Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Team Chemistry, Stress, and Success

I recently read an interesting article on what makes a great start-up. The author, a Google alum, noted three important characteristics:
  • team chemistry 
  • rapid iterations 
  • clear end-user focus
I doubt many would argue with the prescription, however, there is a major paradox implicit the in the list.  Team chemistry requires healthy interactions and good behavior. Iterations imply change and change creates stress.  Under stress, all of us react in two major ways.
  1. deflate - withdraw, become resentfully compliant, are negative
  2. inflate- yell, raise our voice, lash out, seek to dominate
In fact, start-ups are nothing if not stressful. Things are changing constantly - in fact they have to in order to succeed. There is a finite amount of cash on hand, lots of competitors, and major incumbents working to crush you.

Over the years, we learn to develop coping mechanisms to process stress. Sadly, most of our coping mechanisms lead to bad behavior that may protect us in the near-term but eat into the social health of the organization and into our individual effectiveness.

In managing start-ups and in building a culture open to change and to iteration, it really helps to arm the team to recognize that under stress we tend to react badly, and in the negative reaction we hamper the ability to maintain cohesion and our credibility.

It is  important to ask people to be self-aware of their coping mechanisms and yours, to be aware of what triggers a negative reaction, and to develop good tools for effectively processing stress and defusing tension.

Some well known tools involve, listening, asking questions and for clarification, remembering not to take things personally, patience, acknowledgement of others, being dependable and trustworthy.

Success is the progressive realization of worthwhile goals. All success and development, moreover, means the abandonment of a familiar position. All growth requires the ability to leave behind the comfort of the "known."  

Success will require change - change will lead to stress - and success is contingent on how well we handle stress. Ignoring the reality of how we cope with stress is to risk the health of the team, one of the three pillars of what makes for great start-ups.



  1. Oh I can wholeheartedly agree with this one. There is a tightwalk a CEO and Exec team must walk, and that is "how much information do I need to share", and "how much uncertainty is debilitating to the performance of the employees". "Fear is the mind killer" (DUNE). In terms of general management of teams, and virtual development teams in particular, I can recommend Ken Thompson's Some really useful rules there.

  2. Wenhan11:03 AM

    Hi Will,

    thanks for the post. there are so many things that can kill a startup. Team chemistry applies to any situation where there are teams. But in startup, the common goal and the trust that everyone is aligned to the common goal is so important yet hard to achieve.

  3. Anonymous10:50 AM

    Great post. Thanks for the information. I might refer a book that I recently read, "The Answer," by John Assaraf and Murray Smith. Link is below.