These three words will bring out the best in your startup team

Phil-Morle-Main-Sequence board chairs startup team

Main Sequence partner Phil Morle. Source: Supplied/Jessica Hromsa.

As teams grow, it becomes challenging to operate cohesively.

When scaling past 10 people, a peer-to-peer network becomes too complex for simple communication. Pathways break down, information doesn’t make it through to where it needs to be. A company becomes the sum of its fragmented individuals and fails to get the compound value from a unified team.

I have struggled with this for my entire career, read every business book I could get my hands on, and spoken to every leader that I meet to find the secret. The fact is, it is hard.

In my quest for the answer, I have oscillated between two extremes:

Response #1: Over control

Hold on tightly. Command and control. This is the point where a company is ‘over-led’ — where everything is documented to death, leaders spend all day ‘giving permission’, and teams spend their time miserably performing tasks that other people have prescribed.

Gaps that fall in between specific instructions introduce problems because they weren’t spelled out.

  • Pros: Company is more likely to operate as one, fewer catastrophes.
  • Cons: Slower, more mediocrity, fragile because external forces break the system.

Response #2: Over fluid

The other extreme is the ‘Hire talented people and they will find the way’ model. Here we throw teams in the deep end and hope they will join the dots in their work.

Amazing breakthroughs can happen, but they are rarely captured and intensified by bringing a whole company behind them.

  • Pros: Faster (for a while), more interesting ideas emerge.
  • Cons: More errors, more confusion, less intensity of impact.

The answer is in a book about the navy

The answer for me, as it often does, lies in a company’s ability to slide between these extremes and this needs a method to join them.

I found my method in Captain L David Marquet’s remarkable book, Turn the Ship Around.

It describes Marquet’s time leading the crew of a US nuclear submarine, the USS Santa Fe. It had a poorly performing crew that needed to be turned around or decommissioned.

He identified the problem in the LEADER-FOLLOWER model for a team — the model most like my ‘over control’ response above. In the chain of command, no one owned a decision as it made its way through the team.

He proposes a LEADER-LEADER model.

“I concluded that competence cannot rest solely with the leader. It had to run through the entire organisation.”

Okay, so what are the three words?

It is simple.

Instead of asking for permission, encourage the team to think through the problem themselves and then announce what they intend to do.

“I intend to…”

This gives others the opportunities to ask questions or suggest modifications, but in most cases, the action proceeds without intervention.

In our disconnected times, with so much work happening asynchronously via messaging platforms, amazing things happen in a company when these light up with a team that is aligning itself with the words “I intend to…”

Try it in your company. You will find it is instantly transformational.

This article was first published by Phil Morle on Typeshare

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