How to Cook Soup in a Team - And not Spoil it
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13% of all startups fail due to a lack of harmony within the team. We know this and have no intention of adding to that statistic. A year ago, I had the privilege of joining this incredible team of individuals to be a part of this startup. During the last year, I’ve watched the quality of our technology grow congruent with the rate of personality development. And I’d like to tell you about it.

How my searchhub journey began

Stepping into the office in the heart of Pforzheim, situated directly on the north bank of the river Enz, I knew I had no idea where this was going to lead. One thing I did know, however; these are people I believe in. And so it began.

Initial 500 Errors

My responsibilities at the company, as is the case with all startups, are pretty broadly defined. Sales, Marketing, and PR. Immediately after joining, I began reviewing which areas made the most sense for my immediate focus. Next, I started building out this blog and creating some pretty cool videos to train our quickly growing customer base on using our software.

These new territories, possible strategies, and tasks quickly led to a readjustment and questions within the team. Unfortunately, the result wasn’t always a mature adult conversation. In fact, at one point, early on, I was involved in a particularly immature antagonistic conflict in which I was the aggressor. Of course, I had my reasons for unreasonableness, and so too my colleague. And to make matters worse, I come from a liberal arts background and work all day with IT Gurus. It’s safe to say, I was feeling more than a little self-righteous about my communication abilities. The ensuing conflict and subsequent resolution caught me all the more off guard.

Humbled by the emotionally inept

It’s generally accepted that IT nerds are rather limited when it comes to emotional intelligence. So I was feeling somewhat smug, believing my communication skills were greater than those of my colleague. Quite presumptuous considering the circumstances of the conflict (my desire to protect my ego was standing in the way of a solution). Imagine my surprise when none other than an IT nerd colleague schooled me in a more noble manner of communication.

Let’s take a step back for clarification. You see, the same day of the conflict, a different colleague (part of the IT Crowd) approached me about the incident. This is the kind of guy I was talking about earlier. You know the brilliant, emotionally deficient type. Only… he’s not.

My colleague explained to me (the trained pastor and communication expert who should have known better) how he would like such conversations to go in the future in a friendly and respectful tone. They should be held in private, both parties should remain respectful. And if it becomes apparent that there is no way of coming together around the topic of disagreement, agree to disagree and move on. It’s what’s best for the consistent progress of the company. How could I disagree?

He was right. And I was humbled.

Luckily, I’m not the only one in the company who’s had the privilege of experiencing this type of reflection and good guidance from a colleague. It’s becoming part of our culture.

Discovering Our New Identity as Soup Chefs!

Man holding bowl of soup. Like team communication.

In the context of a startup, everyone must pull their weight. We haven’t the time, resources, or funds to waste with people not willing or unable to be a part of progressing our technology and market footprint. Everything and everyone counts.

How this plays out from a technical point of view is pretty straightforward. Flat hierarchies, scrum meetings, everyone is heard no-one walks alone.

The underlying communication, however, is more tricky. Communication is often seen as something we naturally do.

The misnomer: everyone is already invested in the vision and direction of the startup. This unites us and precludes any need to place an extra focus on interpersonal communication.

Unfortunately, being a good communicator is all but natural. Even teams seemingly working towards the same goal are comprised of individuals, each with his or her own unique dependencies. These dependencies act as a kind of built-in bias, preventing pure objectivity.

Now, just add Corona, and home office to the mix, and baaam, you gotta recipe for disaster.

Anyone Can Spoil a Soup

Let’s stick with the recipe example and build on this illustration. Imagine you own a startup soup company. Everyone in the business is responsible for certain parts of the revolutionary soup. Once a day, we come together to talk over our soup-making experience from the day before. If the context permits, we, objectively, offer our outside perspective. So far, so good. Then everyone goes back to cooking his or her own soup. The main ingredient is always the same. We simply add different spices, varieties, and amounts. These spices create unique associations with the soup that our colleagues are not having in the same way.

What’s more: everyone likes a different kind of spice in their soup. So even though we use the same words to describe our experiences, each of us has a unique image of what those words mean. Details are lost as a result of missing context.

To make matters more challenging. Even if we had the same context (identical spices and amounts), our lack of objectivity would be our guiding bias.

