Entrepreneurial learning journey: lessons from the Winter Olympics

Sweden outclassed hosts South Korea to regain the women’s curling Winter Olympic title in Pyeongchang at the weekend, winning 8-3 to win gold for a third time and improve on the silver medal won in Sochi four years ago.

Sweden were competing in their fourth consecutive Olympic final, winning in 2006 and 2010, whilst the South Korean team’s silver earned the hosts their first Olympic curling medal. The sport was relatively unknown in South Korea until the impressive run by the team of school friends, nicknamed the ‘Garlic Girls’ as they all come from a small garlic-growing region.

Team GB women’s team lost 3-5 to Japan in the third-place play off, having lost 5-10 to Sweden in the semi-final, ending my new-found love affair with the sport which has gripped me for the past week or so. Skip Eve Muirhead had promised she would thrive under the slow‑burning tension of an Olympic competition, but at the crucial point of both matches, we were unable to make it count when it mattered.

I became addicted to the spectacle of the curling competition, the sights, the sounds, the strategy and tactics, watching every minute I could of play on ‘sheet’ loving the shouting and the noise – The Roaring Game, originates from the rumbling sound the 44-pound granite stones make when they travel across the ice.

One of the world’s oldest team sports, curling originated in the C16th in Scotland, where games were played during winter on frozen ponds and lochs. It’s an icy alternative to shuffleboard, and I had to know more.

For example, did you know that the ‘sheet’ is covered with tiny droplets of water that become ice and cause the stones to ‘curl’, or deviate from a straight line? These water droplets are known as ‘pebble’.

When the stone touches the pebble, there’s friction, which can slow down the stone and makes it curl away from its straight path to the ‘house’ – the target that looks like a big bulls eye. The centre of the ‘house’ is known as the ‘button’, and basically, the object of the game is to get your stones closer to the button than the other team gets theirs.

Obviously, this friction is not always a good thing, which is why you see frantic sweeping of the ice in front of the stone. The sweeping raising the temperature of the ice, which diminishes the friction between the pebble and the stone, and keeps the stone moving in a straight line. Still with me?!

In each ‘end’ (period of play), both teams send eight stones down the sheet. Once all sixteen stones have been delivered, the team with the stone that’s closest to the button effectively wins the end. Only this team will earn any points for the end. It gets a point for each of its stones that are in the house and closer to the button than the other team’s closest stone.

Sounds complex, but it’s a lively spectacle and competitive, you soon gest the gist of the rules once play is underway, and like any Olympic sport, the commitment, passion and focus of the competitors is something to behold.

The last ten days made me an unabashed curling fanatic. The only problem? Most matches started at 1.30am in the morning. So, armed with as much green tea, toast and marmite as I could handle, I kept myself awake to the last throw of the key matches.

From there, curling adrenaline kept me going the rest of the way, and GB victories were frequent, at which point I was silently jumping up and down in pure joy, trying to celebrate the moment without waking my family. I often went to bed at 4.00am filled with pure joy.

I also became an armchair fan of the US men’s team, who beat Sweden 10-7 to win the gold medal. What made them so special? I thought about that question, and started to particularly focus on what made the US curling team such a good group, besides their curling skills.

I realised that each of the four players on the team brought something different, but important to the squad, and it’s an interesting aspect of building a team of different but complimentary skills and mindsets.

The unassuming John Landsteiner wasn’t a particularly loud voice during in-match tactics discussions. Instead, with quiet professionalism, he did what was asked of him and put his team in positions to win with his successful early shots.

Matt Hamilton occupied the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Loud, bold, and recognisable (with his trademark baseball cap and moustache), Hamilton always tried to identify and advocate for the most aggressive shot possible. His more conservative teammates often overruled him (correctly), but that willingness to take the tough shot came up big in vital moments.

The vice-skip Tyler George was active in tactical discussions, but that wasn’t his most notable trait. I couldn’t take my eyes off George after he shot, because no matter how well he did, he never looked satisfied. There was never any post-shot celebration, only thinking (or sometimes wincing) about how his shot could have been even better.

Finally the skip, John Shuster, has a fascinating story that’s worth a read. In short, despite numerous setbacks stretching back nearly a decade, Shuster never gave up on himself or his team, and with the weight of a nation on his back, pushed this group to heights never before reached by a US team.

So, does your team have John Landsteiners, folks who build the foundations via their quiet professionalism and skill?  Where are your Matt Hamiltons? People who are willing to occasionally make the outlandish call, do something special or fresh? Do you have a Tyler George, someone who is never satisfied with ‘good enough,’ and who are always searching for ways to be better?

Each Olympian strives for peak performance and achieving a personal best, they have the determination and mind set of a winner, choosing to move forward even when it is uncomfortable – all of which we seek to emulate in a startup.

These are not ordinary people. Let’s face it, most of us are not motivated enough to get up early and practice our hearts out for six hours a day, seven days a week. Most of us couldn’t handle the pressure of having the world watch us, carefully scrutinising our every move. But for the Olympic athlete, this is what drives them – competition, challenge, defeat and victory – and they come alive, living for that moment of opportunity to win.

Olympians start out as ordinary people, but are motivated with an exceptional level of personal drive, and learn to take on habits and traits that are extraordinary in order to achieve their goals. The clarity of what has to be achieved to win gets them out of the comfort zone, determined to do whatever was necessary to make it happen.

These characteristics are the key to their power and ability to conquer fears, insecurities, physical and mental barriers, and bounce back in the face of adversity when things don’t go their way.

As I watched their triumphs and defeats unfold, it was clear that the traits that make an Olympian outstanding are the same ones that define today’s most successful entrepreneurs. For example, you must be passionate about what you are trying to achieve, focus intently and follow your gut instincts, listen to your inner voice and put in the hard work that you know it will take to reach your goal.

So whilst our GB Ladies didn’t quite hit the heights at Pyeongchang, they certainly had the traits to take into your startup business, and pushed themselves to their limits in high-pressure competitive situations. The performances in PyeongChang reveal typical examples of the traits and attributes of entrepreneurs:

Vision: Athletes have a clear vision of where they’re going, they are purposeful about it as a clear goal, and avoid distraction which saves time and energy. Athletes know they need to ‘push’ them when they want to quit. The key is clarity on seeking personal growth to achieve a personal best.

Mental toughness: Sports psychologists have identified four components of mental toughness – control, commitment, challenge and confidence. Mentally tough athletes have a high sense of self-belief and unshakable faith that they can control their own destiny and can remain relatively unaffected by adversity.

Lack of fear: The psychology of overcoming fear is particularly relevant to athletes in high-risk sports on ice, and for a startup, you have to push yourself to be able to progress, you have to walk that fine line of using it as a motivator and not letting it inhibit you.

Bouncing back: There is no better example of this than Elise Christie, from her disappointments at Sochi in 2014 to her potentially games ending crash in the 1500m at PyeongChang, no one expected her to take to the start line for the 1000m, but take to the line she did. Sadly her games ended in yellow card, but how did she even make it back?

Block out negativity: Olympians run through their events mentally before they even do them – this gets them in the ‘zone’ and gives them an edge; visualise your startup business success, and get this energy. Olympians lose more than they win, but it’s their strong, determined spirit that keeps them moving forward when others would quit. This makes them winners with positive mind sets.

When you lead a startup dealing with the Monday to Friday stops-and-starts, having the blue sky thinking of what you want to achieve and equally the washing the pots of some low level tasks, it can sometimes overwhelm you. However, it’s the people who persevere with determination and tenacity to keep going and vision that will succeed.

Entrepreneurs, like Olympians, must choose to meet each day with the knowledge that their path holds both obstacles and opportunity. The competition will be tough and the conditions unpredictable and unforgiving, but that’s what it takes to turn a vision into a reality. So dig deep and unleash what drives you – not for money or fame, but for the pure joy of doing what you do best, and doing it to a new standard – a personal best.

Guardiola or Mourinho: who’d be the best tech startup leader?

You couldn’t get a greater contrast in leadership style than Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, a fierce football rivalry currently being broadcasted daily to the world from Manchester. It’s a deeply personal rivalry that encapsulates the best of and worst of modern football as they locked horns recently for the twentieth time in their careers in the Manchester derby.

Pep has the edge over his Portuguese foe with ten victories, while the ‘Special One’ has four wins, with six ending draws. Guardiola has learnt quickly from his first season mistakes with City, his squad have grasped his exacting demands and he is on course to deliver the title playing captivating football. Mourinho has brought a winner’s mentality back to United, but looks unable to thwart Guardiola’s direction of travel.

Mourinho and Guardiola worked together at Barcelona between 1996-2000, when Mourinho was a coach and Guardiola a player, but have been rivals since. In the summer of 2008, Josep ‘Pep’ Guardiola was appointed as manager of Barcelona. He was young and inexperienced, fresh from a successful period leading their B team. Not exactly qualifications for taking the reigns of one of the most iconic sports teams in history, but he went on to win 14 titles in four years.

Pep may not have been the expected choice, but he had new ideas for a team stuck in old ways. Most importantly, he had the courage and the discipline to make those ideas come to fruition, following the ‘total football’ vision of his mentor, Johan Cruyff, who gave the gangly, slow-footed, Guardiola his first opportunity as a youth player.

But it’s not enough to just have new ideas. You need the discipline to follow through when you’re going through the fire. And that’s what both men have: single mindedness, self-belief and mental toughness to do things their way, and simply ignore the brickbats thrown at them.

Guardiola lost his first Spanish League match of 2008, dropping the big named players whilst giving a young Messi his debut. But after the opening week loss, the team racked up a twenty game undefeated streak en route to their first Spanish title since 2006. The highlight of the campaign was a 6-2 victory over rivals Real Madrid, in Madrid.

Guardiola established his philosophy of tiki-taka, despite the dwindling appeal of possession football. By artfully advocating a playing style based on possession, short passing play and attack in which the ball is played forward from defence all the way to goal by means of pinpoint combination play, Barça captivated the footballing world.

He was a perfectionist, he studied his rivals and focused on small details. He used risky tactics to surprise and outwit. His leadership style has evolved to that of being very personal – emotional, motivational and yet also authoritative. Pep has crafted an aura of passionate thinking, discipline to a philosophy and warmth to his team.

Mourinho contrasts this with an abrasive and sometimes sulken attitude that the world is against his, that he’s an animal corned to fight. Mourinho is also a perfectionist, equally passionate, buy is pragmatic and plays to win rather than be overly concerned with style. He isn’t above overt public criticism of his players either.

Their rivalry hit a new level in 2010, when Mourinho was appointed Real Madrid boss. During the next two seasons, as the pair vied for domestic Spanish and European honours, their relationship turned ugly. Barcelona 5-0 Real Madrid in La Liga fixture at Camp Nou is the greatest of humiliations in Mourinho’s management career, and put a clear marker down.

Following his departure from Barcelona on a year-long sabbatical, Guardiola resumed his skirmish with Mourinho in August 2013, when Bayern Munich met Chelsea in the UEFA Super Cup. Bayern won, and Guardiola scored another victory over his long-time adversary. That’s not quite how Jose saw it though: The best team clearly lost. They just scored one more penalty.

