Overcoming Startup Team Dysfunctions for Faster Growth

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Mark Donnigan


July 2, 2024

Building a robust and effective team for a startup is as critical as developing your product. Patrick Lencioni’s model of the Five Dysfunctions of a Team provides valuable insights into the root causes hampering team effectiveness and strategies to overcome them.

Trust is at the core of this model, an essential element that teams need to function effectively. Lencioni identifies trust as the base to prevent five critical team dysfunctions: fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to team objectives.

Addressing these issues can help startups ensure smoother collaboration and focus on their growth goals. Let’s explore the framework.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

Absence of Trust

At the foundation of Lencioni’s model lies an absence of trust among team members. Without a baseline of vulnerability-based trust, individuals are unwilling to admit mistakes, weaknesses, or need for help. They may hold back important issues or concerns out of fear of being perceived as incompetent. This lack of transparency prevents the team from benefiting from everyone’s collective knowledge, skill, and experience. It also erodes mutual respect and psychological safety required for taking calculated risks and embracing productive conflict.

Fear of Conflict

Teams that lack trust also tend to avoid heated debates and passionate discourse around ideas and decisions that affect the team. Instead of engaging in constructive ideological conflict to find the best solutions, members raise mild opinions to remain diplomatically “proper.” This desire to preserve artificial harmony stifles the open exchange of contrasting thoughts and perspectives that foster innovation and optimal decision-making.

Lack of Commitment

Without the ability to voice viewpoints during lively debates to fully buy into the decisions made, even if they participated in the process. This lack of clarity and commitment around group decisions creates ambiguity throughout the organization, making it challenging to transform decisions into practical action. The lack of sincere buy-in also perpetuates a mentality of the individual rather than collective ownership of outcomes.

Avoidance of Accountability

When teams don’t commit and buy into decisions, they struggle to hold one another accountable for adhering to and upholding those decisions. In a productive team environment grounded in commitment, peers hold each other responsible out of a sense of collective responsibility – the understanding that failure by any individual to live up to standards impacts the whole team’s ability to succeed. Without this mutual accountability, the standard of work degrades over time.

Inattention to Team Objectives

The culmination of these compounding dysfunctions is the tendency of team members to put their interests ahead of the collective goals and priorities of the team. Without trust, healthy constructive conflict, buy-in, and accountability, why should any individual self-sacrifice for the good of the team? This creates extensive organizational silos and politicking rather than an environment of seamless partnership in pursuit of a shared mission and vision.

Strategies to Overcome the Five Dysfunctions

Building and maintaining an effective team can be challenging, especially in a startup’s fast-paced environment. To overcome these dysfunctions, consider the following targeted strategies:

Building Trust Through Vulnerability

How can we create a safe environment where team members feel comfortable being vulnerable?

Encourage team members to share personal stories and professional challenges in a structured setting. Use exercises like sharing personal history or discussing professional failures to deepen mutual understanding and trust.

Practical exercises: Implement the “Life Map” activity. Provide large sheets of paper, markers, and various art supplies. Give team members 45 minutes to create their Life Maps, encouraging them to represent key moments, influences, and future aspirations visually. Allow 5-7 minutes per person to present their map to the team. Conclude the session with a group reflection on shared themes and new insights gained about each other.

For the “Growth Circle,” allocate 30 minutes in your weekly team meetings. Use a round-robin format, where each person shares for 2-3 minutes about a current challenge and how they’re working to overcome it. Implement a no-judgment rule and encourage supportive questions from team members. To show commitment to the process, you can use a tool like Trello to track challenges and progress over time.

To determine individual strengths, purchase the CliftonStrengths assessment for each team member. Schedule individual debriefing sessions with a certified coach to help team members understand their results. Follow this with a team workshop to discuss how different strengths complement each other. Create a team strengths map to visualize the collective capabilities, which can inform project assignments and collaboration strategies.

Cultivating Healthy Conflict

How can we ensure that conflicts are productive and lead to better solutions than personal disputes?

Normalize and model constructive conflict by setting ground rules for respectful communication. Train team members in conflict resolution techniques and emphasize that debate is a path to better solutions, not a personal attack.

Dedicate a full day to a workshop that will establish collaborative team values. Use appreciative inquiry techniques to identify what works well in the team. Facilitate small group discussions to draft value statements, then use dot voting to prioritize and refine the final set of values. To reinforce their importance, design and display these values prominently in physical and digital workspaces.

Implement the “Perspective Rotation” technique in decision-making meetings. Start by listing all stakeholders affected by the decision. Assign each team member a stakeholder perspective to argue from, rotating perspectives every 10-15 minutes to ensure comprehensive coverage. Conclude by synthesizing insights from different viewpoints, leading to more well-rounded decisions.

For virtual brainstorming, set up a Miro or Mural board with clear sections for different aspects of the problem. Provide 10 minutes of silent idea generation where members add digital sticky notes. Follow this with a structured discussion to group and build upon ideas. Use the platform’s built-in voting features to prioritize ideas for further development.

