A Blueprint for Building a Collaborative Startup Culture

Culture is driven from the top down. Yet most founders have a difficult time articulating their culture beyond the amenities their startup offers: Catered meals. Pet-friendly workspaces. Unlimited paid time off. Etc.

But a company’s culture is deeper than that. It’s an ideology, a way of being, and a mindset. It’s the intangibles that get your talent engaged, motivated, and wanting to do their best work.

So What Is Collaboration?

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – African proverb

Bringing people together to arrive at a solution faster and easier than had it been done alone: That’s collaboration in a nutshell.

You innovate, solve problems together, bring together cross-functional expertise and knowledge to build an app, see a new solution, or tackle a coding issue. That’s how most startups see collaboration. But it’s also the ability to bring people together to talk about difficult topics. Conflict is inevitable, and in startups, where you’re bringing different people together to work on projects, personality clashes are all too common. So building that collaborative startup culture also requires seeing conflict as a positive thing, building out the values and processes necessary to leverage its beneficial qualities.

Conflict leads to better solutions, higher-quality work, and hyper-motivated employees, because disagreement is seen as a way of generating solutions that may not be readily available.

To create that culture of collaboration and push past resistance, startup founders should do the following.

1. Get Clear on Your Purpose and Values

Can you recite your company’s values from memory? Do you know why you’re tackling the problem you are, or why your solution is important?

If you can’t get beyond the surface-level responses to these questions, chances are your employees won’t be able to either. Sit with these questions, and if you can’t find answers that passionately drive you forward, then go at it again, because this is what will inspire everyone in the company and motivate them when the going gets tough.

2. Encourage Bottom-Up Feedback Early On

How should your employees communicate their ideas, disagreements, and need for change? Will you set up “office hours,” an open-door policy, or an anonymous quarterly survey to gather feedback? This is all data for you to use.

Your employees are the ones on the front lines, the ones embodying your startup’s values and communicating its mission to customers. Let them tell you what’s working and what isn’t.

This is especially true in meetings. Take some intentional time before, during, or after the meeting has concluded to solicit feedback. If you see the one man who stays in himself not offer any feedback for the fifth time in a row, go to him one-on-one and encourage him to talk about anything he sees that needs improvement. The result may surprise you.

Employees who feel heard ultimately work harder and are more efficient in the long run.

3. Set Up Processes and Technologies That Empower People

Slack is ubiquitous in startups. The communication tool is how many startups keep each other in the know. But it may not work for your company, or there might be other communication tools your employees prefer. Either way, ask. Find the tools for your company that empower people to work effectively and are tailored to their needs.

4. Reward Collaboration Openly

If you see someone contributing an awesome idea, acknowledge it. If you see someone going above and beyond his or her role, acknowledge it.

Collaboration sometimes doesn’t come easy, and most employees may not know what collaboration actually is beyond just working together toward a shared goal. You’ll need to make the implicit explicit by acknowledging those collaborative endeavors that employees naturally do when they’re enthralled with their work. Bring up that stellar employee’s work at the next company meeting. Start a monthly employee mention where someone did a fabulous thing. Make a happy hour event all about something awesome a team did.

Create the culture that acknowledges the good while staying abreast of all the things your high-paced startup is doing well.

5. Have Disagreements Respectfully

Can your employees openly disagree with you? Do they know how to bring up opposing opinions respectfully? You’ll know you can successfully collaborate with someone if you can have open disagreement.

That doesn’t mean fighting it out. It means learning how to hash things out in a collaborative way so that whatever solution is presented integrates everyone’s expertise and knowledge base. Disagreements, if carried out respectfully, put everyone’s cards on the table and present solutions that might not have been apparent before.

6. Harness Transparency and Build Trust

Startups are high-risk environments. When the company hits roadblocks, how does it communicate them to others? When funding doesn’t come through, do you tell your employees or not? When your current runway is about to expire, who is in on the information?

Startup founders can get into trouble when they don’t communicate certain facts to their employees. But it’s all a balancing act too. The amount of transparency founders exhibit will be the same amount their employees exhibit. In the high-risk environment of startups, that is the social currency needed to make your business a success.

7. Leverage Individual Employee Talents

CFO: “What happens if we invest in developing our employees, and they leave?” 

CEO: “What happens if we don’t, and they stay?”

As people start to work together, untapped talents become apparent. Leverage those talents by developing a method for spotting them. Give employees opportunities to vocalize them. For example, if you have a marketing director who’s consistently bringing in outside business, notice that. Develop her strategic partnerships skills and leverage them. A collaborative startup culture knows how to train employees for growth, retain them, and use their skills collaboratively toward an intended purpose.

Bottom Line: Creating a collaborative startup culture starts from the top, and is heavily influenced by the early decisions you make when your startup is scaling. Develop a culture that rewards innovation and disagreement and empowers its employees. That’s how a high-paced startup fuses collaboration into all areas of its culture to ultimately create an environment where everyone can thrive.

Image Credit: GaudiLab / Shutterstock.com

Bryant Galindo
Bryant Galindohttp://www.workplacecollaborations.com/
The "Startup Business Advisor", Bryant facilitates high-level co-founder discussions and trains founders in high-stakes conflict management tactics. He received his M.S. in Negotiation & Conflict Resolution from Columbia University.
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