practiced. You may even want to consider calling someone in from the outside to sit in on a couple strategic meetings and help you identify when and where these discussions should be taking place, as well as what those discussions might sound like.