Securing Commitment to Decisions

How can we get all team members to commit to decisions, especially after a vigorous debate?

Use techniques like the “disagree and commit” philosophy, where team members openly express dissent but commit to decisions once made. Ensure that all decisions are clear and actionable, with everyone’s roles and responsibilities well defined.

To conduct a Consensus Check, set up a Mentimeter presentation before important decision-making meetings. Create sliding scale questions to gauge agreement levels (1-5 or 1-10). After presenting a potential decision, run the live poll. Discuss results openly, focusing on areas of low consensus. Repeat the poll after discussion to check if alignment has improved.

Introduce the Gradients of Agreement framework, ranging from 1 (Block) to 5 (Wholehearted Endorsement). For each decision, have team members indicate their level of agreement. If anyone chooses 3 or below, give them space to voice concerns. Work to address these concerns until everyone is 4 or 5, ensuring true commitment.

Create a Digital Decision Log using a shared Notion database or Airtable base. Include fields for the decision, date, context, alternatives considered, final choice, responsible parties, timeline, and review date. Assign a team member to update this log after each meeting. Review the log monthly to track progress and capture learnings.

Encouraging Accountability Among Peers

What methods can we employ to foster a culture where team members hold each other accountable in a supportive way?

Establish clear expectations and regular progress reviews. Create a culture where peers feel comfortable giving each other constructive feedback. Celebrate wins and discuss shortfalls as a team to foster a sense of collective responsibility.

Develop a Team Impact Dashboard using a tool like Databox or Google Data Studio. Include metrics directly tied to customer satisfaction, environmental impact, or social good. Update in real-time where possible. Dedicate time in team meetings to discussing the stories behind the numbers, making the impact of the team’s work tangible and motivating.

Implement a continuous feedback app like 15Five or Lattice. Provide training on giving constructive feedback and set expectations for weekly check-ins and more detailed monthly feedback. Leaders should actively participate and highlight good examples of feedback to encourage adoption.

Start each meeting with a 5-minute round of “Shoutouts and Support.” Encourage specific, behavior-focused recognition. Follow shoutouts with a quick “I could use help with…” from everyone to foster a culture of mutual support. Keep a running list of offered support to follow up on and ensure accountability. Actions speak louder than words, and the leader must hold those volunteering to help accountable to follow through with the offer. It’s alright if the person offering help finds they don’t have the time they thought or lack the knowledge or skill needed to assist, but the original offer must always be genuine.

Aligning on Team Objectives

How can we keep team objectives in focus and ensure that personal achievements contribute to the team’s goals?

Regularly revisit team goals to ensure alignment. Use visual management tools like dashboards or progress boards to keep team objectives visible and top-of-mind for all team members. Link personal rewards and recognition explicitly to team achievements to enhance focus on collective success.

For collaborative strategic planning, set up a Miro board with sections for Mission, Vision, Objectives, and Key Results. Hold workshops to populate each section collaboratively, using breakout rooms for smaller group discussions. Consolidate and refine as a full team, then review and adjust quarterly to ensure ongoing alignment.

Implement collaborative OKRs by having sub-teams draft their objectives and key results aligned with the overall team objectives. Hold a team-wide OKR sharing session to ensure alignment and identify dependencies. Use a tool like Weekdone or Perdoo to track OKRs transparently. Conduct weekly check-ins and monthly deeper dives on progress.

Create a Digital Impact Story and assign rotating responsibility for updating the story bi-weekly. Include customer quotes, impact metrics, team member spotlights, and progress toward goals. Share updates via email and team meetings to keep everyone connected to the team’s purpose and impact.

Accelerating Team Cohesion

While building team cohesion organically is rewarding, startups seeking to expedite their GTM growth fueled by more effective marketing execution could find value in adopting external solutions like the Marketing Pod

By integrating a Marketing Pod, you can bypass the typical ramp-up time required to develop team cohesion, allowing the pod to immediately focus on driving your marketing initiatives efficiently. This solution not only accelerates the effectiveness of your marketing efforts but also facilitates knowledge transfer to enhance the skills of your existing team members over time.

To explore how a Marketing Pod can bolster your startup’s team dynamics and growth trajectory, book a consultation call today. As a virtual CMO, I will assess your needs and explore how our tailored solutions can significantly support and accelerate your goals. 

I recently had the pleasure of being featured on “The Marketing B2B Technology Podcast,” where we explored the crucial importance of truly understanding the market and its customers. We discussed the necessity of immersing oneself in the field to grasp the nuances of customer behavior, preferences, and decision-making processes. By gaining deep insights into what drives our target audience, we can develop more effective marketing strategies that resonate and engage. This episode sheds light on the value of being customer-centric and the impact it can have on the success of B2B marketing efforts.

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