As a startup, you’re often outnumbered and outgunned. Can you really afford to fight with one hand tied behind your back?

Entrepreneurs are idea-driven people. If they didn’t believe in their ideas, they would never undertake the risky, (generally) economically-irrational path of trying to start their own companies. But it’s critical not to let your pride in your own ideas get in the way of leveraging the ideas of the rest of your team.

Making life or death decisions without enough information? Sounds an awful lot like running a startup to me!  Tweet This Quote

Back when I was a business school student, one of the key exercises we ran was the Subarctic Survival Situation. We first-year MBA students had to pretend that we were the survivors of a plane crash, and rank the 15 items we had salvaged from the plane in order of importance to our survival. First, all the students rank the items individually, then the entire team has to reach a consensus order.

The magic of the simulation is that the consensus order is nearly always superior to the choices of any individual student, regardless of their level of expertise. Making life or death decisions without enough information? Sounds an awful lot like running a startup to me!

So how do you go about tapping the wisdom of your startup’s crowd? Here are a few key principles to follow:

1. Distribute information broadly.

Information is the lifeblood of decision-making; you have to resist the temptation to keep the information to yourself. While you may think that you’re trying to avoid “distracting” your team, what you’re actually doing is ensuring that no one but you has the information needed to make a decision. Saying, “You don’t know all the details,” is a nearly foolproof way to shut down debate. And that’s precisely why you need to avoid saying it.

Your goal should be to find the best ideas, not to win.  Tweet This Quote

Make sure you distribute important information to all of your team members. I’m not asking you to CC: “All” on every email; overwhelming people with too much information is nearly as bad as withholding it. But it’s reasonable to share the key facts and figures.

2. Establish the rules of engagement—and stick to them

You may think that rules are for big company types, but nothing could be further from the truth. Encouraging a free-for-all doesn’t produce a level playing field — rather, it tilts the playing field in favor of the loud and confident. Conveniently enough, that usually favors the founder.

Your goal should be to find the best ideas, not to win. To accomplish this goal, you need to establish rules that encourage everyone to speak, and that treat everyone’s ideas fairly and consistently. In many cases, you’re probably currently the worst violator of these rules. Set a better example.

3. Ask good questions in a systematic way.

Even if you think you have all the answers, the best way to leverage the intelligence of your team is to ask the right questions. A good question is specific, open-ended, and doesn’t have a pre-determined answer. Asking questions to which you already know the answers is all about bullying people into your existing point of view, not learning something new.

Leveraging the expertise of your team only works if you follow through.  Tweet This Quote

Once you’ve come up with good questions, ask them in a systematic way. Don’t just call everyone into a conference room every time you feel like talking — that’s lazy and unproductive, especially if you’re pulling people away from work in progress. Instead, have the discipline to schedule a time for the discussion, and post the questions in advance so that people can ask clarifications or prepare answers in advance. A great way to do this is with a wiki page where everyone can contribute.

4. Follow up!

It doesn’t matter if you successfully leverage the expertise of your team and get the right answer if you don’t follow through. Simply asking for their input isn’t enough. If you keep asking and getting advice, but never take it, they’ll soon conclude that contributing their brainpower is a waste of time (and will probably conclude that they should find another company to work for).

Pick an important issue or question that is facing your startup, and put these principles to work!

Chris Yeh

Author Chris Yeh

Chris is the VP Marketing for PBworks, partner at Wasabi Ventures, and an avid startup investor and advisor. He is also a co-author of The Alliance and serial tech entrepreneur in Silicon Valley.

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