So, both have enjoyed stellar success, leading several teams, but how transferable are their leadership capabilities to other industries? For example, who could make it as a tech startup leader? Who is the more perceptive and innovative strategic thinker? Who would develop the startup culture and talent best? Whose leadership philosophy offers more potential for long-term success in the maelstrom of the startup environment? Let’s consider the key qualities of a startup leader, and assess each.

1. Growth philosophy As beautiful as it is bold, Guardiola has not wavered from his determination to play firmly on the front foot, ignoring the critics who argued that his philosophy was not transferable to the hurly burly of the Premier League. Stylistically, Mourinho has suffered from constant comparison with Guardiola, purists have bristled at some of his perceived negative tactics. Guardiola’s way of playing is now so established that players can be rotated and there is often no discernible difference.

Guardiola and Mourinho may have very contrasting beliefs about the best way to go about achieving success but they share the same obsessive desire for winning and there is little doubt both have overseen marked improvements. But for me, theirs is a one-sided rivalry – where one has moral courage the other shows only fear in putting in the type of structure that looks to enhance his players’ attacking qualities.

Organisations are now becoming more aware of the need to identify the fundamental reason for their existence or their “why”. Guardiola has taken this further by taking a belief system and aligning it to the mission objective, of playing reputation for playing with flair.

Mourinho’s philosophy is to minimise the risk of defeat, Pep’s is to win with confidence and self-belief. For a startup, you have to be bold and push out from your comfort zone into the learning zone to get ahead of the competition and take your own performance to new heights. Best fit: Pep

2. Talent development Guardiola’s skills as a coach have born fruit this season with many of his squad showing huge signs of improvement, younger players such as Sterling and Stones, and established players too, notably De Bruyne, whose game is at a new height. Mourinho has done a similar job in this regard, with the stark improvement from more modest talents in a less naturally gifted squad, and brought about a sharp upturn in performance levels from his tough love.

Regarding youth development, then this is a stick with which Mourinho’s critics have liked to beat him but the irony is that it is the Portuguese who has demonstrated greater willingness to give Academy graduates meaningful game time whereas Guardiola, has, for all the City hierarchy’s eagerness to promote youth, appeared at times to pay little more than lip service to it.

Mourinho has given 1,382 minutes to Academy Graduates compared to Guardiola’s 1,141. Mourinho has maintained United’s 80-year tradition of naming an academy player in every match-day squad; getting regular playing time remains a serious challenge for City’s youngsters.

Yet Pep’s emotion, manhandling and yelling at his players until they see the light of his thinking, is one that would bring more success in a startup. You can’t be a spectator in a startup, you have to be leading the charge on the front line. Pep’s on the pitch in his head, you can see his engagement with the team at an individual level. Jose is more standoffish, less emotional, lacks warmth, and maybe as a consequence, hasn’t created a winning culture to help foster a unified team vision. Best fit: Pep

3. Emotional Intelligence Guardiola is a perfectionist – but no more so than Mourinho – yet has stronger emotional intelligence. Mourinho is more outspoken about individual players, pointing out their shortcomings in public. Pep is an idealist focused on process of playing beautiful football, Jose is a realist simply focused on results and winning football. Pep is emotion, Jose is passion.

The secret of leadership is insight into human potential and understanding of the individual, and Pep is known for understanding the ambitions and personality of each player. Lionel Messi, the world’s best player was called up by Argentina to play at the Olympics much to the disappointment of Barcelona who didn’t want to risk their best player getting injured.

Pep went against the wishes of the club and supported Messi playing at the Olympics because he knew how important this was to Messi and the loyalty he would receive in return from the player. Pep nurtures and huddles with his players, you sense Mourinho creates a more hierarchical ‘master and servant’ relationship. When asked about this kind of situation Guardiola replied We’d never start telling them off. If the game’s going badly you only earn credibility by correcting what they’re doing rather than shouting about it. Best fit: Pep

4. Self-awareness Startup leaders live in a state of discomfort, constantly restless about improving – and are comfortable with it. When running a startup, life is constantly in a state of flux – one key hire or departure can make or break a team, one key customer sale can set the month up for success, one flaw in the technology could be a six-month setback.

Recognising this and pressing forward anyway takes a tremendous amount of tenacity, but also self-awareness, being able to take intrinsic and extrinsic criticism with a grain of salt. There’s no doubt that Pep has a stronger jaw for criticism, although he can bristle, and has developed a healthier balance of paranoia and confidence compared to Jose wounded animal personality.

When things are not going well it’s difficult not to allow your emotions to overtake you and influence your decision-making. Your focus needs to remain on want needs to happen to correct performance and the diagnosis of how and why the situation happened and what can happen later. Your influence has to be to add value, not criticise.

Guardiola took a debut season of his own self-doubt and has grown a near-perfect second one. Just twelve months ago Guardiola was at his lowest ebb as City boss, but has carved a near-perfect team from his own self-doubt. He doubled down. Rather than adapt, he was going to go the opposite direction, and apply his principles to the fullest degree possible.

He has placed even more faith in himself. He was even more determined and focused and was ruthlessly decisive. I don’t get a sense of this critical self-awareness and the need for more determination to make it happen from Jose. You sense he’d walk away from the situation. In a startup, you can’t walk away, you simply have to dig in Best-fit: Pep

5. Use of resources Guardiola has built a reputation for helping players raise their game, but he also has a habit of spending more money than his rivals every season. He has already splurged £400m+ since arriving at the Etihad in July 2016. It is irrefutable that he has been able to buy success, working at three clubs, which have been in the world’s five richest by income and spending during his time with them.

He’s not so far from becoming a transfer market £1bn man, laying out £896.6m since starting out at Barcelona in 2008. Mourinho – whose £1.1bn expenditure exceeds that of any other manager – and Carlo Ancelotti, who’s shelled out £970m, are the only two who have spent more. The Catalan has laid out £99.6m a year on average, compared with Mourinho’s £65m.

Meanwhile, after the 2-2 draw with Burnley, Jose was bemoaning his £300m spend at United wasn’t enough to compete with City Best-fit: neither – both work with monopoly money, could they do it with the meagre resources of startup funding?

Mourinho is undoubtedly a successful leader, but not someone you warm too and doesn’t create a sense of loyalty and camaraderie in the team. Mourinho talks a lot, but is he really just saying everything he wants you to hear? His overtly intentional mind games and media distraction strategies have often dogged him. He’s strong, but can be self-indulgent, belligerent and dogged, becoming an isolated figure without affection.

Contrast this to Pep, always ready to motivate, his emotion and connection to his players from the touchline during the game is inspiring. He has successfully turned the team’s formation, tactics and training approaches on its head within a short period of time.

City play the Guardiola way with discipline, clarity and purpose. That would not have been possible without him first sitting his players down and helping them understand what he wants from them and he wants to play. The success they are currently having probably started at the lunch table and not on a football pitch. Creating this understanding, togetherness and trust are the essentials of effective startup leaders. I think Pep’s got it.

Entrepreneurial learning journey: building your startup team

Lean startup thinking is based around the concept of a MVP as a means of sharing your product vision with your target customers, containing sufficient value to attract early adopters. Asking the right questions of your MVP is key, it’s as much a process as a pilot version of your product, and guides you broadly around your business model assumptions, many based on your hunches.

Testing all aspects of the business model, not just the product features, is vital, and this applies to developing your ‘Minimum Viable Team’ (‘MVT’)?  As Steve Blank states, a startup is a temporary organisation used to search for a repeatable and scalable business model. Having a talented team is an essential ingredient to startup success and scaling, as any aspect of the business model.

Most startup founders work on the basis that they will find the folks they need to scale their business either by word of mouth within the startup community, or within their own network, when they need them.  Alas experience tell us those serendipitous moments don’t always occur. The route of chance isn’t always successful, or even best financially in the longer term.

So what are the key considerations in your startup team building strategy, when seeking to create a key part of your business growth engine? Here are some thoughts.

1. Hiring Philosophy

What is the vision for your MVT in terms of its purpose, values and principles held as underlying attributes that will make a difference?

Rockstars gives leverage You’re looking for rockstar starters who can create 10x more leverage – ‘moonshot thinking’ –  than an average employee. The effectiveness gap between employees can be multiple orders of magnitude. In startup hiring there are few shades of grey, go for those that can add rocket fuel to your momentum.

Culture-contributors are better than culture-fitters A startup culture is part of the business model and customer experience. Just like we want people to contribute new skills and ideas, we want people to contribute new culture. Hiring culture-fitters does not make your culture better. The founding team will soon be outnumbered by new hires. They will decide your future culture, not you.

Hire for potential & learning not experience & experts Potential and experience are not mutually exclusive, but potential is far more valuable. Everyone usually hires for experience, but for a startup my view is to hire those whose potential will explode when they join you, pulling you along with them. Interviewing for experience is easy because you are discovering what someone has done. Interviewing for potential is hard because you are predicting what they will do. How do you do this? They get excited talking about what they could do rather than what they have done.

Static expertise quickly becomes obsolete. To survive and grow we must be a learning organisation. The clearest signal of a learner is curiosity. Curious people, by definition, love to learn, while experts talk about what they know.

Experimentation is a crucial mechanism for driving breakthroughs in any startup. If you want to create a successful, hyper-growth company, you’ve got to focus on empowering your teams to rapidly experiment.

Hire for difference not similarity There is a natural bias to hire people ‘like us’. Fight this bias. Hiring similar means we value repeatability and efficiency over creativity and leverage. Hiring different brings new skills, paradigms, and ideas, which are the sparks and catalyst of leverage. You will naturally want to hire people you connect with. Fight your instincts.. Don’t default to ‘she’s like one of us’.

2. Focus on Personality

Simply, what sort of people did we want in our team alongside us on our startup journey? I’ve developed this simple framework, a combination of attitudes, character and behaviours, to check for ‘togetherness’. They are:

·     Openness: We look for free spirits, open-minded folk who will enjoy the startup adventure and new experiences – the highs and the lows.

·     Conscientiousness: A startup can be a bit chaotic and disruptive, so we look for people who are organised and dependable.

·     Extraversion: We look for energisers, live-wires who tend to be more sociable and keep noise and energy levels up – not office jesters, but people who can keep the lights burning

·     Agreeableness: High scorers for this trait are often trusting, helpful and compassionate. Empathy is an invaluable trait to have when building your startup to balance the searing ambition.

·     Emotional stability: People with high scores for this trait are usually confident and don’t tend to worry often.

We are social creatures, and a deeper understanding of who we (and others) are can provide a valuable tool for working with others. You can build a more effective MVT using personality traits as part of your hiring decision.

In terms of the attitudes and behaviours we sought, these maybe summarised as follows:

They would much rather act than deliberate Generally, startup business plans are less useful than the planning process, as things change so quickly. Before the plan shoots out of the printer, things have already changed and ‘the plan’ is already outdated. Stuff happens.

Very few startups resemble their original plan, and that’s a good thing, because it means they’re pivoted and reshaping their businesses to meet the needs of their customers. Great startup employees are the same way.

They have an appetite to get out of the building Great start up people obsess over the customer, they understand calories are best spent making a real difference for customers. Every business has finite resources. The key is to spend as much of those resources as possible on things that matter to the customers. Fretting over trivial things doesn’t help anyone. It’s just a waste of energy.

