Teams and Network Dynamics

5 Sept 2013

Payments are not top of mind today, so for those that don’t want to hear my management ruminations, it may be best to skip this blog.

Was reading last week’s WSJ on Google’s 20% time, and  Wired on same topic. General theme is that the official 20% time is still in place, but Google is tightening use. How great a problem is this? You have employees that want to help grow your business in new areas!! Create new products! Find an outlet for their creative talents WITHIN THEIR COMPANY! I saw much of the same DESIRE within my international teams …. However it’s very hard to start a garden within an “Iron Works”..

My time at Google last year was a very rich experience, the collegial environment of brilliant engineers took me back to my NASA days. Everyone seemed fresh out of school with great ideas operating within a company that worked actively to cultivate them (people AND ideas). One moment really sticks out, I went to Charlie’s Café on a Thursday night (Google’s main eatery), where I saw the best and brightest of every nation all eating together with their wives and small children. How fantastic is it that we can have a Company attract this talent.. which sees no limitations in using it: from global internet via hot air balloons, new eye-ware, to driverless cars, to phones, …etc.

Google however has its limitations… with perhaps the largest concentration of brilliant engineers of any company… HOW do you align them and keep them focused?  The challenge is akin to tasking a group of 10,000 Navy Seals..  From a network perspective, Navy seals operate in a highly functional point-point network. With each point having equal capability, and some specialization.. This is a HIGHLY effective team arrangement when the team is aligned against an objective within its capability.Network Clusters and nodes

Thus, there is a reason that Navy Seals operate in platoons no larger than 8 men..  it’s an n square problem. In a highly functional unit, each person knows the others in the group and their corresponding objectives/roles.  Team of this structure have performance which is greater than the sum of the parts, because of their connection.

In a software world we have many phases to the “war” of a new product release: design, market, sell, price, build, test, release, deliver, operate, support, compete, enhance,…  Few teams are capable, or desire, to have a role in all phases… After all the Navy seals are not interested in holding the ground they take (.. slug fests and holding ground is the Army’s job). The Army is thus configured in a hierarchical command and control structure, as are most Fortune 50 organizations. Command and Control places the intelligence in the center, thus maximizing consistency regardless of which nodes exist within the network (replace-ability). Neither the Army or the Navy Seals have the resource flexibility to allow every element to adapt mission (from medic to pilot) rather they plan and operate toward objectives.

In Fortune 50 companies we have dedicated groups for each of these lifecycle functions, each team operating across projects (Corporate IT). This structure provides tremendous advantage when the battle requires capacity (ie manpower) which can operate consistently (holding ground), but obviously ill-suited for something they have never done before (ie moon launch, brain surgery).

Mentoring/coaching/training are normally done within a function. Thus paths for career growth are typically biased toward specialization.  This is a KEY reason so few experienced Fortune 50 people make their way into the start up world (ie think M1A1 Brigade Tank Commander). Start ups have a much greater need for players that can assume many roles AND understand/support/contribute to other functions like sales..  ask your corporate IT team when they last met a business person of any sort.

Start up multi role  talent is part of what makes Silicon Valley so unique.. it is the nexus for experienced multi role utility employees.. and not just any kind of employees, but employees that are willing to share personal risk (in exchange for equity upside).  The Valley itself is a social network of networks where the currency is Reputation and connection.

This brings us back to the Google 20% time. What I like best about this is that it helps grow employees networking skills.. A Googler has an idea and tries to get other Googlers to participate… across the organization. This is tremendous process which cultivates much more mature initiatives than a solo “visionary” approach. It’s a great way for people to expand their professional network, learn what else is going on in the company and refine concepts to market ready products.

The problems with this approach are that Googlers start to spend more than 20% of their time (or mental energy) on their new “network”… loosing focus on their assigned activity. Managers thus set more aggressive timelines to encourage more focus..  after all it’s hard to be part of 2 families…

Start up structure

What team structure should a startup assume? Everyone wants a Navy seal team, but having a rock star in every position can be both expensive and problematic. A common VC discussion is: How many Google engineers do you want in a start up? Answer is between 0-1.

Why wouldn’t you want a start up with 100% ex Googlers? Start ups have to be laser focused on getting a product out the door, agreeing on “good enough” requirements, and assuming many, many ugly roles (like operations and customer support).  For Googlers, it’s like moving from a palatial engineers nirvana to a scrap yard. Some make the transition..

Thus taking people from the Army, or taking them from the Navy seals can be challenging.. what do you want?

One of my most memorable conversations on this topic was with Ted Schlein of KPCB, and former president of the NVCA.  He said that 60% of his job was HR… getting the right people into the right teams. As an investor you can’t have top notch talent in every position, but you must have highly key people that must be highly capable coaches to develop their bench and extend their skillset.

Great Coaches

Most investor time is spent focusing on the leader/founder. What makes them tick? What is their burning desire? What people are they associated with? What are their life experiences? How do they learn? How mature is their awareness of the environment? How do they interact with people? How do they learn? Do they know how to listen? What are their strengths/weaknesses? Personal appetite for risk?

My belief is that too little investor time has been focused on functional leaders under the CEO… at least from the perspective of coaching. …. A great coach knows how to identify and cultivate talent. In a sports team, coaches are a paid position.. a specialized function. Managers should be able to assume this role… but some fall into the trap of command and control.. vs enhancing capability and assisting w/ network formation.

Can’t Coach “Network” or Teamwork

You can’t coach network..  In sports we see this within superstar teams that don’t “gel”. If you were a startup CEO, what would you rather have:

  1. Team that works well within one another, and has known each other for 10 yrs
  2. A super star?

My answer: on the engineering side, I want network.. on the sales side I want Super Star (goalie).

Start up networks of engineering talent demonstrate the problem of bringing in a single Google engineer… they must “gel” with people of very different experiences and approaches to engineering. The key traits I look for in employees where network is required? Humility, ability to communicate, and playing one team sport in your life.

Perhaps I should take all new employee prospects out to the soccer field.. let them compete against a bunch of existing employees that have a plan and know each other’s capabilities.  See how they work together as a team..

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