3 Fundamental Alignments for Startup Teams
It Takes a Team to Win
Yes, it takes a team to win. But not just any team.
A team that wins together!
You've heard or maybe said: "we need to align the team".
But what parts need alignment and to what? How do you connect what you want to do to the people on the team? How do you imbue agency into the team so they are connected to the outcomes?
3 Fundamental Alignments
I've built teams in several startups and Fortune 500 companies in Product Management, Product Marketing, Engineering, Sales Engineering, Finance, HR, Customer Service, Professional Services and more.
I believe these teams improved at each turn by selecting people using
4 key personality traits and aligning the team in three fundamental areas:
Values, Vision, and Execution. In that order.
Each fundamental alignment stacks on one another, like layers of foundation.
If a single layer is weak, the entire company is compromised.
I use the word "shared" to emphasize that if any of these three areas are held by anything less than everyone on the startup team, impact and efficacy is neutered.
How do you ensure "shared" nature of these elements?
Through shared experiences. As founder you must create opportunities for the entire startup team to experience each element together.
Keep reading for more info about how to think about each alignment and how to drive shared experiences.
Shared Values - Building Blocks of Culture
To me, values are the building blocks of culture. Culture is the "way of life" in your startup. Culture is expressed through ordinary behavior, habits, attitudes and moral beliefs. I.e. How people treat each other and make decisions. Culture constantly evolves in your startup. Values are the principles guiding you. Values play an enormous role in your decision process and behavior.
Having shared values in your organization is about getting the right people on the bus and in the right seats (Thanks Jim Collins!).
As founder you must first understand your own core values. There are lots of great tools and frameworks out there. Personally I think 4 to 6 core values is plenty. Mine personal values are: humility, respect, curiosity, creativity and collaboration.
Secondly, identify potential team members by finding those that share 80%+ of your values. Selecting on values is really hard. Unless you have first-hand knowledge of the person you will rely on asking them questions and talking to other people they've worked with.
If you know the person from previous experience then carefully review your past shared experiences. Focus specifically on how you each approached contentious decisions. What were your positions and interests? What guided your decision and theirs. Finding common ground here is really valuable.
Once you have your core team established with two or three members you switch into cultural cultivation. As founder you must to constantly evaluate and fill cultural gaps to continuously evolve your organizations character, personality, and culture.
I cannot overstate the importance of this fundamental alignment. In fact one study across 200 startups showed companies with culture fit do not fail.
This is so important I'm going to write a separate blog post on shared values to cover it in depth.
Shared Vision - The "Why"
In a nutshell vision is your "Why", your world view - the future you want to create and live in.
So much has been written about this topic - specifically on importance of a strong vision. However if your vision doesn't jive with your values there will be cognitive dissonance among anyone you attempt to attract to your world view.
If you're a solo founder I recommend starting with Simon Sinek's "Start with Why". Then review / adjust your core values as necessary. Then write a strong vision statement that jives with your core values.
If you have co-founders I recommend each of you perform this exercise alone. Present your vision statements to one another and hash out the differences until you are 100% on the same page. Go back and test that the vision statement jives with your company's shared values. Rinse and Repeat as necessary.
A well crafted vision statement is the entry point to your founding story. Your founding story provides the background of "the why" and attracts people that share your world view. Once you hook 'em with your vision statement, you reel 'em in with your founding story.
Added benefit: a strong vision statement is incredibly resilient to changes in your business or "pivots". You're underlying business strategy should be able to evolve, change and grow without impacting your vision statement. Consider Google's vision statement: "organize all of the data in the world and make it accessible for everyone in a useful way". See, resilient.
Don't try to align or tweak anything in your startup until you've nailed your "why" and vision statement and can articulate it effortlessly.
Shared Execution - The Day to Day Mission
Too many people confuse mission and vision.
Vision is the future you want to create. Mission is what you do each day to make that future a reality. I.e. Execution.
Shared Mission is each team member executing according to well-known priorities.
I use two tools to create shared mission, i.e. shared execution.
First I use a Business Model Canvas. This is literally my business-plan-on-a-page. It should be resilient to minor shifts in strategy. However if you make a material change in any one of the boxes, you are at the beginning of a "pivot".
As founder, lead your team through the shared experience of hashing out the canvas together.
The shared experience creates two important assets:
- The team has an shared and explicit understanding of the business model and what needs to get done.
- The canvas an objective blueprint. It distills all of the ideas, positions, objections, etc into single shareable reference. Think of how an architect's blueprint is used as an objective means to achieve a successful outcome. That's the business model canvas.
Once you've got a good start on the canvas lead your team through the shared experience of Defining Success.
Defining Success is communicating the three most important priorities within the week (or month, quarter, etc). For example Success for this month might be the following priorities (with Role):
- Launch seed funding round of $50K (CEO)
- Increase site visitors by additional 1K / week (Marketing)
- Release v 0.3 of product (Product)
Once you Define Success, lead a shared experience with each team (Role) hashing out top three priorities to support the respective goal. For example you might decide the following CEO priorities to achieve "Launch seed funding round of $50K":
- Complete Wefunder.com profile and note
- Complete funding announcement email
- Communicate funding opportunity through email and social channels
Drive this process with the team until you hit the right level of granularity for the individual or team.
This shared experience creates empathy and understanding of who is responsible for which outcomes. The process also yields another objective document that can be shared transparently with the team, investors, advisors, etc.
This system works well with small startup teams of <5. For larger teams you'll need to break out the teams separately.
Obviously this isn't a "one and done" type scenario. Execution alignment is an essential ongoing practice. Once you lead the team through the first session, it gets easier with each iteration.
I've shared this because it works for me, and based on feedback, it works for my teams. There is no shortage of advice out there. As Founder you must seek information and make your own decisions.
If you don't have time - then just start with Shared Core Values. I obsess over the values piece because it makes everything else so much easier.
72 Hour Rule
Now is your chance - in the next 72 hours commit to executing three activities to drive these alignments within your organization. Carl Eschenbach, My former boss and wonderful leader at VMware (and now Sequoia Capital), always challenged us with the 72-hour rule. Challenge yourself!
Entrepreneurship is about searching for a repeatable and scalable business model. It's about iteration. Get started on these alignments. Test. Iterate. Improve.
Please let me know your thoughts!