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.

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