First, some context
Let’s start by explaining why we think teamwork is essential—especially when it comes to technology entrepreneurship. It has to do with adopting what works in the corporate world, all with the notion of preparing you to do as well as possible.
Within the last ten to fifteen years, teamwork has become an omnipresent phenomenon in corporate America. Companies have transitioned to teamwork as a vehicle to increase effectiveness, competitiveness, and productivity (read: working in teams improves performance). The Center for the Study of Work Teams reports that in the year 2000, 80% of all Fortune 500 companies are expected to have fully half of their employees working in teams.
This increased need for employees to function in teams has forced engineering colleges and universities to change the way they teach. In a study conducted by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), teamwork was ranked as the single most important skill for undergraduate engineering students. Schools now need to provide their graduates not only with intellectual development and superb technical capabilities, but also the ability to work as part of teams, communicate well, and understand the economic, social, environmental and international context of their professional activity.1Promoting and developing teamwork is a big reason why the NCIIA exists; whether you start a company or go work for one, it’s important for you to get experience working in teams.
Where it all starts
Your team is the lifeblood of your venture. The strength of your team determines how thoroughly you analyze the problem, how many different angles you see, and how complete and competent your solution will be. As a student, you may not have a lot of background in building teams; college tends to be a solo experience. While some of your professors may have given you group assignments, you may still feel like a team-building beginner. With student entrepreneurial projects, determining who’s responsible for can be a big challenge. Sit down early with your team make sure everyone is fairly clear about her or his role(s).
Be strong. Be diverse.
An excellent team is diverse. If you’re an idea person with an eye on the big picture, fill out your team with detail-oriented people. If you’re an expert on the technical aspects of your idea, find teammates with business experience. If you know a lot about the business end, but aren’t sure how machines work, look for teammates with technical training. A creative guru, a numbers-cruncher, a people-person with loads of natural charm…all of these personalities add strength and dimension to your team, and enhance your chances for success. And working with people who are different from you, in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, background and personal traits, will broaden your scope and help your team prepare for the real world.
Are you a team of one? Your situation may not be ideal, but it may also not be impossible. Maybe the nature of your project lends itself better to working alone in the initial planning and production stages. Just don’t limit yourself. Build a network of mentors and advisors, keeping in mind the skills and knowledge that they, and possibly future team members, might bring to your new venture. Get to know faculty members who might be interested in your work. Contact your college’s innovation incubator, technology development office, or entrepreneurship club. Reach out beyond your college and find out who else is working on the same type of project as you. Beat the streets for people whose interests are similar, or complementary, to yours.
Your team may come together in a very democratic way, and for some teams relationships necessitate keeping that democratic feeling intact. But leadership is also critical—someone has to make sure that the team keeps its momentum going and that the work stays on track. Figure out whether you’re the best person for that role, or whether someone else needs to take charge.
Clarify your purpose
Know why you’re creating a team and begin with a vision of how you want the team to work. Jon Katzenberg, Senior Partner in Katzenberg Partners, LCC says, “Teams work when they are created for the right reasons, and when they are created in the right way…The critical decision for any manager or leader who wants to get higher performance from a small group of people is determining whether the group should try to work as a team, or whether they should be satisfied with what I call ‘single-leader unit’ discipline…Most organizations proliferate with groups that call themselves teams but aren’t…it’s disturbing how many managers and leaders assume that being a team is what a group effort is all about. If a group tries to become a team when the performance challenge requires a single-leader approach, performance and morale suffer. The opposite is equally true.”
On diverse teams
From “Mighty is the Mongrel,” by Gregg Pascal Zachary. Fast Company, July 2000.
“Ideally, your team should have seven to nine people. If you have more than fifteen or twenty, you’re dead: the connections are too hard to make.”
From “What Makes Teams Work,” by Regina Fazio, Maruca, Fast Company, November 2000.
We must turn to great groups if we hope to begin to understand how that rarest of precious resources—genius—can be successfully combined with great effort to achieve results that enhance all our lives. It is in such groups that we may also discover why some organizations seem to breed greatness, freeing members to be better than anyone imagined they could be.”
From “The Secrets of Creative Collaboration,” by Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman, Inc. Magazine, December 1, 1996.