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Thoughts on Teams for Startups

Here’s a little story. One day three blind men were walking through the forest when they came upon an elephant. One blind man touched the elephant’s trunk and declared, “It’s a serpent!” The second blind man touched the animal’s leg and said, “It’s a tree!” And the third blind man got hold of the elephant’s tail, which he took to be a piece of rope. The three argued all night about what it was they encountered in the forest!

Of course, they were all correct, in a way. But at the same time, they were all mistaken. Each one had encountered a specific part of the animal. As a result, each man had a different experience from the others. And naturally, each one formed a conclusion based on that experience. It’s a great story that highlights an important fact about how people’s experiences shape their perception of the world, of reality. Different people could be looking at the same thing or may be going through the same experience. And yet they may register things differently because they’ve been conditioned all their lives to think in a certain way.

Now, let’s take a look at this old proverb. “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” This simple thought runs deep. And it also highlights another reality about how we humans view the world. Like the man who is equipped with nothing else but his hammer, we tend to resolve problems and issues with the tools we are comfortable using. We come equipped with our own mental hammers so that to us every problem that needs to be dealt with, every puzzle that needs to be solved, every conflict that must be ironed out, looks like a nail. And like the man with the hammer, we bludgeon these with our mental and emotional hammers, not caring whether or not it’s the right approach.

And this brings us to the topic of assembling teams for your startup company. The instinctive path to follow is to surround yourself with like-minded people. It makes a lot of sense. It’s easier to relate with people who share your vision in exactly the same way you yourself see it. It’s effortless, as a matter of fact. The entire team is on the same page, looking at the problem, the puzzle, the conflict from behind the same lens.

But it would place your organisation at a terrible disadvantage. Why, you ask? Because by building a homogeneous group, you essentially create a team with a hammer. It’s a group where every member sees the exact same nail, and everyone is eager to bludgeon it to bits. Then that would be the end of the story, for better or for worse.

Now consider this. What if you assembled a team whose members come from different cultural backgrounds, uphold different values, and wield widely divergent perspectives? Such a team would be the organisational equivalent of your three blind men. The mysterious elephant would be the problems and challenges your company faces. Sure, it would be difficult at first. Like the blind men, your team members could initially disagree. Each one would bring their individual biases, perspectives, and approach to the table. It would likely be a royal mess. But therein lies the opportunity.

Had the blind men been given the time to discuss their experiences with each other, they would have processed the information together and synthesised a more accurate picture of the elephant. They would have come to a consensus about what it was they encountered in the forest. And their final description of the animal would be more accurate than any of the initial thoughts each one started with. Similarly, a team consisting of people from diverse backgrounds and experiences brings the same value to the organisation. Bringing such diversity together may initially be difficult, but if managed effectively and given time, the results could be nothing short of amazing.

Written by our Head of People, Mustafa Shreet.

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