They don’t see money as the solution to every problem One of the key lessons founders learn in a startup is resourcefulness. How do you take limited resources and turn them into something remarkable? That’s also true of the best startup employees. They’re remarkably resourceful. They’re constantly looking for creative ways to make the most of the resources they have.

3. The concept of ‘Tour of Duty’

Start-ups succeed in large part because their MVT is highly adaptable, motivated to go the extra mile and create something different. However, entrepreneurial employees can be restless, searching for new, high-learning opportunities, and other startups are always looking to poach them.

However, if you think all your MVT will give you lifetime loyalty, think again. Sooner or later, most employees will pivot into a new opportunity. When Reid Hoffman founded LinkedIn, he set the initial employee engagement as a four-year ‘tour of duty’, with a discussion at two years. If an employee moved the needle on the business, the company would help advance her career. Ideally this would entail another tour of duty at the company, but it could also mean a position elsewhere.

A tour of duty has a defined end, but that doesn’t have to be the end of an employee’s tenure. One successful tour is likely to lead to another. Each strengthens the bonds of trust and mutual benefit. If an employee wants change, an appealing new tour of duty can provide it within your company. This is a more effective retention strategy than appealing to vague notions of loyalty and establishes a real zone of trust.

The tour-of-duty approach for a startup works like this. The business hires an employee who strives to produce tangible achievements and who is an important advocate and resource in the MVT. A tour-of-duty is established, either two or four years. Why two to four years? That time period seems to have universal appeal. In the software business, it syncs with a typical product development cycle, allowing an employee to see a major project through. At the end of this ‘tour’, the business could pivot to a new direction, and thus the MVT needs to pivot too.

Properly implemented, the tour-of-duty approach can boost both recruiting and retention for a startup. The key is that it gives both sides a clear basis for working together. Both sides agree in advance on the purpose of the relationship, the expected benefits for each, and potentially a planned end.

The problem with most employee retention conversations is that they have a fuzzy goal (retain ‘good’ employees) and a fuzzy time frame (indefinitely). The company is asking an employee to commit to it but makes no commitment in return. In contrast, a tour of duty serves as a personalised retention plan that gives a valued employee concrete, compelling reasons to finish her tour and that establishes a clear time frame for discussing the future of the relationship. Personalised tours produce even positive feelings.

Thus when working with MVT employees, establish explicit terms of their tours of duty, developing firm but time-limited mutual commitments with focused goals and clear expectations. Ask, ‘in this relationship, how will both parties benefit and progress in the lifetime of the MVT?’

4. Lessons from Google

A company’s culture and core values are the bedrock of innovation and effective teams, and Google has established a suite of practices for you to use when building your own effective startup team.

Back in 2013, Google conducted a rigorous analysis deemed Project Aristotle to identify what underlying factors led to the most effective Google teams. Over 200 interviews were conducted across +180 active teams over the course of the two-year study. More than 250 attributes were identified that contributed to both success and failure.

Their hypothesis was that they would find the perfect mix of individual traits and skills necessary for a stellar team. Turns out they were dead wrong.

The researchers found that what really mattered was less about who is on the team, and more about how the team worked together. Here are the top five keys to an effective Google team, in order of importance:

Psychological safety Psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking a risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk-taking. In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question or offering a new idea.

Dependability On dependable teams, members reliably complete quality work on time (vs. the opposite – shirking responsibilities). Perfection is not optional. The enemy of great is good. Always strive for the best possible product, service or experience.

In a decentralised team working remotely, this core value is extremely important. Always trust your teammates are doing their best work with good intentions. Don’t jump to conclusions or judgments.

Structure and clarity An individual’s understanding of job expectations, the process for fulfilling these expectations, and the consequences of one’s performance are important for team effectiveness. Goals can be set at the individual or group level, and must be specific, challenging and attainable. Google often uses Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) to help set and communicate short- and long-term goals.

Meaning Finding a sense of purpose in either the work itself or the output is important for team effectiveness. The meaning of work is personal and can vary – financial security, supporting family, helping the team succeed, or self-expression for each individual, for example. The self-directed employee takes responsibility for her own decisions and actions. Having a team that can constantly say “We can figure it out” creates a competitive edge.

Impact The results of one’s work, the subjective judgment that your work is making a difference, is important. Seeing that one’s work is contributing to the organisation’s goals can help reveal impact. The world’s most precious resource is the passionate and persistent human mind. Get your team to embrace long-term thinking.

Every member of the team needs to embody a growth mindset: the belief that they can learn more or become smarter if they work hard and persevere.

That media fervour for the unicorn startups and their celebrity founders can suggest that it only takes the one or two entrepreneurs to build exceptional companies on their own, or with a co-founder. I think that’s rarely the case.

Henry Ford once said, Why is it that every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a mind attached? In a startup, minds dramatically amplify the value of hands and they become even more powerful when they’re able to engage with like-minded, stimulated other folk in the team.

Developing winning teams the Theo Epstein way

Theo Epstein is the President of Baseball Operations for the Chicago Cubs, crowned Major League Baseball’s World Series Champions last week, ending a drought of 108 yeas since their last victory. He is acknowledged as the driver behind their reinvention, with a unique strategic approach to identifying, recruiting and developing talent, which has resonance beyond baseball.

The Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians 8-7 in the tenth innings. The Cubs, who had been 1-3 down in the best-of-seven series, blew a three-run lead in the final game but came back after a rain delay to clinch the title.

At 00:48 in Cleveland, Ohio, Michael Martinez of the hometown Indians chopped a groundball to third base. There, Kris Bryant scooped it up and fired across the diamond to Anthony Rizzo. When the ball landed in his glove, the World Series was over.

A powerhouse of baseball’s formative years, the Cubs played in three of the first five World Series, triumphing in 1907 and 1908. But then came a huge reversal of fortune, as fans endured over a century of failure. Between 1910 and 1945, the Cubs won seven National League pennants, but lost each time in the World Series.

The drought was imbued with fresh intrigue in 1945, when a local tavern owner supposedly put a curse on the club. William Sianis, proprietor of the Billy Goat Tavern, took a goat to games at Wrigley Field, but he and his pet were refused admission to a World Series contest against the Detroit Tigers that year. According to legend, Sianis was so outraged he proclaimed the Cubs would never win another World Series.

Epstein was tasked with reversing this sorry narrative, and bringing a world title to the North Side. Previously, Epstein masterminded two World Series triumphs at Boston Red Sox in 2004 and 2007. The Red Sox had a championship drought of their own – 2004 was their first championship since Babe Ruth helped the team to a title in 1918. The 2004 victory left a mark on Epstein:

The morning after we won, on the way in from the airport, we passed a cemetery and there were dozens of Red Sox pennants and hats on top of the gravestones. Grandsons, sons and daughters went and made sure they knew. It was incredibly emotional.

Under Epstein, the Cubs finished last in each of their first four seasons, losing 94 out of 162 games per year on average. Yet much of that was by design, as Epstein looked to take advantage of rules regarding baseball’s amateur draft.

Each year, teams pick new players from high school or university, with the order of that selection process determined by win-loss record. The worse a team performs, the greater its chances of drafting a future superstar. Young players are also paid much less than existing players, affording teams far more flexibility on their payroll. This may seem like a perverse incentive to lose, but Epstein used this strategy to replenish the Cubs with elite young talent.

This season, after adding professional talent, Chicago finished with a 103-58 regular season record, good enough to secure their first division title since 2008. The Cubs then beat San Francisco and Los Angeles in successive post-season rounds to clinch a trip back to the World Series.

In the World Series, Cleveland won game one 6-0. The Cubs rebounded to even the series with a 5-1 win, before a tight third game for Cleveland ended 1-0. The Indians also took game four, a 7-2 win edging them within one victory. Just as people began to question the Cubs, they embarked on a winning streak. A Bryant home run sparked a big rally to win game five 3-2 and the Cubs won game six, 9-3 to tie the seven game series 3-3.

The deciding contest had innumerable twists, and displayed extremes of raw emotion that will never be forgotten. The final game went into an extra ninth, and then a tenth innings. A 17-minute delay followed the ninth innings due to rain, then Ben Zobrist smacked a tie-breaking RBI double in a two-run tenth that lifted the Cubs to an 8-7 victory over the Indians.

So what is the secret to Theo Epstein’s team building?  If there is a formula for his success, it is complex and multi-dimensional, but also remarkably unsophisticated in one essential way – when deciding whether to add a player, Epstein focuses most of his attention on an athlete’s personal characteristics rather than just his physical abilities. He values the person as much as the player. He calls it Scouting the person more than the player.

He comments, In the draft room, we will always spend more than half the time talking about the person rather than the player. What are their backgrounds, their psyches, their habits, and what makes them tick?

He wants the right kind of people on the field. ‘Character’ is a vexed subject. Intelligence and physical skills derive significantly from character. Character is now being understood not as the destination, but the foundation, even the process.

The thing Epstein wants to know most about any potential player is how he has handled adversity. We ask our scouts to provide three detailed examples of how these young players faced adversity on the field and responded to it, and three examples of how they faced adversity off the field. Because baseball is built on failure. The old expression is that even the best hitter fails seven out of 10 times.

The Cubs opened the season with 22 players obtained by Epstein, and had the best regular season record in Major League Baseball. A team deep in talent, the roster was a mix of youthful prodigies and wily, proven veterans. Epstein patiently and strategically built the mosaic that is the Cubs’ line up with one prescient acquisition after another.

Having made an assessment of character, Epstein then looks to science. His use of data analytics and algorithmic tests to measure players’ co-ordination is essentially using neuroscience to measure talent. He spends long days modelling data, following in the steps of Billy Beane.

Beane was the general manager of the Oakland A’s who famously fashioned his low-budget team into a surprising contender by using data analytics to find hidden gems among the players whom other teams had rejected. This was the dawning of the Moneyball era.

Back in Boston, Epstein won two World Series, in part by digging deeper into data, drawing on the burgeoning field of sabermetrics (named after the Society for American Baseball Research). Sabermetricians examine the various statistics a baseball game produces, with an eye toward figuring out which skills and outcomes really determine who wins and loses.

Epstein cut a deal with a pair of data scientists interested in studying the neural pathways that govern the act of hitting a baseball. They got access to his team, and he wound up with a ground breaking new evaluation tool – a nuanced algorithmic test to assess a player’s dynamic hand-eye co-ordination, reaction time, and inhibitory control, which is the ability for the brain to start an act and then stop it when it gets new information—like, say, laying off a breaking pitch.

When a batter puts the ball in play and it results in an out, what really made that happen, and how can we quantify it? Now most MLB teams ask those sorts of questions; yesterday’s winning insights have become today’s common practices. The Cubs focused on drafting and developing hitters over pitchers because the data makes clear that young hitters are a much safer bet to develop.

Epstein mines statistics to evaluate talent, forecast player performance, and model game strategies. It’s what led him to sign several players whom other teams had released. Gathering stats on college players going back thirty years, Epstein ran regression analyses to isolate the qualities that predicted success in the pros. Armed with those findings, he drafted a succession of future stars.

During the initial rebuilding years, when the MLB team offered little to cheer, news of these prospects provided succour. Fans were encouraged to bypass the first team and focus on how the kids were tearing it up. Five years after Epstein promised Chicago a winner, the Cubs were ready to make their move. The kids started coming up, and they could play.

