The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

For the first Startup Book Club we read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. The team is often described as the most important aspect of founding a startup but it’s incredibly difficult to assess other than looking at the experience of the individuals. The Five Dysfunctions goes beyond that though and is one of the most useful things I’ve read on what to look for in the way a team works together. More impressively it also has some good suggestions about what to do about it if it’s not working.

The book is written from the point fo view of Kathryn — a fictional turnaround CEO of a Silicon Valley startup with a hundred or so employees. The team in question is the executive board and after watching the way they work together for two weeks, Kathryn takes them out of their office environment and starts to confront them about their dysfunctions by explaining a model she draws on a whiteboard.

  • The base of the pyramid is absence of trust. Do they know anything about each other and feel comfortable sharing with each other?
  • The next level up is fear of conflict. This is usually the most obvious sign of dysfunction in early stage startups for me although I think I did used to misread it. If a team can’t have disagreements and work through them, they’re often holding back.
  • Next comes lack of commitment — this isn’t the same as commitment to the cause, it’s about commitment to decisions. The easy way to spot it is whether the team having the same debates over and over again.
  • Avoidance of accountability — how do they deal with failure.
  • Inattention to results — do they know what they’re trying to achieve and all

At BGV, because we’re working at such an early stage, it’s not really possible to know whether a team has those dysfunctions at the time we select them. We get some signs though and actually most of the interview is about assessing the team (we make our judgement about the idea from applications).

Once we’ve selected teams and are trying to help them develop, the thing we focus on is honesty, which sounds simple but really isn’t. Getting any group of people to be honest with one another takes time and effort. We’re constantly trying to get the startups to share what they’ve learned — whether it’s good or bad — and also we ask them at least twice a week what they need help with, which is a good way of checking how honest they’re being with themselves. Having spent a bit of time with them now I can safely say they’re on the right track.

The book we’ve chosen for the next Startup Book Club is very different but no less valuable to startup life — it’s Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson. You can sign up to come along here.
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