Build a thriving team in your startup, not just an array of digital tools

In any startup business, we are immersed in apps and devices that provide a high degree of visibility, connectivity and productivity enabling collaboration, removing boundaries and barriers. Yet the conundrum of this is that as we build culture and a team with shared values and purpose, we are consciously reducing the amount of meaningful human interaction we have with each other.

Much recent tech innovation has been about creating a workplace with less human interaction, enabling remote working, virtual teams and sharing. These tech tools don’t claim that eliminating the need to deal with humans directly is its primary goal, but it is the outcome in a surprising number of cases.

I’m not saying that these new technologies are not hugely convenient and beneficial, but in a sense, they run counter to who we are as human beings. Human interaction is often perceived as complicated, inefficient, noisy, and slow, and the focus is on reducing the friction. For startups, the essence is that it is a coming together that is messy and inefficient as new relationships form.

Look at Amazon, initially it was about making books available that we didn’t find locally – what a great idea – but it eliminates human contact and chatting about books to strangers you stand next to at the bookshop shelf. This then, is the new norm as we read about algorithms, AI, robots, AR/VR and self-driving cars, all of which fit this pattern.

Online ordering and home delivery is hugely convenient, digital music downloads and streaming likewise don’t require a visit to a physical store. In both, some services offer algorithmic recommendations, so you don’t even have to discuss books and music with your friends to find new stuff. But isn’t the function of books and music as a social glue and lubricant also being eliminated?

Then there is ‘social media’ which offers interaction that isn’t really social, and the emergence of some hugely negative side effects of this phenomenon too – for us as a society, less contact and less real interaction seems to be leading to less tolerance and understanding of differences, and more antagonism.

On one hand these innovations are efficient and convenient, but they remove the human inter-relationships. I use many of them myself, but we have evolved as social creatures, and our ability to cooperate and forge relationships is one of the big factors in our success.

I would argue that social interaction and cooperation, the kind that makes us who we are, is something our tools can augment but not replace. Minimising interaction has some knock-on effects – the externalities of efficiency, one might say.

So back to a startup, bursting with talent a clutch of digital tools. When we are working in solo mode, we believe work can be done effectively through the digital domain, our rational thinking convinces us that much of our interaction can be reduced to a series of logical decisions. As behavioural economists tell us, we don’t behave rationally, even though we think we do. Bayesians will tell us that interaction is how we revise our picture of what is going on and what will happen next.

Humans are capricious, emotional and irrational in what sometimes seem like counterproductive ways. It often seems that our quick-thinking will be our downfall. With humans being somewhat unpredictable (well, until an algorithm completely removes that illusion), we get the benefit of surprises, happy accidents, unexpected connections and intuitions. Interaction and face-to-face collaboration with others multiplies those ­opportunities.

So, how do we build the people side of a startup, having a range of digital tools that can bring us together, yet at the same time push us apart? Meeteor, a consultancy business that exists to empower people individually and collectively to work smarter and happier, has identified the concept of ‘thriving teams’ to create a more fulfilling the collaboration experience.

Thriving teams are multi-dimensional. Of course, there is a focus on achieving high performance and delivering stellar output, yet they also value each member, strive for workplace balance, and create a culture of learning and engagement. Meeteor has identified the most important elements of a thriving team. These elements are not mutually exclusive, and, in fact, overlap and influence each other.

Balance Achieving balance means more than work-life harmony. In a startup it’s all about getting stuff done, attention to learning and experimentation can be easily compromised. While people may be driven by their work, they may also suffer from the focus that comes with it.

A thriving team is mindful of the importance of balance. A thriving team walks the line between team performance and individual learning, accomplishing tasks and mastering processes, achieving results and maintaining well-being. A thriving team honours the tension between learning and performance as key to success and sustainability.

Common Purpose and Direction Purpose plays this critical role because it is the source of the meaning and significance people seek in what they do. A startup team’s purpose should guide their day-to-day actions. A shared purpose and direction anchor teams in time of growth with new members joining rapidly.