It meant taking a step back at the major-league level for a few years, trading some established players for some younger, lesser-known prospects, but Epstein’s hiring science was an unmistakable signal of seriousness and commitment.

Having assembled the squad, next on his radar was to apply the same analytical approach to training and development techniques. Epstein compiled The Cubs Way, a detailed catalogue laying out his approach.

Hitters would be trained to be selectively aggressive, watching for particular pitches to drive. Pitchers would prepare according to a precise protocol designed to promote durability and prevent injury, prescribing when and how they should throw between games.

Also within his development plan is a focus on mental skills, including a series of strategies to help players cope with mental stress and improve their mental performance – in elite sport, after physical fitness and motivation, players are really in the business of decision-making. The winning team makes more good decisions.

Epstein believes that he can advance his team’s performance when they train to make better decisions. There are now highly evolved analytical techniques for understanding how those decisions influence results. However, the athletes themselves are still people, imperfect and not machines. Analysing the data is one thing, and actually using that data to inform and influence organizational decisions is another.

If you could choose to be a fan of any team for any season in the recent history of baseball, you would choose either the 2004 Red Sox or the 2016 Cubs. Both turned enduring legacy of failure into glorious victory. Maybe you’d prefer the catharsis of your own team beating your long time nemesis, but for me as a neutral, it’s really one team or the other. And somehow, the same man built both teams using an analytical approach.

To be perfectly clear, ‘analytics’ doesn’t mean ‘numbers’. It means cutting through the noise, nonsense and subjectivity of people recruitment and development where we all have unfounded bias. It means having a reason for every decision you make, and that reason being something other than ‘because that’s the way it’s always been done’.

It doesn’t mean eliminating conventional wisdom, it means questioning it. It means getting as much data as you can, but data is just a fancy word for information. The Cubs don’t focus on stats at the exclusion of other forms of information  – there is always more information to be had, and more information is always useful. The battle was never between the quants and the gut-instinct types, it was between the curious and the incurious. The curious have won.

The Cubs’ championship melds analytics and scouting information, that sees no contradiction or controversy in using data of all types to inform its decisions. It is the inevitable harmonic perfection that every organisation in baseball and business is heading in that direction.

If you’re a Cubs fan, it’s time to party like you’ve never partied before. But if you’re a fan of smart people doing smart things and pushing the boundaries and trying new strategies in a never-ending quest to secure a competitive advantage, you should be rejoicing, too. Epstein’s holistic approach – focus on character, apply data science to selection, adopt precise physical training techniques and develop mental skills, especially decision making – can be applied to building the smartest team in your business.

Talent is critical to business performance, and companies need to understand talent-related insights to make informed business decisions. Yet most enterprises still base talent decisions on the intuition and experience of hiring managers and HR professionals. Few can offer systematic evidence to support their hunches.

Epstein has shown that a use of blended work force data analytics can produce better talent decisions, and better talent decisions improve results. The ‘datafication’ of talent is a leading analytics trend today and has the potential to change the game forever.

Collaborative teams: an outstanding team of individuals – not a team of outstanding individuals

So, the 50th anniversary of the 1966 World Cup Final passed at the weekend, a game where Alf Ramsey’s England won 4-2 after extra-time against West Germany. The England scorers included a hat-trick from Geoff Hurst (18th, 101st, 120th minutes), a feat yet to be matched.

Whilst Hurst took the plaudits, England was an outstanding team of individuals, not a team of outstanding individuals, and this approach to building winning teams has many lessons for start-ups. Let’s look back.

This is the day we’ve all been waiting for says Kenneth Wolstenholme at the start of the BBC commentary. Saturday 30 July 1966. Match day. The lads are there in a fidgeting line in the gloom of the tunnel, behind Sir Alf, waiting to come out. Four of them are bouncing balls whilst the others are staring ahead, silent with their own thoughts.

England is in cherry red shirts, full sleeved with a simple round neck, plain, no logos or adverts. A modest football kit that today resonates with emotion. The Germans are in crisp white shirts with black trim and black shorts.

The English team comes out of the tunnel into the roar of pandemonium English support, rattles and klaxon horns. The weather forecast said ‘sunny periods and showers, becoming dry later’.

The Queen takes to the Royal Box in time for the national anthem. She’s wearing an ostentatious hat, which matches her handbag. What’s in the bag? Programme and pie, I’d imagine. Perchance some toffees. Next to her is FIFA president Stanley Rous, presumably holding Her Majesty’s Bovril.

The Royal Marine band play a few tunes, then the German anthem, like the British one before it, is met with a silent respect that speaks volumes for the Sixties football fan. No need to be opening old sores 21 years down the line. Then, as the last notes fade out, a roar of anticipatory bedlam, bedlam, bedlam. What an atmosphere.

Moore and Seeler, the captains, shake hands and exchange plaques and pennants. Bobby wins the toss and elects to defend the goal England picked for the warm up. The spare balls are kicked away, and the two teams line up ready to go.

The Germans looked the more dangerous in the opening minutes, Haller and Held leading menacing sorties and Seeler using his head to good advantage. Haller shoots West Germany into a 12th minute lead following Wilson’s misdirected header. He thought scoring the opening goal entitled him to keep the match ball – that was the custom in German football – but there was someone else who wanted that ball too.

England, behind for the first time in the tournament, equalised six minutes later. Hurst positioned himself perfectly to head home Moore’s quick free-kick. The German defence gave little away in the second period and only 12 minutes remained when Peters scored after Hurst’s centre had struck a defender and looped invitingly into the air. From that range Peters could hardly miss.

As England hung on for the final whistle, Jackie Charlton was adjudged, harshly, to have fouled on the edge of the box. The free-kick, blasted at the wall by Emmerich, appeared to strike Schnellinger’s hand before rolling on for Weber to shoot, almost in slow motion, past Banks’ desperate lunge. Gutted. 2-2.

Alf Ramsey’s speech at full-time  – You’ve won the World Cup once, now, go and win it againwas akin to Henry V at Agincourt. England looked fitter and fresher in extra time and continued to play with confidence and composure. Hurst scored with a drive on the turn, which hit the underside of the bar and bounced over the line with Tilkowski, the flamboyant German keeper, well beaten.

The goal was disputed by the Germans – and still is. The Swiss referee, Gottfried Dienst, asked the nearer linesman Mr. Bakhramov from the USSR (what is now Azerbaijan), and between them they agreed that it was a goal. Of course it was Gottfried.

German heads dropped as they lost their concentration, such that with the last kick of the match, Hurst completed a personal triumph by scoring with a firm left-footer, cheeks sucked in as he lashed the ball forward. Proper goal. Apparently some of the crowd were on the pitch. And he got to keep the match ball. Not bad for a bloke from Ashton-under-Lyne, near Manchester.

A day to remember, even if like me, it’s from videos and news cuttings. England lined up: Banks, Cohen, Wilson, Stiles, Charlton (J), Moore, Ball, Charlton (R), Hurst, Peters, Hunt.

We all want to be in a winning team, getting the results and enjoying the success. But what qualities do you see in that 1966 England team that you can learn from for building a startup team? Moving from your MVP to pivot and scaling, startup teams often are built quickly and have to come together to collaborate.

Research into team behaviour reveals an interesting paradox: team characteristics of size, virtual distribution, diversity and specialism in membership, are increasingly crucial with challenging projects, those same four characteristics make it hard for teams to get anything done. To put it another way, the qualities required for success are the same qualities that undermine success.

So how can we strengthen a startup’s ability to perform complex collaborative tasks to maximise the effectiveness of size and diversity, while minimising the disadvantages posed by their structure, composition and individuality? Research by Gratton & Erickson, and Newton offers insight into how to maximise collaborative team performance.

In the uncertainty of a startup, we need all hands on deck, we need people to own their work, not just rent a space on the organisation chart. We need everyone to be committed and engaged, building a culture of ownership where everyone is inspired to think and act like partners in the enterprise, and not just hired hands. Collaborative teamwork releases the synergies and efficiencies – many hands make light work.

However, collaboration isn’t quite as straightforward as you think. In his research entitled Six Common Misperceptions about Teamwork, Professor J R Hackman, Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard University, highlights a number of issues. Whilst teamwork and collaboration are critical to achievement in any organisation, his research not only affirmed that idea but also surfaced a number of mistaken beliefs about teamwork that can sidetrack productive collaboration. I summarise them here:

Belief: Harmony helps.

Reality: Quite the opposite, research shows conflict, when well managed and focused on a team’s objectives, can generate more creative solutions than in conflict-free groups. Creative tension can be good for a team. Research on symphony orchestras shows that slightly ‘grumpy’ orchestras played better as ensembles than those whose members worked together harmoniously. The tension stirs a reaction, creating personal and collective energy to make it happen.

Belief: It’s good to mix it up.

Reality: The longer members stay together as an intact 
group, the better they do. As unreasonable as this may seem, the research evidence is unambiguous. Whether it is a rugby team or a fire brigade unit, teams that stay together longer, play together better. New members bring energy and fresh ideas to a team, without them, and whilst a stable team risks becoming complacent, new talent can be disruptive.

Research into the achievement of Michelin Stars by top-notch restaurant kitchens illustrate this. Chefs of all ranks require a number of months to fully become in tune with the workflow, menu, layout and systems in a new kitchen. In addition to the more formal, structured aspects of working in the kitchen, they must also work to find their place within the team, to prove themselves and become a productive member of the unit.

In good kitchens new chefs also receive a degree of training specific to their position. All of this takes time and uses up kitchen resources, therefore when the average tenure is low, the return on investment on chefs is low. Accordingly, high turnover means that many kitchens are being held back as their team never fully matures to a point of achieving their optimal results and an intuitive collaboration that top performance requires achieving the Michelin star rating.

Belief: Bigger is better.

Reality: Excessive size is one of the most common impediments to effective collaboration. The larger the group, the higher the likelihood of loafing and free riding, and the more effort it takes to keep activities coordinated. Small teams are more efficient, the sense of camaraderie and team spirit of a tightly-knit team can often leverage a greater degree of output – it’s the David v Goliath situation, and research shows the Davids win in 29% of situations when facing a Goliath who has ten-times the scale of resources – underdogs win more often than you think because of the collaborative spirit and energy.

Belief: Face-to-face interaction is passé.

Reality: Teams working remotely are at a considerable disadvantage. There really are benefits to sizing up your teammates face-to-face. Organisations that rely heavily on virtual or distributed teams have found that it is well worth the effort, time and cost to get members together when the team is launched, again around the midpoint of the team’s work, and yet again when the work has been completed for shared reflection and learning.

Belief: It all depends on the leader.

Reality: The hands-on activities of leaders do make a difference, but the most powerful thing a leader can do to foster effective collaboration is to create conditions that help members competently manage themselves. Research suggests that condition-creating accounts for about 60% of the variation in how well a team eventually performs; that the quality of the team launch accounts for another 30%; and that real-time coaching accounts for only about 10%. Leaders are important in collaborative work, but not in the ways we usually think. Creating the conditions for self-managed teams should be the aim of a leader.

Belief: Teamwork is serendipity.

Reality: The best leaders provide a clear statement of what the team’s goals are, and they make sure that the team has the resources and support needed to succeed. Back to the kitchen, and the head chef will always play a pivotal role in dictating the kitchen’s success, however it is interesting to note the importance on how well the team are formed. Staff are hired based on their experience, skill level etc., but less importance is placed on how effective they will be as part of the team.