What’s more, in the case of a real startup, daily meetings are not the place to go into detail. As a result, potential misunderstandings go unidentified. And in the background, more spices and seasonings are added, everyone secretly hoping not to deviate too far from the original plan. Working toward the same goal, building the business. I mean: how bad could it get? After all, we all use the same words to describe our experiences. It must be right. And then…

Someone commits some code, makes a software purchase, writes an article for the press, generally does their best to progress our beloved technology.

It’s at this moment it becomes apparent that something has gone wrong. Perhaps still a bit early to acknowledge as a communication problem, a conflict ensues. Blame and quick fixes are rolled out en masse to try and get a grasp on the situation.

Only later does it become clear that all the Daily’s, all the technology conversations, all the references to the soup, its consistency and taste were not verified or even verifiable. Truth be told, some part of us willfully avoided difficult conversations where we would be forced to articulate what we mean. Instead, hiding behind phrases like “add just a little salt” or “more than enough pepper.”

Keeping a conversation purely factual allows us to hide our personal preferences behind coded phrases and generally acceptable jargon without needing to explain ourselves. However, upon returning to our desks and finding ourselves confronted with a challenging piece of code, or a decision of preference, our natural fallback will always be what is most comfortable to us. Not what has the greatest consensus.

So the question is: how to close the gap between the best outcome for the business and what is most practical for the individual? This is the heart of communication and the essence of self-leadership.

Refining Technology - Rethinking Communication

Abstract art reds and greys. Communication finds patterns in abstracts

Refining this communication process improves the character and leadership qualities of the people communicating and has the harmonious effects of increasing the quality of business output and customer happiness.

The negative consequences of ignoring better communication manifest themselves differently depending on your business. For the soup company, poor internal communication means sour soup. For searchhub.io, it means: our software development and customer satisfaction suffer. Or to use a more common IT expression: garbage in, garbage out.

Successful Startups are like Meals, not Ingredients

We’re small, privately owned, and funded. As a result, we can make quick changes. So a couple weeks ago, our team came together to talk about communication and its affect on our software quality. We left with a better understanding of where we failed to communicate more boldly at earlier communication processes. Stages at which it would still have been possible to avoid personal conflict and ultimate software errors.

Moving forward, we determined to focus on different types of communication throughout the software development process. We need something more strategic than a “Daily,” but less formal than a company meeting and more weighty than a one-on-one technical conversation. A space in which the technical side is heard, but reading between the lines and calling each other out is equally accepted and conducive to a positive outcome. And… it all needs to be accessible to employees both in the office and home office regularly.

How the hell is that going to work?

Preliminary ideas range from small group meetings to discuss personal views about company issues to larger team gatherings with professional moderation. Our goal is to make our working environment as conducive to production as possible. Learning to resolve conflicts without sacrificing your own standpoint, or feeling beaten down by the owners, is key to creating an environment where everyone can develop and perform from a position of strength.

Fixing Server Errors

Facilitating communication is like fixing a server error. The goal is not to change the function of the server. On the contrary, only by resolving the error are all the pieces of the server able to communicate with each other at their designed speeds, ensuring the best performance. So too, in the case of communication. More focussed communication aims not to disrupt natural conversation flow but rather to raise the profile of each participant ensuring confidence and a level playing field for all parties involved.

But there’s a blinding difference between fixing server errors and learning to communicate better. Unlike machines, words and context matter to humans. So ensuring positive future outcomes within your team is not simply about obtaining a better understanding of what it takes to make communication run smoothly and then redeploying.

Redeploy

In software, if an error is found, all it takes is fixing it and redeploying. Humans, however, don’t forget. We remember what went before, leaving an open window for trust issues and power abuses, which can take months if not years to recover from.

As a result, being aware of what it means to communicate well also means applying the rules you learn. These rules act as a safeguard ensuring the success and innovation of your business not only in the short term for your current crisis but, more importantly, for the longevity of your company in general.

Conclusion

We’re a new company basking in the light of a bright future. We have intelligence, practical genius, a good network, and a strong work ethic. In short: the sky’s our neighborhood. ;-)

We acknowledge that we struggle communicating through inherent bias, personal preference, and big egos. Nevertheless, we are choosing daily to devote ourselves to better communication practice despite our inadequacies. I hope you do too.

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