Effective Communication Effective communication is the engine of a thriving team. MIT Human Dynamics Laboratory found that when people connect directly with one another and establish communication channels, they are more likely to be successful.

On the other hand, when a team doesn’t encourage open communication and transparency, people work in silos and don’t share information that could be helpful for each other. A thriving team needs to invest in developing the right mindset and skills for effective communication, encouraging inclusivity and transparency. This strikes at the core of the digital debate.

Shared Accountability and Support Team alignment on purpose and direction does not guarantee effective execution, a consensus on shared accountability and outlaw negative behaviours like missing deadlines or letting work fall through the cracks, can harm a team’s performance and culture. When people feel a sense of shared ownership, they contribute to each other’s success, holding each other accountable for individual and team results. They set high performance standards and count on each other to deliver high quality work.

Mutual Trust In his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni identifies ‘absence of trust’ as a root cause of team dysfunction. Without trust, team members may not feel safe to express themselves or be vulnerable. They may avoid sharing their ideas, taking risks or giving feedback. This hurts the team’s performance and relationships.

A thriving team is trusting and trustworthy, they are more willing to share knowledge, resources and new ideas, which builds the team’s capacity to innovate and achieve greater results.

Norms and Processes Norms and processes – whether implicit or explicit – determine how a team gets its work done. They guide behaviour by defining the team workflow and client delivery. A thriving team has effective work processes in place and follows them consistently to accomplish work. Team members periodically reflect on and improve their processes.

The team establishes helpful norms that support effective teamwork, such as decision making valuing all voices, encouraging innovation, and rewarding experimentation (even if it fails).

Meaningful Engagement It’s accepted that engaged employees produce better business outcomes than other employees do. Being engaged in work is a crucial component of high performance, productivity and retention, regardless of an organization’s size. Meaningful engagement means cultivating a culture in which people care about and are fulfilled by their work, build healthy relationships, and co-create a workplace that they care about.

Building and sustaining a thriving team is a dynamic and ongoing process, an important growth objective for a startup. I like the imagery of a ‘thriving team’, one where energy, camaraderie and respect exists. It relies on the team getting to know each other, bonding and forming relationships.

At the same time, digital technology is having a profound effect on the human side of the enterprise, affecting where, when, and how employees get work done. Are the two compatible? The results of Deloitte’s Future of Work survey confirm that the ways in which new technologies will shape organisations and leadership roles as a topic of critical importance. Some 65% of those surveyed say it is a strategic objective to transform their organisation’s culture with a focus on increasing connectivity, communication, and collaboration.

Even as more business functions are augmented by new technology capabilities to uplift productivity, people remain the most critical asset of an organisation. Going forward, those people will be working in a more networked, distributed, mobile, collaborative, and real-time fluid manner. Such significant shifts will demand not only increased adaptability on the part of employees, but deliberate forethought on how digital communication tools are used.

Digital technologies offer the opportunity to create a more connected, if less engaging environment for employees, and a more adaptive organisation for the future in terms of automation. However, we need to create context, as we move away from email and toward more sophisticated collaboration tools and virtual teaming technologies.

New tools alone are not enough. As we sit on the cusp of potentially more sweeping technology-enabled changes from AI and more sophisticated algorithms, we need to develop the right cultural context for these new tools and adapt workplace processes and policies to make the most of digital capabilities on the way.

We need to build networks, not hierarchies, place more focus on facilitating the exchange of ideas, enabling the flow of conversations across the organisation, and providing greater autonomy at team and individual levels going forward. This shift from accountability to enabling organisational construct will be a critical component to the future of work. Digital tools must enable an empowered network of employees capable of acting autonomously, rather than waiting for direction.

Silence is one of the great arts of conversation. Sometimes you have to disconnect to stay connected. Remember the old days when you had eye contact during a conversation? When everyone wasn’t looking down at a device in their hands, or screen in front of them? We’ve become so focused on that tiny screen that we sometimes forget the big picture, the people right in front of us.

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