It’s clear for startups that collaboration is the best way to work because together people have a combined set of skills to respond to any challenge thrown at the enterprise. With pressure on cashflow, a startup needs to be greater than the sum of its parts and leverage beyond actual headcount.

Collaboration is also important in a startup not just because it’s a better way to work, but also to learn. Learning to collaborate is part of equipping a startup for problem solving, innovation and life-long learning in an ever-changing networked economy. Life is not a solo act, we all need to assemble around us the people who can make a difference for each other.

So, pause for a moment and reflect back on ’66. England, an outstanding team of individuals – not a team of outstanding individuals – everyone played their part, and everyone was over the moon, a genuine collaborative effort. As Shakespeare said ‘we few, we happy few, we band of brothers’, and that joined-up mentality can be the difference in getting a startup off the ground.

Lessons from The Accrington Pals for effective business relationships

Friday morning saw a nationwide two-minute silence at 7.28am, the time when the British, Commonwealth and French forces went over the top a century ago on the first day of The Battle of the Somme.

After this silence, the emotion and poignancy of the #Wearehere tribute evoked a truly human response. Created by Jeremy Deller and Rufus Norris, it was a ‘human memorial’ of the battle, sending silent ‘ghost’ soldiers into cities and towns.

Young men, immediately conspicuous because they were dressed in the dull-green uniforms of World War I mixed with people going about their Friday morning business. They were just there: not speaking, not even moving much. Waiting, expressionless, for who knows what.

A small crowd gathered, taking photographs. A woman caught the eye of one of the men. She tried to speak to him. Without speaking or dropping his gaze, he pulled a small card out of his pocket and handed it to her. It gave the name, rank, age and battalion of a solider who died at the Somme, as well as their place of death.

There was no narrative. They were a presence. Shortly afterwards, the men, as if by some unspoken sign, began to sing, to the tune of Auld Lang Syne, We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here – a song of weariness and resignation that was sung in the trenches, and they moved off.

Fought between 1 July and 18 November 1916, the Battle of the Somme was one of the defining events of the First World War. It was the largest battle on the Western front. It saw over one million wounded, killed or missing on both sides of the battlefield – affecting the lives of millions more back home.

There were 19,240 British dead as night fell on the Somme frontline on 1 July 1916, a human catastrophe on an unthinkable scale. The British plan had been that heavy artillery rained down on the enemy defences for days beforehand would make it possible for the British to walk, starting at 7.30am, across no man’s land to take German trenches in time for a good lunch.

The plan failed. German defences were far better than anticipated. German troops had hidden safely in deep dugouts during shelling the previous week and emerged quickly, catching the Allies by surprise and shooting them down in vast numbers.

The Battle of the Somme continued for another 140 days as Britain’s attempts to consolidate its gains quickly degenerated into a series of bloody piecemeal fights for scraps of woods and villages. There was an average British casualty rate of 3,000 a day. Finally, winter weather brought it all to a sodden halt on November 18. The net gain was a strip of land twenty miles wide and six miles deep.

Over the years, it has become the defining symbol of the First World War – of horror, stupidity, and futility, a pessimistic narrative bubbled up through the memoirs of old soldiers and the provocations of writers and artists. A German officer, Friedrich Steinbrecher, put it succinctly:  Somme. The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word.

Its key moments – the charge ‘over the top’, the waves of men cut down, the stupid optimism and the shattering disillusion – are the central images of the conflict. Look no further than the moving final sequence of Blackadder Goes Forth, in which the protagonists charge into the camera and into nothingness. The battle is never named, but it is unmistakably a picture of first day of the Battle of the Somme.

On 1 July 1916, as cricket was being played in Accrington, 584 men from the town were dead or wounded on the Somme. Several British ‘pals battalions’ – units made up of men all from the same local areas – suffered losses that were devastating for their communities at home

The Accrington Pals is the best remembered of the battalions raised in Lancashire in the early months of the War back in 2014 in response to Kitchener’s call for a volunteer army. Groups of friends from all walks of life in Accrington and neighbouring towns enlisted together to form a battalion with a distinct local identity.

A month after the outbreak of war, the Accrington Observer & Times of 8 September 1914 reported that the War Office had accepted an offer made by the mayor of Accrington to raise a complete battalion. When recruitment began on 14 September, 104 men were accepted in the first three hours. Brothers, cousins, friends and workmates enlisted together; by 24 September the Accrington battalion had reached a full strength of 1,100 men.

The Pals were ordered to France, to take part in the attack on the Somme, the objective was to capture the hilltop fortress of Serre, and form a defensive flank facing north. In the early evening of 30 June, the 11th East Lancashires left camp at Warnimont Wood for an arduous seven-mile trek to the trenches of Serre. At 2.40am on Saturday 1 July, they reached the front line trenches.

At 6.30am, the British artillery commenced its final furious bombardment of the German front line. At 7.20am, Captain Tough led the Pal’s first of the battalion’s four waves 100 yards into No Man’s Land. A few minutes later, the second wave followed, led by Captain Livesey.

At 7.30am, the leading waves rose and walked in line towards the German positions. Machine gun and rifle fire immediately tore into the advancing lines of infantry. One British observer likened the lines of dead to swathes of cut corn at harvest time. Incredibly, groups of Pals defied the machine gun fire, threaded their way through the barbed wire and dropped into the German front line.

All was in vain. Behind, the third and fourth waves suffered dreadful losses before reaching No Man’s Land. The leading companies were cut down, some of the Pals – their officers killed or wounded – pressed on towards Serre, never to be seen again. The remaining survivors in the German front line, bereft of reinforcements, were forced to withdraw. By 8am, the battle for Serre was effectively over.

In its first major action, the Accrington Pals battalion suffered devastating losses. When the roll was called by RSM Stanworth that evening, less than one hundred men answered their names. Records show that out of 720 soldiers who took part in the attack, 584 were killed, wounded or missing. The Accrington Pals were effectively wiped out in a matter of minutes.

Four members of the regiment were awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry – drummer Spencer John Bent; Private William Young; Second Lieutenant Alfred Victor Smith; Second Lieutenant Basil Arthur Horsfall.

As The Somme passes over the horizon of living memory, I was struck by a number of thoughts from the commemoration of that first day of battle around the humanity of teamwork. It was the camaraderie that struck me as the lifeblood to the cohorts of soldiers. It is what fuels that spirit of unity and togetherness at times of extreme challenge, and what must have been distress, creating a palpable connection.

However, there were a number of other thoughts I had reflecting on the battle, which I think we can take into our everyday business thinking.

Relationships mean everything During the most adverse encounters a team will ever face, the relationships and friendships between its members bind them together. Hardships create strong bonds within a team, which in turn, serves to strengthen the team even more. Trusting one another will inevitably lead to teams that will overlook individual motives in place of team objectives. Simply put, interaction fuels action and a collective resolve, mental strength in a crisis.

Listen to everyone, but trust your own judgment Imagine the military briefings at 7.28am on 1 July 2016. Leaders gather to discuss mission parameters, variables, strategies and tactics, and while everyone weighs in with their opinion, ultimately, the highest-ranking officer makes the decision. In business, one bad decision may not mean ‘life or death’, but it can have a detrimental impact on the fate of your business.

Every situation you encounter and every decision you make is different. There is no easy or single formula for success. The best leaders are those who listen to everyone, are receptive to advice and seek to learn from others – yet have an unwavering trust and confidence in themselves to always make the best decision possible. At the end of the day, you are accountable for your business, and, as such, trusting your own judgment is paramount.

No one is left behind Wounded and dead soldiers were carried on comrade’s backs and inside crowded vehicles to safety, on to a proper burial, although the names of 72,000 dead and missing soldiers at the Tiepval Memorial shows the scale of the deaths at The Somme.

Everyone counts, and everyone looks out for each other. Everyone crosses the line together. That makes for a highly effective team and for a sense of safety despite the perilous circumstances, just knowing that someone’s got your back. Pulling each other together and watching for each other’s success.

Leading from the front Many of the videos show officers leading the charge out of the trenches and going over the top first. In the Somme, some 17% of the officers were lost, refuting the criticism that they didn’t stand in line. They were often the first to die on the charge up the field. This was literally about leading from the front, and in such circumstances, decision-making isn’t a democracy – the leader is in charge and their behaviour shows this.

Camaraderie In business as in the military, teams have a well-honed sense of camaraderie that helps team members read one another’s signals, move as one, and watch each other’s backs. This sense of commitment and connection is an essential component of effective teams. The more people value their relationships with one another, the better they will perform for one another and thus for the organisation.

We can only imagine the camaraderie that existed in The Accrington Pals, a collaborative and collegiate culture that got things done, working as one. Camaraderie is about creating a common sense of purpose and the mindset that we have a common goal and shared destiny.

Trust Trust in business is an essential ingredient for an organisation to function, a vital element in the emotional contract between leaders and their co-workers, and between colleagues. Without trust, an organisation is morally bankrupt, as the lack of trust eventually manifests itself in customer relationships. Imagine standing in the trenches at The Somme. The need to trust everyone around you, and for them to trust you, to perform and support the effort, must have been absolute.

The 100th anniversary year of The Somme reminds us of the loss of so many ordinary men and their sacrifice, and the devastation suffered by the Pals battalions. The stories show the soldiers worked and lived together, creating an atmosphere and culture of unity, underpinned by empathy, peer camaraderie and trust.

Each aspect of the relationship between the solders offers in their own way insights in terms of how humanity and emotional engagement pervade even the most abhorrent environment. If you replicate the qualities and culture seen in 1916 in your business today, they will effectively leverage collective talents into strategies that will elevate your business performance beyond your competition. #Wearehere, who would have thought that ‘Pals’ would resonate with legacies for business 100 years later?

Team success : mind-set, communication and having a strong jaw

Football is a team game played with eagerness and passion, based on simple philosophies and physicality, running fast, tackling hard, moving from one end of the pitch to the other end quickly, using simple, direct, forward passes and then, crossing, shooting and heading whenever you are anywhere near the opposition goal. It’s simplicity, like any team game, is in that success is based on unity, collective purpose and strong leadership of the team.

These are the best of times at Burnley FC, Champions of The Football League, 2015/16. A 23 game unbeaten run – half a season – has seen an unfashionable, unheralded team playing football with a streak of independence that is invigorating for the people of the town who can be forgiven for wondering whether it can ever get any better. The team create a sense of identity for the town, civic pride renewed, everyone is a Claret.

Turf Moor has been the home of the team since 1883, the oldest, longest continually used ground for a professional football team in the world. The theme of football and geographic identity can seem sentimental, overblown, but it’s real at Burnley. However, despite the new football economy, Burnley is still a traditional working-class sort of atmosphere, and the crowd feels like it’s got a bit older.

The players were out in the town on Sunday evening, larking around, pulling pints behind the bars and buying drinks for fans, a conspicuous, intimate and visible sign of success and connection in a town smaller than Bournemouth. However, whilst a football club can be an emblem for an area, it can’t be its principal economic driver and the idea of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ would be laughable if it wasn’t so patronising.

Amid the rush to over-complicate football, words such as respect, work ethic, discipline, pride and passion sometimes seem quaint, but they are tenets of the leadership philosophy of manager Sean Dyche, and key ingredients in extracting the honest toil he expects from his players, without which the importance placed on sports science would not mean so much.

