Six lessons I recently learned on leadership and teamwork in innovation

Recently I attended the inaugural Australian-French Entrepreneurship Challenge. The challenge was a collaboration between Australian and French government, education and industry, to provide Australian PhD students exposure to entrepreneurial thinking and process. Based on the French event, ‘24H nonstop Academic Entrepreneurship Contest’, the challenge pitted eight teams of students in competition to, over a 24-hour period, identify a problem and to develop a business plan to solve that problem. The competition culminated in two rounds of pitching competition, with the winning team receiving a prize of extreme street-cred, and a trip to France to scope out the French innovation scene.

The countdown begins

The teams were picked by the organisers, and each included a diverse range of skills, motivations, and values. Also, each team’s members had (notionally) previously never met. From a team organisation, culture, and leadership viewpoint, a group of people who have never met, thrust into a high pressure and stress scenario, with little idea of how to get from zero to a sound business plan, is a massive challenge. It was also great opportunity for me to experience and learn more about leadership and successful teamwork.

So here I present six lessons on leadership and successful team work that I learned from the 2016 Australian-French Entrepreneurship Challenge.

1. Have a strategy

Always have a strategy of how you’re going to get from ‘A’ to ‘B’. A good strategy is going to guide you along the way, and will act as your compass along the journey. A good strategy is not something you discover on reflection once you reach ‘B’. Instead, define your strategy early on in your journey. However, that’s not to say a strategy is something a team should ‘set and forget’. Over the course of their journey, the team’s collective knowledge of the destination will improve, and this should serve as input to correcting the team’s course. That’s not to say that without a strategy, a team cannot get from ‘A’ to ‘B’; the team may certainly get there, but the path taken may not be the most efficient, or effective. Whereas, by defining a strategy early in the journey a team is saying “we want to arrive at ‘B’ the best way we can”. Our team didn’t do this, and I believe we suffered for it in that our output did not meet the level of our commitment, work ethic or ability.

2. Have defined roles

Each member of the team should know what they need to contribute to get the team from ‘A’ to be ‘B’. This should not be left to chance. Uncertainty of purpose can result in a team member not feeling connected to to the team and its goals, which in turn can result in poor performance. Team members not knowing their role can also result in the doubling up of work or, worse, work not being completed. Early on, our team spent some time talking about our individual strengths and weaknesses. However, we balked at the opportunity to define clear roles for each member, and opted for a more egalitarian, agile approach to managing what had to be done, which was a mistake. After a while, in some ways, our roles were partially defined by our personalities, strengths, weaknesses, and interactions with each other. However, I believe that the uncertainty created by not spending the time to better define our roles ultimately resulted in us not producing as quality a result as we could have. This is because team members with a clear purpose are more engaged, more effective, and more efficient, and this is why it’s important for all team members to know their role in the journey.

3. People need to be guided to their best

Without doubt, people always want to give their very best. Especially high-achievers like PhD students. However, giving one’s best is affected by so many external factors, like stress, pressure, uncertainty, and dreaming about the last time you experienced the bliss of sleep. These external factors can distract even the most focused of people away from a goal, such that their productivity can reduce to a point where it is but a pale comparison of their optimal output. This is where a good leader is able to help; by ensuring these external factors, at least the ones that can be controlled, are mitigated, they allow the team to continue providing their very best. Unfortunately, our team didn’t have a clearly defined leader, and so this function went unfilled. Due to the lack of this leadership and guidance, our team did not produce the very best they could have. I know this because the few times our team had clarity of purpose were also the few times someone within the group took the reins and guided us there, and these were also the times we produced our most outstanding results.

4. Embrace diversity

A team is a collection of personalities, values, knowledge, skills, and experience. If the goal of the team is to be innovative and entrepreneurial, which was definitely the goal of our team, then the team needs to be as broad as possible with respect to all of these traits. If everyone in the team is the same, then everyone will think the same, and such teams will always generate similar results. However, if the team is diverse, then the collective knowledge, experience, values, etc., of the team is broadened, resulting in a higher chance for the alignment of seemingly disjoint ideas, and so arises a greater opportunity for creativity. Furthermore, a broader range of knowledge and skills in-of-itself provides greater opportunity, as the team is able to tackle more complex, multidisciplinary problems. The benefits of diversity were seen early on for our team, when we were first trying to identify a solution to the problem we wanted to solve. We had decided that the big problem we wanted to solve was the ever growing impact landfill is on the environment. We broke off into groups focusing on different types of waste going into landfill. Being a computer scientist I, along with a materials scientist named Shafique, was tasked into looking into e-waste. After a while we realised we just weren’t getting the results we wanted. So we went back to basic and asked ourselves “what problems do we personally have with waste?” I don’t enjoy taking out the garbage, so from there an idea was born, to solve the problem of landfill waste by solving my problem of not wanting to take out the garbage. I wondered if it was possible to somehow generate electricity in the home from all the food we’re currently putting in landfill. This would greatly reduce the volume of garbage I was producing, which would ultimately reduce the number of times I would have to take out the trash. However, without Shafique’s knowhow, there is absolutely no way I could have technically validated my idea. Also, if it hadn’t been for someone else suggesting landfill, we would never have been asking those questions in the first place. So it was this cross-section of people that produced the result, something which we would never have been able to to achieve without diversity in our team.

5. Innovation is seeded in what you value

As an individual or as a team, innovation starts with what you value. This is because whatever problem you’re trying to solve, you first have to believe that solving that problem is the right thing to do. When you’re in a team, the challenge (other than being innovative) is to find the common values that you’re going to leverage to discover where your innovation will lie. Our team did this as one of our very first exercises and it proved invaluable, as when we were at a fork in the road we would often go back to our shared values to find our path. To discover our shared values, we mind-mapped our motivations for being (or wanting to be) entrepreneurs. We used the intersection of these values as the starting point in identifying the problem we, as a team, wanted to solve. Without identifying these values at the start, our team may not have found a problem that we all believed in and were fully committed to solving.

6. Leadership is not a part-time role

Leadership is not something that is done between other activities. One of the roles of the team should be a leader. With the leader identified, that person should dive head first in making sure the team gets from ‘A’ to be ‘B’ while producing the best possible results. This way, leadership becomes proactive, rather than reactive, and the leader is able to identify problems long before they occur. We were a team without a leader, and when leadership was shown, it was always in reaction to a situation. This was reflected in the amount of time we spent solving problems that we could have easily avoided with a little foresight or proactive management. With foresight of potential issues, a great leader will be able to steer the team well clear of danger. They won’t be able to do this if they’re distracted with other tasks.

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