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.


Sunday, June 08, 2008


Periodically, we stumble across a book or a film we have never heard of and open its pages to discover magic.  Shantaram is such a book.

The book, by Gregory David Roberts, is an amazing tale of adventure, betrayal, suffering, and personal growth. The quick summary follows: Roberts escapes from an Australian maximum security prison where he is serving a time for armed robbery. Via New Zealand, he flees to Bombay, where the magic begins.

He quickly settles in Bombay, learns Hindi and Marathi, and opens himself up to the love and friendship of the city's residents. His journey includes a long stint as a slum doctor, time in the Bombay mafia, and a journey into Afghanistan via Pakistan to join the mujaheddin in fighting the Russians.  In between the adventures, he wrestles with the meaning of life, suffers through hellish bouts in Indian jails, and grows from a hardened ex-con into a man that is the full reflection of the complexities of life, both good and bad.

I loved every page - all 800+ of them - and if you are looking for a book to get lost in on vacation, flying across the country, etc., Shantaram is one for the ages.