Manager Dyche believes their togetherness and group mentality has played a massive part in their ability to gain promotion. Dyche is methodical in his trade, articulate and intelligent in his analysis and communication, respectful to the opposition and has an enthusiasm for research with a learner’s mentality – a powerful combination for an effective manager leading a high-performance team.

Endeavour is as entrenched at Burnley as ego is absent. Speak to what is largely a British core of players and they will tell you they have not encountered a dressing room like it. The impact on the dressing room of players such as goalkeeper and captain Tom Heaton, midfielder David Jones and centre-half Michael Keane, all of whom came through the ranks at Manchester United under the watchful eye of Sir Alex Ferguson, has been contagious.

Teams are more successful in pressure environments when they capitalise on their strengths and capabilities, and focus on building a sense of community, teamship if you like. By understanding how teams form and harness the talents, skills and abilities of each team member, building trust through open and honest communication, we can gain insight and create a framework for high performing teams.

As Burnley faced the run in of final games that defined the season, neck-to-neck and point-to-point with rivals, there was a calmness and confidence to the team going about their business, a sustained rhythm that all high-performing teams have. Dyche described it as ‘having a strong jaw’.

You could see the degree of focus, awareness and assurance that individuals had, performing in the knowledge that colleagues were equally on top of their game, as despite having four players in the Championship PFA team of the year – Heaton, Keane, Barton and Gray – the PFA player of the year – success was about team rather than individual performance.

So casting an eye over Dyche’s leadership style, and observing his Burnley team shaped in his own persona, personality and guile, what are the attributes of high-performing teams, in terms of their consistency of attaining and sustaining high performance levels and results, we can see in his team?

I believe there are three key attributes:

  • Communication
  • Team Processes
  • Mind-set and self-belief


There was always clearly visible communication between the team on the pitch, and leadership off it, during games. Heaton, captain and goalkeeper was vociferous and organised in front of him with clarity and rigour, Dyche always directing the team with positive and calm instruction, whilst engaged with his management team on the touchline throughout the game.

I admire the work by Alex Pentland, director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab, whose research into team communication found that there are patterns of communication between great teams:

  • Communicate frequently In a typical team a dozen or so communication exchanges per working hour may turn out to be optimum; but more or less than that and team performance can decline.
  • Talk and listen in equal measure, equally among members Lower performing teams have dominant members, teams within teams, and members who talk or listen but don’t do both.
  • Engage in frequent informal communication The best teams spend about half their time communicating outside of formal meetings or as asides during team meetings, increasing opportunities for informal communication tends to increase team performance.
  • Explore for ideas and information outside the group The best teams periodically connect with many different outside sources and bring what they learn back to the team.

Team Processes

Team selection and structure, organisation and discipline were outstanding attributes of the winning Burnley team – fewest yellow cards, no red cards, and eight players made 40+ appearances in a 46 game season. So what are best practices for effective teams that we can see in the Burnley team?

Here are ten themes from Best Practices in Team Leadership by Kevin Stagl, Eduardo Salas, and C. Shawn Burke.

Define and create interdependencies. There is a need to define and structure team members’ roles. Everyone has their position to play, and success happens when all of the players are playing their roles effectively.

Establish goals. Teams need to be focused on shared goals and outcomes. Commitment to that goal is essential for success. Team goals should allow both the team as a unit and the individual members to achieve both personal and group goals.

Determine how teams will make decisions. Whether the leader makes the decision, or it is a democratic or consensus process, the team needs to understand beforehand how decisions will be made. This reduces conflict within the team when a decision or choice has to be made.

Provide clear and constant feedback. Teams need to know how they are doing in order to stay motivated and to correct performance problems or inefficiencies. Ideally, a system should be in place so that team members receive on-going feedback.

Keep team membership stable. It takes a lot of time for team members to learn to work together at an optimum level. In sports, there is a relationship between how long team members have played together and their winning record.

Allow team members to challenge the status quo. It is critical that team members feel secure in being able to challenge processes if they feel that there is a way to improve. In order to innovate, teams need to be open to considering and constructively criticising existing practices when needed.

Learn how to identify and attract talent. Just as processes sometimes need improvement, teams can get better by attracting new talent. Organisations that put a lot of resources into identifying and recruiting talent simply do better.

Use team-based reward systems. Too much emphasis on individual rewards can lead to in-fighting and resentment. A combination of individual and team-based rewards is often best.

Create a learning environment. Emphasise the development of the team, learning through successes, but particularly through mistakes. A team with a culture of continuous improvement and where members are motivated to develop their skills and knowledge are high-performing teams.

Focus on the collective mission. Mission-driven teams perform better because they see beyond their individual workload and tasks and feel as if they are working for a higher purpose. It is imperative that team members be committed to the shared mission, or they should be replaced.


Success is most often achieved by those who don’t know that failure is inevitable. Believe you can and you’re halfway there, as the saying goes. The worst enemy to Burnley on the field would have been their own self-doubt.

So what gave Burnley this self-starter attitude and self-belief, what was their framework for his mental toughness and inner confidence?

Belief in self: First and foremost, every player has to believe in their abilities and strengths. They believed they could make great things happen. I’ve never met a successful person with low self-esteem. Self-belief is vital, how many things have you not done or tried because you lacked belief in yourself? As Eleanor Roosevelt so deftly put it: Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.

Belief in beating the odds: To be successful, we have to be open minded, with no sense of what you cannot do. But, bit-by-bit, life starts to teach you to limit yourself. There is no second-guessing.  As they say, those who say they can and those that say they can’t are both right.  If you don’t believe you can beat the odds – chances are you won’t.

Belief to deal with the inner negative voice: When you start to doubt yourself listen for a moment to that negative inner voice. Whose voice is it really? It’s often a collection of lots of different voices from different times and people from your past that causes self-belief to wane. One thing’s for sure, that inner self-critical voice shouldn’t be yours. It may masquerade as belonging to you now, but it doesn’t really. One of the first steps is to re-examine and discard many of the limiting ideas you have about yourself, ideas that you’ve somehow collected along the way. Get rid of the baggage!

Belief in flipping a weakness into strength: Dumbo, my favourite cartoon character, was humiliated by his outsize ears. He hated them at first. But, through time, he came to use them, to fulfil his destiny, even changing his attitude. Like Dumbo, if we just focus on what is not right about ourselves rather than what is, then we miss opportunities for self-belief. Focusing on perceived weaknesses without either taking steps to improve them or also giving fair focus toward our strengths gets us nowhere. Know that the positive flipside of a weakness, in the right context, can be put to good use.

Belief in perseverance: This is a big attribute of successful people down the years. The obstacles that cause many to quit are minor setbacks for the true champion – relegation in 2015 was a key motivation. Winners persist, losers desist. It is often that simple difference in self-belief that separates the successful person from the frustrated failure.

Belief in the vision: For Dyche, his vision was bigger than just the winning. It was a vision of being part of a champion team. It was never about his personal success, but being part of a collective team. His self-belief got him into the role, his self-belief helped him be part of a winning team.

Life has a unique perspective. Along the way, various landing pages, trials and tribulations will offer themselves up. It’s self-belief that determines your direction and ultimately success – its not how often you’re knocked over but how many times you get up that makes the difference.

Whilst modern football can be disillusioning for supporters, this squad played like they were all born and raised in Burnley. The communication, team processes and dynamics, and self-belief were palpable underpinnings of their success. So was their strong jaw when it mattered most.

We must all hang together assuredly or we shall all hang separately, said Benjamin Franklin. For many organisations, developing highly successful teams can be a tricky task. Simply putting talented individuals together does not always deliver the best results. In an increasingly competitive world high performing teams is critical to success.

High performance teams have a mentality to succeed

Burnley and Bolton dished up a fierce Lancashire derby on Saturday in their Sky Bet Championship league match, the Clarets edging it 2-1 and this morning stand proudly at the top of the league. A large, noisy following of 4,500 Clarets supporters filled up the top and bottom two tiers of the away end at Bolton, providing a quite raucous cacophony of sound.

Twelve games to go in the race to the Premiership, and the Clarets are relentless in their pursuit of a second promotion in three seasons. With a league record of Pl34 W18 D11 L5, Burnley has sustained a place in the Championship’s top five since September. It’s a tight knit squad, Burnley have used the least number of players in the division with only 20 starting league games.

Manager Sean Dyche believes their togetherness and group mentality will play a massive part in their ability to continue to compete for promotion. Dyche is methodical in his trade, articulate and intelligent in his analysis and communication, respectful to the opposition and has an enthusiasm for research with a learner’s mentality – a powerful combination for an effective manager leading a high-performance team.

Examples of high performing teams are pervasive. From surgical teams to Cirque du Soleil to emergency rescue teams, these teams showcase their accomplishments, insights, and enthusiasm and are a persuasive testament to the power of teamwork. The excel because team members apply a strong combination of diverse skill sets and experiences to their work, agree on common goals and expectations, communicate clearly, foster an environment of trust, and take individual ownership in the success

Teams are more successful in pressure environments when they capitalise on the team’s strengths, interests and capabilities and focus on building a sense of community, a teamship if you like. By understanding how teams form and become dysfunctional, harnessing the talents, skills and abilities of each team member and building trust through open and honest communication, we can gain insight and create a framework for high performing teams.

So casting an eye over Dyche’s leadership style, and observing his Burnley team, shaped in his own persona, personality and guile, what are the attributes of high-performing teams, in terms of their consistency of attaining and sustaining high performance levels and results?

There is clear unity of purpose Make the team’s purposes clear, and articulate the team’s performance goals. There should be free discussion of the objectives until members can commit themselves to them, ensuring the objectives are meaningful to each team member.

Clarify each person’s role in achieving the common purpose Define each person’s role in terms of its contribution to the team’s overall goals. This must be done in specific terms, not in vague generalities.

The group is self-conscious about its own operation The group has taken time to explicitly discuss group process – how the group will function to achieve its objectives. The group has a clear, explicit, and mutually agreed-upon approach on mechanics, norms, expectations, rules, etc. Frequently, it will stop to examine and reflect how well it is doing.

Alignment It goes without saying that trust, respect and camaraderie are underpinning essentials for a high-performing team to sustain a high level of performance. The team values cooperation, coherence and interdependence when the team has a common mission and purpose, and as Jim Collins states, Getting the “right people on the right seats on the bus” is more important than planning “where the bus should go” An army without a goal is just a bunch of violent men.

Each individual carries themself Meeting or exceeding the expectations of other team members, each individual is respectful of the mechanics of the group – arriving on time, coming prepared, completing agreed upon tasks on time, etc. When action is taken, clears assignments are made (who-what-when) and willingly accepted and completed by each group member.

The atmosphere tends to be informal, comfortable, relaxed There are no obvious tensions, it’s a working atmosphere in which people are involved and interested. People are free in expressing their feelings as well as their ideas. There is a lot of discussion in which virtually everyone participates but it remains pertinent to the purpose of the group. Team members listen to each other, every idea is given a hearing. People are not afraid by putting forth a different idea, even if it seems extreme.

