A perfect storm is an expression that describes an event where a rare combination of circumstances aggravates an environment drastically. In the entrepreneur world, I feel we are in such a situation now for new startups, with the confluence of business transformations, the explosion of new digital technologies, and the political turmoil around the world.
It’s easier and cheaper to start a company than ever before, yet it’s tougher than ever to survive. It takes a “well-oiled” multi-disciplined and motivated team to win, and yet I see and hear all too often about teams that are well-funded and smart, but don’t work well together, or are downright dysfunctional.
The challenge they face is not unlike that described in the classic sailing book “Into the Storm,” by Dennis N. T. Perkins, where a team of amateurs applied some key lessons in teamwork while surviving and winning a treacherous Sydney to Hobart Ocean Race. Here are ten principles from the book that I’ve easily extrapolated to the business startup environment:
- Team unity: Make the team, not an individual, the rock star. Flat management is the business term to describe an environment where all members of the team feel they are part of the whole, that each has a key role to play, and each can express their views without jeopardy. There are no individual superstars or bosses with special perks.
- Prepare, prepare, prepare: Remove all excuses for failure. Winning teams set out to ensure that every element of the system is known to all and is functioning to the best of their combined ability. Make sure no one has an excuse for failure. That means preparing for things that could go wrong, as well as driving things efficiently that go right.
- Balanced optimism: Find and focus on the winning scenario. In business, startups will inevitably encounter setbacks, and need to pivot. The first step is to define “winning.” Is it more customers, more revenue, more profit, or killing competitors? Of course, all of these are important, but everyone needs to prioritize the same way during a crisis.
- Relentless learning: Build a gung-ho culture of learning and innovation. The very best teams learn the most quickly from experience. That means they take action, reflect on outcomes, and gain insights that help them continuously improve. Innovation and new ideas are the norm, rather than maintain status quo, or charge straight ahead.
- Calculated risk: Be willing to sail into the storm. Great business teams accept that every startup is “a big risk,” and there is no quick path to safety. Winning requires situational awareness, which means always understanding the critical success factors, and working to stay aware of current business realities around you.
- Stay connected: Cut through the noise of the wind and the waves. The information blizzard in business is just as noisy as on the stormy ocean. Don’t let it be further clouded by political concerns and turf battles. Everyone needs to personalize communication, warn others of big waves, and even break protocol to help others when required.
- Step into the breach: Find ways to share the helm. In adversity, any given team member can be faced with a burden too heavy for one person to carry. A good team draws on each other’s strengths, and shares the load. At the top, this is called distributive leadership, which lessens the burden on the formal leader.
- Eliminate friction: Step up to the conflict, and deal with the things that slow you down. Fix the problem, not the blame. Confront differences in ability without blame, and add training, coaching, or education, and eliminate excess weight, before the storm. Humor can help alleviate anxiety and mitigate conflict, providing time to solve the crisis.
- Practiced resilience: Master the art of rapid recovery. Startups need people who thrive under pressure, meaning they are resilient and have a high stress hardiness. They enjoy change and look at problems as a challenge, rather than a burden. They measure success in terms of recovery time, and strive to make it shorter.
- Tenacious creativity: Never give up – there is always another move. Determination and creativity under pressure make a team unstoppable – on the ocean or in business. The “proud moments” of successful teams are the times when they come together in the face of adversity and win.
Some startup founders try to dodge the team-building challenge by single-handedly doing all the work, or establishing a monarchy where only one voice counts. Neither of these strategies can succeed, since even a small business will soon scale too big for one person to manage everything.
If you are a new entrepreneur, you need to realize that you can’t win by sailing around the edges of the perfect storm ahead. You have to hit it with an innovative plan, and you need a confident and disciplined team to get you through it. Are you ready to rock and roll?