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  • Writer's pictureMark Robinson

What Does A Successful Team Look Like?

Like many people, I have been on some really solid teams. I have also sailed on the proverbial Titanic as well as with a crew that resembled the Pirates of the Caribbean more than a Disney Cruise.  Why are teams successful? What are the warning signs that you’re not on the right team? These are age old questions for most entpreneurs that I will try to answer.  Today, I will start with why some teams work well.  There are a lot of attributes that make up a successful team but there are three qualities I always look out for:

1) Driven by milestones rather than time. Most people drive themselves using a clock. They consider time the essential currency that work is valued upon, and focus on deadlines. I work eight hours a day. I take 2 weeks off a year. I will only apply myself for 1 year before I give up. These are all common statements from time driven people.  However, a successful business does not run on time.

A successful enterprise is driven by milestones. Earning over a million dollars. Winning 1500 customers. Getting a release out. Getting the minimum viable product out. Those are all meaningful milestones that most businesses find relevant. These are things that drive the success of a business and are clear determiners of value (and in many cases, the valuation of the business).

The preoccupation with time comes when a team member does not take a strategic view of the business or the value that they personally placed on their time. If someone does not consider what they achieve as being more important than their time, you are considering the wrong person for your team.

2) Understanding that a good business results from experimentation. The sad truth is that most people view a failed experiment as a failure rather than a learning opportunity. Recently, my company put out a product that arguably had a horrible user experience. The functionality was there, but the user had to take an extraordinary journey to find it. Redoing the experience set us back about 2 months (not a great amount of time in the life of a business). My team was very divided about having to redo the user experience. The fact is that the only failure that is significant is one that kills the company. All others are expensive learning experiences. The most succesful people will understand this and not try to associate blame with failure. Ultimately, we ended up learning a great deal from the issues with our user experience and formulated a far better one.

3) The need to move forward rather than assign blame. Bright people learn from experimentation. I have yet to see a product launch out of the gate that did not have some issue with it. When I was a student at Anderson, one of my professors made the comment: “If you’re not a little embarrassed by the product you released, you have over built it.” The message being that the product does not have to be perfect. It only needs to cover the basic market need, the minimum viable product if you will.

The problem is that only a small number of people understand this. The majority assigns blame to making mis-steps in getting a product to the market. When you run experiments, you will have to correct mistakes, delay the product and constantly re-evaluate.

Experimentation is when you test your assumptions about the product. That is part of the life cycle of most any product release. That is why when you start a project and put together a schedule, it is only an estimate. Things change when you get on the ground – when you are in the fight to get a product to market.

If someone does not understand this concept,if they believe that a schedule is written in stone, that they day you started working on a project, you had your best and most complete outlook for the future, then you might want to re-consider if they should be on your team. And they should probably re-consider if they belong in a start-up.

Beyond all of these thoughts of how to participate on a team, there are two other critical qualities necessary forpeople in a successful team: drive and realism.

Driven people care more about the journey then the destination. They focus on what they need to do to create a successful outcome. They focus on using mistakes as learning opportunities and focus on keeping mistakes from killing that which they would create.

They also understand something else that is difficult for most people to understand. Smart teams understand when the product cannot win. They are not afraid to look at the entire picture and say “I learned something here and what I learned is that I have the wrong approach to the market.” Sometimes, it is not about trying more methods to fix the product. It can also be about understanding that you are simply on the wrong path. This is the realistic outlook that so many want to have but often cannot attain because to do so, they must overcome their desire to succeed with what they have.

Put another way, so many people keep pushing forward with what they are doing without considering that what they are doing it not really desirable. You can see this in product development as well as life in general. There is a difference between being driven and idealistically stubborn. 

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