Criticism is frequent, frank and relatively comfortable Criticism has a constructive flavour, oriented toward removing an obstacle that faces the group. However, those who disagree with the general agreement of the group do not keep their opposition private and let an apparent consensus mask their disagreement. The group does not accept a simple majority as a proper basis for action.

Acknowledge success, and reward the team as a whole Celebrate the team achieving important milestones. Acknowledgments of incremental successes can be more motivating than big end-of-project rewards. Keep in mind that the team review can never take the place of individual performance reviews.

Acknowledge success, and reward everyone individually, including a review of his or her teamwork As members of a team, the expectations and criteria for individual performance include showing a spirit of cooperation, engaging in good communication with others, and being willing to help others solve problems or get through crunch times. If feasible, encourage all team members to provide meaningful feedback to one another. Be sure to give each team member specific feedback about his or her strengths and any unique role that the person served on the team rather than just focusing on problems or performance gaps.

Pay attention to conflicts when they arise It’s natural for conflict to arise when people work together with intensity. Conflict, handled well, can produce constructive ideas. Sometimes team members will annoy each other, step on each other’s toes, or hurt each other’s feelings. Honest disagreements can become personal and heated. Let problems come to the surface and avoid the impulse to demand that the team members ‘just let it go’, unpack it and resolve it fully.

A sense of modesty & equality Modesty is critical to developing and maintaining positive working relationships. An individual whose ego is so self-inflated with their own self-worth will quickly run into trouble. Team members will reject and avoid them, productivity will suffer. Everyone in a high-performing team contributes through assigned roles. While there are different levels of responsibility, they still deserve to be treated with respect.

Make sure team members interact Encourage team members to ask each other for help and to offer it to each other. Synergy on teams is achieved when team members feel comfortable speaking up with suggestions that build on the creativity of other team members. This requires collaboration not competition.

So that’s the positive side of teams, but what we also need to consider is that things can come off the rails. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni describes the many pitfalls that teams face as they seek to ‘row together’. He explores the fundamental causes of organisational politics and team failure. According to Lencioni, there are five dysfunctions of teams:

  • Absence of trust: unwilling to be vulnerable within the group
  • Fear of conflict: seeking artificial harmony over constructive passionate debate
  • Lack of commitment: feigning buy-in for group decisions creates ambiguity throughout the organisation
  • Avoidance of accountability: ducking the responsibility to call peers on counterproductive behaviour which sets low standards
  • Inattention to results: focusing on personal success, status and ego before team success

Teams that are cohesive, productive, and efficient don’t happen by accident and counter the above threats with their cadence and self-awareness. Successful teams are cohesive because team members work cooperatively, sharing common goals as well as the resources to achieve them. They are productive, not because team members never disagree, but because they have worked out ways to resolve conflicts when they occur.

They are efficient because tasks are assigned in a way that takes into account each member’s skills and interests, rather than letting the team be dominated by the most verbal, most aggressive, or most popular personalities. Managers play an essential role in developing and leading teams that work in these ways.

As Burnley face the run in of twelve games that will define the season, there is a calmness and confidence to the team going about their business, there is a sustained rhythm that all high-performing teams have. You can see the degree of focus, awareness and assurance that individuals have, performing in the knowledge that colleagues are equally on top of their game.

These are good times, when a slightly unfashionable, unheralded team is playing football with a streak of independence that is so invigorating for the people of the town who can be forgiven for wondering whether it could ever get any better.

Football is a team game played with eagerness and passion, based on simple philosophies such as running fast, tackling hard, moving from one end of the pitch to the other end quickly, using simple, direct, forward passes and then, crossing, shooting and heading whenever you are anywhere near the goal. It’s simplicity, like any team, is in the fact that the success is based on unity and collective purpose, and strong leadership.

Well-integrated, high-performing teams – those that ‘click’ – never lose sight of their goals and are largely self-sustaining. In fact, they seem to take on a life of their own. Besides the quality of the team, it all comes down to leadership. Research shows that sustained high performance teams always have a leader who creates the environment and establishes the operating principles and values that are conducive to high performance. The leadership formula involves working backwards – leaders envisage the future before dealing with the present.

The four most significant behaviours consistently demonstrated by high-impact leaders in high-performing teams are:

  • Defining clear goals or a vision of the future in accordance with overall organisational aims (the ‘big picture’)
  • Creating blueprints for action to achieve those goals
  • Using language to build trust, encourage forward thinking and create energy within the team by powerful conversations.
  • Getting the right people involved

Smells like team spirit at Burnley, on and off the pitch. As Dyche said after Saturday’s victory at Bolton, they know the mentality to be successful and we have that in abundance.



Lessons from the Hakone Ekiden for building Startup teams

The Hakone Ekiden, which ran on 2 and 3 January, was compelling viewing on television – I’ve finally got round to catching up this week. It has a lot to tell us about Japanese culture, besides signposting some lessons for building startup teams.

Under Mount Fuji’s gaze, a runner collapses into his teammates’ arms, sobbing as he retches, legs flailing like a newborn colt’s, delirious from wringing strength from his body. The end of the punishing mountain stage of the Hakone Ekiden university relay race, the crowd still give him a cheer as loud as the winner’s, even though he has just suffered the humiliation of clocking the worst time in a field of twenty as he finishes last.

Hakone Ekiden, which is officially called Tokyo-Hakone Round-Trip College Ekiden Race is one of the most prominent university ekiden (relay marathon) races of the year in Japan. This two-day race from Ōtemachi to Hakone and back is separated into five sections on each day. Due to slight variations in the courses, the first day distance is 108.0 km while the distance on the second day is 109.9 km. Only male runners are allowed to run.

Five sections are provided between Tokyo and Hakone each way. Each runner runs one section, switching with his next teammate at a station. Each team has ten runners, running with their teams’ sashes, which are handed over to the next runner on the team at each station, like a baton in a traditional relay race. If a runner cannot get to a station within twenty minutes after the top runner reached it, the next runner starts with a substitute sash. The time difference is added to the total team time.

Twenty universities participate, ten of them are seeded teams that qualify by virtue of finishing in the top ten the previous year. The 2016 individual winner was Kazuma Kubota, and his team Aoyama Gakuin University, which for nine decades had a blank victory slate, won for the second year in a row.

Hakone Ekiden was started in 1920. Shizo Kanaguri, who is known as the father of the Japanese marathon, conceived the race. His enthusiastic idea of bringing up a runner who could compete in the world became the driving force of establishing the event. When Kanaguri was a student, he participated in Olympic Games in Stockholm in 1912 as one of the representative Japanese marathon runners. He had to give up his race on the way, however, and thus failed to finish.

The course starts in central Tokyo and runs out of the city, up the mountains to the foot of Mount Fuji. The next day, it turns around and runs back again. All of the ten stages are very close to a half marathon in distance. For Japan, the Hakone Ekiden is one of the biggest sporting events of the year and a ritual of national bonding. Values of grit and teamwork are bundled into a romantic package of nostalgia for youth. The Hakone Ekiden is a good way to understand individual and team strengths.

Celebrated attributes of cooperation, duty, bloody-mindedness and perfectionism are distilled into twelve hours of oddly riveting viewing. The key image is the university sash, called the tasuki, passed from one runner to the next until the final leg. It symbolises the paradox of a collective endeavour that relies on the loneliness of individual achievement. Therein also lies its emotional and physicality of what constitutes hard work.

None of this prevents Hakone from being one of the world’s most beautiful races. In the end, it’s all about the runners with their vast reservoirs of heart, strength and talent. Even when hope is lost, they give everything they have. It is Japan’s biggest sporting event of the year. Nike, Mizuno, Oakley and other sports companies all release special Hakone-branded products.

One reason the race is so compelling is because the whole dynamic changes every time the teams hand over the baton, the tasuki. A team that was trailing finds its star man on top form and suddenly it’s back in the race. Or a runner starting with a big lead falters, the chasers hunt him down, and it’s game on again. It’s like someone takes the race at every changeover and gives it a big shake, before settling it down again to see what happens. The lead ebbs and flows. I left feeling as though I’ve witnessed something epic. The greatest race on Earth? It just may be.

At some point in the various twists and turns in our startup journeys we embark upon, we can find ourselves in similar situations. We may get to a stage where we feel like giving up. Sometimes we give up before we even start and other times we give up just before we are about to make that huge breakthrough that we have been putting so much effort in to achieve. Stories like the Hakone Ekiden show we should never give up, and how collaboration between individuals can be truly game changing.

In the stormy seas of a startup, we need all hands on deck, we need people to own their work, not just rent a space on the organisation chart. We need everyone to be committed and engaged, building a culture of ownership where each and every member of the crew are inspired to think and act like partners in the enterprise, and not just hired hands. Collaborative, individual teamwork releases the synergies and efficiencies – many hands make light work.

However, collaboration isn’t quite as straightforward as you think. In his research entitled Six Common Misperceptions about Teamwork, Professor J R Hackman, Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard University – brings to light a number of issues. Whilst teamwork and collaboration are critical to achievement in any organisation that has to respond quickly to changing circumstances, his research has not only affirmed that idea but also surfaced a number of mistaken beliefs about teamwork that can sidetrack productive collaboration.

So what is the impact on building an effective startup team?

Belief: Harmony helps. Smooth interaction among collaborators avoids time-wasting debates about how best to proceed.

Reality: Quite the opposite, research shows conflict, when well managed and focused on a team’s objectives, can generate more creative solutions than one would expect to see. Research on symphony orchestras shows that slightly ‘grumpy’ orchestras played better as ensembles than those whose members worked together harmoniously. The tension stirs a reaction, creating personal and collective energy to make it happen.

Belief: It’s good to mix it up. New members bring energy and fresh ideas to a team, without them, members risk becoming complacent.

Reality: The longer members stay together as an intact group, the better they do. As unreasonable as this may seem, the research evidence is unambiguous. Whether it is a rugby team or a fire brigade unit, teams that stay together longer play together better. New talent can be disruptive.

Research into the achievement of Michelin stars by top-notch restaurant kitchens illustrate this. Chefs of all ranks require a number of months to fully become in tune with the workflow, menu, layout and systems in a new kitchen. In addition to the more formal, structured aspects of working in the kitchen, they must also work to find their place within the team, to prove themselves and become a productive member of the unit.

High turnover means that many kitchens are being held back as their team never fully matures to a point of achieving their optimal results and an intuitive collaboration that top performance requires achieving the Michelin star rating.

Belief: Bigger is better, we need more people on our team to achieve growth.

Reality: Excessive size is one of the most common impediments to effective collaboration. The larger the group, the higher the likelihood of loafing and free riding, and the more effort it takes to keep members’ activities coordinated. Small teams are more efficient, the sense of camaraderie and team spirit of a tightly-knit team can often leverage a greater degree of output – it’s the David v Goliath situation, and research shows the Davids win in 29% of situations when facing a Goliath who has ten-times the scale of resources – underdogs win more often than you think because of the collaborative spirit and energy.

Belief: Face-to-face interaction is passé, technology makes us just as productive.

Reality: Teams working remotely are at a considerable disadvantage. There really are benefits to sizing up your teammates face-to-face. Organisations that rely heavily on virtual or distributed teams have found that it is well worth the effort, time and cost to get members together when the team is launched, again around the midpoint of the team’s work, and yet again when the work has been completed for shared reflection and learning.

Belief: It all depends on the leader.

