Startup Life

It’s hard to be on the same page as your team - even when you’re a startup

Even tiny teams can have big problems
Francesco | 09.10.17

Folk wisdom and cognitive psychology agree: we underestimate the difference between ourselves and other people. Which means even if you think you’re on the same page with your team, you’d better check. As a founder of a startup, you need to overcome this so you’re team will all be working in the same direction or you risk wasting time and demotivating your passionate employees.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve conducted interviews with founders and co-founders of startups to learn what their pain points around prioritisation. We asked them: how did you decide what you work on next? And then dug deeper to find what high-level goals that motivated them. We learnt a lot, and then looked at the research into cognitive psychology to learn the science behind the challenges we were seeing.

It’s hard to be on the same page

There was a recurrent problem: it’s hard to be on the same page with the rest of the team. Team members often had different ideas about the high-level goal they are working towards, about what the most important thing to work on is.

It’s interesting that working at cross purposes is a widely known issue in large corporations, but small, motivated and agile teams of 2 to 5 people suffer ALSO SUFFER this problem.

We certainly do. We’re a passionate team, but sometimes we feel that we miss a common focus and this makes progress slower and harder. Not being fully aligned results in a waste of time and effort, and adds considerately to the feelings of uncertainty and anxiety that are hard to avoid in startups.

So, why is it so hard?

Startup teams are usually highly motivated and with a strong cohesion, so definitely it’s not a problem of social loafing/free riding. Looking at my own case as a co-founder of a startup, I suspected that it was due to me working remotely: my colleagues are based in London, while I work in Italy. We do a Skype meeting every day, track our weekly to-do’s in Trello, share documents on the Gdrive, and message on Slack channels. However, I still feel that I’m missing a part of the ‘office life’ that’s hard to reproduce with software channels, such as the watercooler conversations and the nonverbal communication. I blamed my feeling of not being ‘on the same page’ on this.

But through our research, we discovered that it happens a lot even in teams working physically together. So, if it’s not lack of motivation, and it’s not a special problem of remote teams, what is it?

Someone else's shoes

The answer comes from cognitive psychology. Research has identified a bias called the false consensus effect, our tendency to overestimate the extent to which our opinions, interests and also goals are considered normal and shared by the majority of other people.

As folk wisdom says, it’s difficult to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

We are very biased towards understanding our own point of view, and forgetting that other people might have a different understanding. We need to put conscious effort into understanding our teammate's different priorities and ideas and spelling out what may seem obvious to us, so they can understand us.

So, what are you working on now? You think it’s obvious you should be doing it, right? Do you think everyone else on your team thinks it is? Why? Have you discussed it?

If you openly discussed what the company's goals could be for the next few weeks, and don’t assume consensus, you can get productive input from the whole team and avoided the feeling of working at cross-purposes. Don’t ever undervalue the importance of internal communication!

This article is the first part of a three-part series on the big problems small teams have. The second part is on the difficulties of seeing the big picture as the founder of a startup and the third is coming soon.

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