April 1, 2020
5 strategies for team communications in a black swan event
Success for a startup, outside of the magical product market fit, can often come down to contingency planning and preparation for unexpected events. Unfortunately, nothing can completely prepare you for a true black swan event, as by its very definition, black swan events are very hard to foresee and don’t necessarily look as we would imagine.
We’re currently living in one, a pandemic that is redefining how we live, work and even interact with each other on a daily basis. Nothing is unaffected, no one is untouched, we are all a part of this, no matter our socio-economic status. Having worked in communications and marketing for the last 25 years, I’ve seen many ups and downs, and worked closely with a variety of teams and people. Given that as a backdrop, here are a few thoughts on how to keep the boat steady during these times.
Acknowledge companies are living organisms, treat them as such
Living organisms, big and small, need care and feeding in order to thrive, not simply survive. It’s no different with a company. If people aren’t feeling healthy or safe, it can put them into a mode of thinking that’s unproductive at best, counter productive at worst.
In order to counteract this, it will be critical that you tell your team to take time for their physical health and mental health. Jog, do Yoga, take Aikido, kick the soccer ball around, or take a hike. There are lots of ways to get the blood pumping, and that’s especially important in stressful times. Encourage your team to think about setting a 30 minute meeting daily where they take a walk or do whatever it is that gets their blood flowing. Likewise, if they’re feeling overwhelmed by life or work, encourage them to talk to you, each other, or a professional.
Mental health is unquestionably the top priority, and if you have a team that isn’t able to cope, you have a team that isn’t going to survive long term. Encourage or even schedule a company wide 15 minute Mental Health Break, where people take a moment to reflect/breathe/meditate/relax or whatever. Also, whether it’s through employer health services or through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration SAMHSA, encourage people to seek out the help they need. Post resources and make them simple to find, sometimes people feel uncomfortable asking for help, but will click a link if it's easy. A foggy mind can’t see clearly, and getting through a black swan requires a mental clarity beyond our normal measure.
Lastly, remember to take a moment and appreciate the people around you. Like everything in life, this is a two way relationship and people appreciate acknowledgement. It doesn’t have to be big, people appreciate knowing that you noticed or that you took the time to think about what they did. There’s no better way to quickly turn a culture toxic than to ask a lot of people to work hard and under extreme circumstances, then not take the time to thank them. Thank you, for taking the time to read this.
Maintain relationships, not just communications
Oftentimes we think that because we’re communicating via email, and getting work done, we’re maintaining the relationships necessary to build and mature a team. Simply put, that isn’t enough. In this time of imposed isolation, it’s more important than ever to connect on a personal level. Make sure that you maintain a company all-hands, even if it’s virtual and done purely through web conferencing. Don't stop there, explore other avenues to connect (company polls, virtual happy hours), it's critical to maintain or, if ultimately necessary, replace the physical connections you have from sharing a workspace.
Make sure that you set aside 10 minutes minimum during each all hands call to bring to light the personal stories that each of your team members has. That can be anything from a round robin where people put forward a favorite movie or show they recently watched, to a recipe for a dinner item they made, to a tip or trick they use to make working from home, work for them. When your team learns about each other’s personal lives, they create connections that help them to see more than just an email address they need to add to make sure something gets done. Teams that care about each other, care about making each other successful, and ultimately about achieving the goals that have been set for the company.
Slow and steady keeps you in the race
Panic rarely helps anyone when they are put into difficult situations, more often than not it actually hinders the chances for success. Knee jerk reactions, pivots and poorly planned actions will only succeed in getting you nowhere quickly, or worse, put your entire company into a tailspin. Stop, take a breath and remember, when it comes to making a successful company or product, you’re playing chess, not checkers.
Make sure you set reasonable milestones. They should be a stretch, but the last thing needed during particularly stressful times is a goal that is unachievable or beyond the reach of a reasonable person. It’s important to get your team cranking away, achieve small wins on a more regular basis, acknowledge them fast and move on to the next one. Winning changes people's brain chemistry and getting them into that mode as much as possible is a great strategy to keep them hungry for more success. Once you have solid base layers, grow your challenges and give your team a wide berth to learn and grow while doing it. There’s a reason people say success breeds success.
Culture comes from the top, and it's vital to maintain a sense of purpose
Leading and leadership can come from all levels, but ultimately, the executive team sets the tone and culture of an organization. That's even more important in times of stress and difficulty when everyone's emotions are frayed and tensions run high. If people see leaders fighting, yelling, unsure, whatever, they will model that behavior. A leadership team that uses fear to motivate will create a fearful organization where lower level leaders intimidate instead of motivate. People look to leaders for guidance on how to act, moreso in times of uncertainty and stress.
Creating a culture of positivity is the only way to create a foundation that can be stress tested. That doesn't mean there isn't room for constructive criticism, or disagreement, it's about doing it respectfully. I was in a senior position once a while ago and I didn't understand this fully until one day I found myself being really short with someone. I stopped after and thought, this isn't me, I'm not like this. But yelling wasn't uncommon in meetings and I realized I had gotten so accustomed to it, I was doing it myself. Toxicity is contagious, don't let it get its claws in your organization, and remember to lead by example.
Leadership also means giving people clear direction. Everyone needs a map, everyone needs to know where north is, and most importantly, everyone needs to work off the same map while agreeing on which way is north. What does that mean? Make sure you have a vision. Make sure everyone knows and buys into that vision. Make sure you have a plan for how to get to that vision. Make sure everyone knows the plan and the role they play in making it come to life. Lastly, and most importantly, make sure they feel personally invested in contributing and playing their part in that vision.
Don’t be afraid to adapt
Change can be difficult, but if you don’t take the time to read your environment and read the winds and tides, then you’re bound to sink. Adaptation can sometimes be small or micro adjustments to how you or your team work, or it can be major changes to product or vision. Be strategic, not capricious, but adapt when necessary. Adaptation isn’t bad, it’s about doing what you need to do to have a higher likelihood of survival and ultimately, success.
I once saw a meme, it was a sticky note next to an empty glass. The note read:
Dear Optimist, Pessimist and Realist
While you were arguing over the glass of water, I drank it.
Sometimes it’s about assessing what’s going on quickly, then adapting and making the moves necessary for your success.
There is no end
This is a race with no real ending, because every time you think you’ve made it, there’s a bigger, more important race to win. It’s clearly a tough time for companies of all kinds, whether they are in traditional tech, crypto, retail, airlines, you name it. In 2000 and then in 2008 the tech industry saw massive downturns, and while many did not survive, those that did became leaders in their space and helped usher in the next wave of innovation. Of course, one of the most important qualities of those winning companies was, they built solid foundations based on reality (not hype) in the good times, so were able to push through the hard times with minor adjustments, not major upheavals.
I believe blockchain is at a critical juncture along the lines seen in the 2000 and 2008 turmoil. Though we are living at a difficult time in our growth not only as a society, but as a species, the moment is ripe for a movement to decentralized paradigms. Maintaining the life of my company, through authentic relationships of caring that are still focused on creating an amazing decentralized infrastructure are important to me. I’m working my way through this new maze, like many people, and I thought others could benefit from some of the ideas that are guiding me through these troubled markets. This too shall pass, and we will build a better decentralized world because of it. Be safe, stay sane and stay healthy.