Reality: The hands-on activities of leaders do make a difference, but the most powerful thing a leader can do to foster effective collaboration is to create conditions that help members competently manage themselves. Research suggests that condition-creating accounts for about 60% of the variation in how well a team eventually performs; that the quality of the team launch accounts for another 30%; and that real-time coaching accounts for only about 10%. Leaders are important in collaborative work, but not in the ways we usually think.

Belief: Teamwork is serendipity.

Reality: The best leaders provide a clear statement of what the team’s goals are, and they make sure that the team has the resources and support needed to succeed.

Structured goals and adequate support are lacking in the majority of teams. Non-financials goals are often not communicated clearly and newly recruited managers are expected to take up the job and work towards accomplishing positive results for today, without being given any structured idea as to what the future goals are with any real clarity, and yet at the same time provide their team with a strong sense of direction. Teamwork just doesn’t happen, teams need to know which direction they’re heading.

Collaboration cannot be deployed; it must be embraced, an although collaboration is about decentralising, it has to start at the top.

Watching the footage and listening to interviews and narrative from Tokyo, four principles stood out for me as being at the heart of their successful collaboration:

Appreciation First and foremost collaboration requires a mutual appreciation of each other’s abilities, skills, knowledge and ideas – a sense that none of us are as smart as all of us. People who value and appreciate what others have to say naturally gravitate towards each other and are key attributes for team building. There are no menial jobs, only menial attitudes.

Trust is built on appreciation. It’s easier to trust someone who appreciates us than vice versa. Trust from leaders means people will go that extra mile to challenge their thinking and incorporate the learning. Trust from below keeps the wheels spinning, and trust between individuals ensures an efficient engine.

Commitment is about a sense among individuals that the commitment of one to doing what it takes to deliver the project will be matched by the other. It triggers spontaneous action, enhancing creativity, motivation and ultimately innovation. If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. It was commitment to the team effort and ignoring the personal glory that stood out for the winning team in Japan.

Recognition Altruism is essential for collaboration. It is not the driving force, but it is a key lubricant and nothing kills altruism quicker than failing to give recognition to those who made a difference. Recognise all the people who were pivotal to making something happen, they are the connectors who extend a hand beyond departmental walls, divisional barriers and bring things to life. If we don’t recognise their achievement the bonds weaken over time.

What I saw from the Hakone Ekiden were the essential characteristics for building a culture of ownership that creates, sustains and builds unity and collaboration in a successful startup. The bottom line for me is that collaboration is hard. Its success depends on making the work more important than any one individual. It asks us to find personal satisfaction in the joint effort. But, all hands on deck, collaborative efforts produce some pretty amazing results.

How NASA recruits astronauts: lessons for building your startup team

We stand at a pivotal moment in space exploration. Humankind is making plans to further extend
its reach into the solar system, and NASA is leading the way.

Their orbiting outpost, the International Space Station (ISS), is home to a crew of astronauts from across the world conducting research
and learning how to live and work in space. Their robotic explorers probe diverse regions of the solar system, and they are preparing for a challenging
mission to capture and redirect an asteroid for human

All of this is a stepping-stone to future human exploration of
Mars, and as part of this, we are also witnessing the birth of a new commercial space industry, with two tech entrepreneurs getting involved – Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s startup, Blue Origin, is a JV with Boeing building a space taxi, to deliver astronauts for NASA to the ISS. There is a budding rivalry with Elon Musk, founder and CEO of Space Exploration Technologies – SpaceX. Both men have been moving aggressively to stake claims in manned exploration and new rocket engines. SpaceX designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft. The company was founded to revolutionise space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.

NASA’s long-term goal is to send humans to Mars. Over the next two decades, they will develop and demonstrate the technologies and capabilities needed to send humans to explore the red plane. So it’s against this backdrop that as of today, 14 December, NASA is accepting applications for the position of astronaut.

This is very poignant to me, just 34 years too late for my ideal career. Accountant, Actuary and Astronaut were the three career choices my Careers Officer at school suggested – she was a bit lazy when reading the ‘A to Z of Careers’ book. Well, I say suggested, she gave me the book and I didn’t get beyond ‘A’ and convinced her there was an entry for ‘Astronaut’. Only 536 people have been to space, only twelve have walked on the moon. I feel I’ve missed out.

The Apollo space programme has always resonated with me, I was there. I saw Neil Armstrong take his giant leap for mankind from my parents’ living room perched on my grandfather’s knee. I can still recall the black & white images on the television screen. It’s a clear memory of a unique moment in history, and also a poignant and warm memory about my grandfather, who died later that year.

So if you’ve always dreamed of being an astronaut, you’re in luck – NASA is recruiting. Think you have the right stuff to be an astronaut? What are the requirements to apply?

Those interested in applying must be US citizens and have a degree in engineering, biological science, physical science or mathematics. They must also have three years of professional experience or 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command time in jet aircraft. Candidates must also pass the long-duration spaceflight physical.

There are also specific physical attributes in the job specification, for example distant visual acuity: 20/100 or better uncorrected, correctable to 20/20, each eye; Blood pressure 140/90 measured in a sitting position; height between 62 and 75 inches.

NASA will accept applications from 14 December 2015 to February 2016. If you think you’ve got what it takes, you can apply for the job online. The starting salary is $65k, rising to $100k with experience. There will be lots of travel away from home, all expenses paid travel, with overnight allowances.

NASA recruits on a timeline based on a future launch programme, and it’s a 22-month recruitment process was announced in November, and applications close February 2016. These will be reviewed and assessed by September 2016, with informal interviews in December 2016.

Thereafter, medicals and orientations take place (April 2017), short list confirmed (May 2017), and further interviews undertaken until the astronaut class of 2017 is announced June 2017, and they start August 2017. They may get into space between 2019 to 2022.

Whilst professional background, qualifications and physical attributes are important, perhaps it’s surprising to learn that the most extensive evaluation and analysis in the process is of candidates’ soft skill sets, in a framework developed by Charles Pellerin, called ‘4-D’, based around four dimensions, with intuitive and sensory skills on one axis, and logic and emotional the other. This is given a 40% weighting of candidate fit and suitability to the role.

In the 4-D framework, Pellerin developed a 2×2 matrix:

  • Emotional & Intuitive skills: authentic to others, shows mutual respect; respects shared interests; energises collaboration – categorised as ‘Green’ people;
  • Emotional & Sensory skills: authentic and aligned, includes others, keeps to their agreements, high trustworthiness – ‘Yellow’ people;
  • Logical & Intuitive skills: 100% committed and a strong, ‘in the moment’ thinker; expresses reality based optimism, sustained and effective creativity – ‘Blue’ People;
  • Logical & Sensory skills: shows clear accountability and authority in the role for achievable expectations; resists blaming others, is outcome focused – ‘Orange’ people.

The astronaut cohort are thus recruited against these attributes and traits to provide a balance of ‘people types’, as well as their functional expertise – people, teams, ideas and systems are the four key dimensions:

  • ‘Greens’ are people builders, care deeply about people and create strong loyalty. Their roles are training, coaching and leading complex teams, cultivating people and their needs;
  • ‘Yellows’ are team builders, seeking harmonious teams and work with difficult and complex situation to unite them. They lead large, complex teams and create trustworthy relationships;
  • ‘Blues’ are idea builders, fonts of creative ideas, demand innovation, and typically have roles in research and early stage projects, visioning the best possible;
  • ‘Oranges’ are systems builders, disciplined, focused on control and process, skills for managing late phase projects, directing and organising people.

In many ways launching a new business parallels launching a space mission. There’s so much that can go wrong and there’s always the chance that the start-up could fail. According to Bloomberg, 80% of new businesses do fail. In the early days of shuttle launches, the risk of having a catastrophic event – that is, death – was 1 in 9. According to an astronaut saying, There is no problem so bad that you can’t make it worse, which is a positive mindset to take into your startup.

Astronauts are trained to be expert pilots, but it is their soft skills ability to perform while living on the edge, and knack for succeeding in doing what others say is impossible, which NASA see as what truly sets them apart.

Successful entrepreneurs possess many of these same character traits.  They devote themselves to their business goals and work tirelessly to achieve the necessary momentum to launch their new business.  Launching rockets and new businesses require great skill to guide the projects into an unknown realm. Close examination of human space exploration may provide strategies to help make a new business ‘take off and stay in orbit’.

Successful entrepreneurs are focused on the speed at which they launch their business. They recognise that success comes with patience and hard work too.

The astronaut’s story of sheer persistence, tenacity and of taking pleasure in the journey speaks to anyone who goes into a business for the sake of purpose. The description of the preparation for the launch, the excitement around the possibility of being in space and then awe in being weightless is a great metaphor for building a business and realising a dream, zeroing in on what’s important. Their combination of vision, conviction, and stubborn tenacity make them unstoppable visionaries.

So, think like an astronaut, look to the future, and adopt this state of mind. Think about what the future is going to be and how you can help create it. Just like an astronaut, work on things no one else is working on and be willing to take risks to make discoveries. It’s clear that high soaring embody many of the traits that epitomise high soaring entrepreneurs. One thing for sure, neither is a journey for the meek and timid.

Talent makes capital dance is a phrase I’ve coined to recognise the pivotal importance of talent in a start up, and the people-teams-ideas-systems theme from Pellerin is a useful framework to consider when thinking about your startup team. So what insights can we take from NASA for building breakthrough startup teams? What can entrepreneurs learn from astronauts?

  • Define the importance of human capital in your startup business model
  • Create a long-term road map for talent acquisition and development
  • Remember, you are curating a team for the future, not recruiting individuals for today
  • Don’t treat hiring staff as an admin process, recognise the strategic business value of talent acquisition
  • Have a high regard for soft kills – emotional, logical, intuition and sensory
  • Recruit people who show a desire for learning, who are curious for knowledge curation and development
  • Recruit on attitude, potential and aptitude – skills can be developed by training
  • Ensure there is a cultural fit, everyone is team oriented
  • Appreciate the scarcity of the right talent for your business model, but don’t compromise
  • Understand it is an investment, not a cost
  • Recall NASA’s view – missions fail because we have the wrong people, not the wrong technology – make your startup people centric, not product centric

One perspective is to have a hipster, a hacker, and a hustler on your founding team. Dave McLure has described this combination as the minimum viable team, where he sees attitude and mindset as the key enablers of startup success.

The first couple of months for a startup are a bit like the big bang at the beginning of a rocket from its Launchpad. Lots of key decisions with far reaching consequences get made in a short period of time so at this stage it’s important that the team is both supporting and challenging, stressing the importance of strong characters who can work together.

Everyone in the founding team should test and probe thinking, operate as a sounding board to each other, helping with the emotional challenges of startup life, responding positively to pressure when things don’t go to plan. Certain people thrive in a startup atmosphere, while the unpredictability can drive others crazy. Finding the right blend of ingredients in the perfect startup team isn’t easy.

An individual, who when strapped to a 4.4 million pound bomb being propelled at 7,500 mph from the launch pad, with the responsibility of billions of pounds worth of equipment and years of peoples’ dedicated time on their shoulders, still manages to keep their heartbeat in the 70-90 beats per minute range – the same beat range us mere mortals experience during a brisk walk to the local shop for a pint of milk – that’s when you need an astronaut in your startup. It’s not rocket science, it’s people science.