Thursday, April 5, 2012

Team building - a teachable moment

One of the things that I hope to be able to do here is to set up a system where we are all learning from one another and from the real world experiences you all are having with your group projects. Certainly, we are learning about how to set up a large scale (30k+) group learning experience on the web with limited resources. I think sometimes we all learn as much or perhaps more from the things that do not go perfectly according to plan. As I reflect on what's gone on so far, one very important lesson comes to mind, which you all have been experiencing and that I'd like to highlight as a teachable moment.

Team formation is one of the hardest and most critical aspects of entrepreneurship.

In many ways, this experience is meant to be a highly compressed experience at entrepreneurship, where you encounter many of the real world situations that founders encounter in a relatively safe environment where you can learn from them, find out how others are overcoming them, and have an easier time the next time around when you encounter a similar situation. One of the most important things I hope you'll learn from this experience is some things about building co-founding teams and keeping them motivated because the data shows that solo or individual entrepreneurs are significantly less likely to succeed.

There is a myth that some still believe out there that entrepreneurship is an individual activity or is done by loners in a garage. It's not. It is a team sport and a very social activity at its core.

In fact, learning how to recruit, assemble, motivate, lead and problem-solve in a team environment is one of the most important aspects of entrepreneurship. The idea is important, but perhaps even more important is the team. This is a common saying (and debate) within the entrepreneurship world. As I myself have experienced over and over in entrepreneurship, having a great team that works well together is extremely important. In the video below, Thomas Prescott, CEO of Align Technology talks about the importance of a great team.

So, of course I wish that you all had a perfectly smooth experience finding teammates. But, we knew from years of teaching this class at Stanford, that this was a highly unlikely outcome even in a small class environment. So we designed in a multi-round process for teambuilding. Where we knew errors would occur, teams would need to be adjusted and that you all would struggle, but hopefully learn a lot along the way about the importance of finding committed teammates. This is why it can often be a good idea to form a startup with people who you have experience working with previously (though starting with friends or family can also be problematic).

Real-world, professional, successful startups struggle with this as well.

Even successful, real-world startups struggle with these issues as well and have cofounders who wind up with other things going on in their lives or deciding that they want to go in a different direction. The article I linked to above points out many cases where this happens even in successful startups. The key is to be entrepreneurial, make the best of the situation, and find a way to make it work, even with very limited time and resources at hand.

Group projects are meant to teach you in an experiential way (the best way to learn, I think) things about communication, leadership, responsibility, collaboration, etc. Most work happens in teams and so these learning experiences are crucial, yet hard to teach outside of having people actually work in teams and experience the myriad challenging situations that come up. As the image below alludes to, hopefully you are not solely learning to "trust no one" from group project experiences. I think that is a missed opportunity to think more critically and figure out how things could have been different either in how the team was formed or in how problems were addressed.

After this initial warm-up exercise, you will have a 2nd round opportunity to find new teammates and form groups of 4 of your choosing to begin the startup project with. I hope that you have learned important things from this initial team exercise and that the teams you build will work more smoothly as a result. Hopefully you've found at least one or two people you want to continue working with and then you can add to your team in the next round. Undoubtedly, however, team dynamics will continue to be an important issue, where you will learn firsthand how important having a great team is for entrepreneurship and learn how to handle some of the situations that come up when things go less than perfectly. It's a tough experience when you can't recruit a team or have trouble getting everyone to work together well. However, it's truly a wonderful experience when you have a team that's dedicated and working together well.

Endless Origami
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Finally, there's a great post by Mohamed Rady in the forum labeled "My team didn't show up, here's why and what to do." With his permission, let me copy and paste what he wrote here:

1st . Why :
1- some of them registered and forgot about it .
2- some think its not an important online workshop so they don't bother .
3- some still don't understand whats next .
4- some needs a push … they can work but need someone to take the wheel .
2nd - What to do :
1- email them telling them about the course ( a friend told me he didn't know its stanford untill i told him today ) .
2- email them about the team and the assigned task and the deadline .
3- meetups are a better way to get things done faster than emails so invite them to .
4- make a group or something to gather them ( fb group / google group ) and clear things about the course for them .
5- start with yourself and anyone that shows activity of them and start post your suggested ideas and brainstorm it .
Plan B :
after all that they didn't show :P
ok …overall this is your first team ….and as you know you can form your new team in the 2nd stage .
the system says you already will be able to add one idea per account …. so you can focus in one or two
( don't forget that your main idea better not to be one of them for this task )
Finally , entrepreneurship is about who is ready to move fast and go for success and entrepreneurs should lead not follow