How to recruit great teams through serendipity

By Jonah Zankl, PhD Candidate in the Organisational Theory & Information Systems at Cambridge Judge Business School and Matthew Grimes, Reader in Organisational Theory & Information Systems and Academic Co-Director of the Entrepreneurship Centre at Cambridge Judge Business School.

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“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.”

Michael Jordan

While Michael Jordan’s adage was of course referenced in the context of basketball, the same can be said about the relationship between teams and startup success. Within the context of entrepreneurship, research points again and again to the idea that teams and their composition play an essential role in startups’ performance, explaining the variance in different startup outcomes (Jin et al., 2017)1. Unicorns are known as much for their dynamic duos, Larry and Sergei, Jobs and Wozniak, as they are their underlying products, Google, and Apple. It is no wonder then that investors increasingly focus on the team when selecting startups to back.

Yet, building a truly great team can often appear as a complex and challenging process involving identifying, hiring, and retaining individuals who “fit” with the startup and its vision. First, they must fit with the culture, values, and aspirations of your startup. Second, they must fit the role, bringing skills that are both needed in the immediate term, but also ideally in the future. And third, their past experiences must convey some experiential fit — that their prior professional experiences will add insight and value to the product you are building and the customers you are serving. Finding a team member who fits in each of these ways is no simple task, especially given time and resource constraints at the earliest phases of starting up. Given such challenges, conventional business wisdom would suggest then, that to win a championship – to launch a winning startup – you need to develop a formal HR strategy, your playbook. This strategy would then entail setting out detailed criteria, engaging in a formal search process and standardized recruitment approach to identify candidates, and then filtering those candidates against the three aforementioned dimensions of fit. This deliberate HR strategy to develop a winning team surely works given its proliferation as the standard across most hiring processes, right?

But what if hiring, instead, was as much about serendipity as it is about formal HR-based approaches?

Serendipity is an often-misunderstood term, used colloquially to highlight chance fortuitous events. However, as many social scientists increasingly recognise, serendipity is better conceptualised as an individual and organisational capacity for recognising and creating value from unexpected or peripheral events, encounters, and information. How does this relate to recruiting great teams? Imagine that the process of building a winning team does not start and stop with a formal HR recruiting process. Rather, consider recruiting as an ongoing emergent process of scanning and relationship building within your entrepreneurial ecosystem, paying particular focus to positive connections that stretch outside your typical boundaries. While deliberate hiring processes will (and often must) play a central role in the development of your startup team, coupling this with an emergent process of observing and making connections where others do not, can set your startup apart for success. We suggest that developing the capacity for your organization to grow teams through serendipity will require you and your startup to take proactive steps to:

  1. Increase opportunities for positively random interactions and encounters
  2. Increase your capacity to recognize interactions that appear peripheral (and thus seemingly less relevant) as offering deep and overlooked value
  3. Creating fluid organizational structures, roles, cultures, and hiring practices that allow your organisation to embrace these positive deviations from conventional HR strategy

The first step of increasing opportunities for positively random interactions and encounters is activity that is often already embedded within the startup process. Entrepreneurs typically recognize the role that engaging in their regional entrepreneurial ecosystem has on developing connections needed both in the short and long term. And organisations like the Cambridge Judge Entrepreneurship Centre are often designed precisely to facilitate such connections. However, as the grind of launching your business takes over, these “networking” activities can appear to be distractions or timesinks with increasingly less value. When was the last time you attended a networking event or workshop that was outside of your core speciality or industry? Have you joined networks that explicitly aim to connect disparate disciplines or industries? Do you have advisors that facilitate connections outside of your core area of focus? For your startup teams to benefit from serendipity, we need to increase our field of vision to include realms of possibility outside of our standard operating models. Increasing connections, particularly with those coming from different disciplines and industries, increases our likelihood of experiencing positively random interactions. The science and innovation communities have taken this to heart. For example, Connect: Health Tech, a Cambridge University Enterprise Zone initiative that encourages scientists, researchers, entrepreneurs, and clinicians from the biotechnology and medical technology fields to connect around health technologies, has leveraged serendipitous connections to help foster the creation of several new spinout teams and attract millions of pounds of innovation funding. Finding the next possible star team member requires increasing the breadth of our field of interactions to encompass both areas where we expect to find potential team members, as well as those where unexpected serendipity may arise.

It is not enough to increase the opportunity for connections; serendipitous team building requires active recognition of seemingly peripheral interactions as meaningful. This is where mindset comes in. Consider the last time that you made a connection between two seemingly disparate business opportunities or strategic decisions? What enabled you to see that when others did not? Returning to our adage of basketball, leaders are often committed to a number of tasks which keep their eyes firmly on the ball. Yet, to make a successful pass, it requires constant scanning and observing of the environment, seeing a potential connection where others see gaps. Just as this analogy rings true in the context of ideation, it similarly rings true in the context of relationship and team building. Traditional hiring strategy would suggest reactively advertising for an expert in a specific domain, as and when a related organisational or strategic problem is made apparent. Moreover, it often requires elaborate and detailed specification of the role that typically precludes the possibility of attracting innovative team members whose careers rarely fit “inside the box”. So instead, what if you decided to purposefully cultivate those peripheral relationships, developing your own capacity to move beyond superficial conversations toward deeper engagements which might surface latent opportunities for collaboration. Perhaps then that presentation you went to the month prior, that at first seemed a timesink, instead opens up a new world of possible innovation for your team. In this way recognizing bridges between “weak cues” becomes an important part of building your team.

Finally, to the extent that serendipitous interactions are prone to surface unexpected opportunities, embracing such positive deviations from conventional HR strategy requires a corresponding deviation in static organizational structures, roles, and hiring practices. As most founders are well aware, the typical hiring process often raises a number of issues and uncertainties which can undermine the perceived alignment between a candidate and the startup, including: timing requirements your organization versus those of a potential new team member; the startup’s current capability gaps versus those that might arise in the near future; and unknowns about the future for both parties. In this way, such uncertainties can jeopardize a particular candidate’s perceived role fit, but in the process it can also restrict the capacity of your organization to hire great talent and ultimately build a great team. Thus, to embrace an emergent and scanning-based approach to growing a great team requires adaptiveness from existing HR structures and recognition of the possible rather than being constrained by rigid templates.

Some startups have taken small steps towards an emergent process by posting advertisements for “future talent” and “future opportunities”, hoping to use such placeholders to build a rolodex of star talent to tap when a need arises. But how many would be willing to hire without a defined opening first arising? How many startups proactively conduct ongoing and outward talent searches, rather than waiting for talent to come to them? Both of these models, inward talent attraction and outward talent scouting, require your organization to be flexible in embracing a new team member even in the absence of a currently defined need. So, instead of posting an advertisement for your next Chief Financial Officer or Director of Technology what if you turned attention to scouting for your next Director of Adjacent Possibilities? A role, in other words, that is not demarcated by existing conceptions of who your next hire should be, but one that remains advertised for when a great team member comes along unexpectedly. Their role is thus defined by what they might bring, rather than what they should bring. A role that emerges from the serendipitous nature of your connection with them, all because you cultivated your capacity to observe connections outside of your typical line of sight. If you do this, you will find that building a great team is just as much about being deliberate as it is about leaving room for the emergent, at times leaving conventional hiring wisdom on the courtside bench.

1 Jin, L. et al. (2017) ‘Entrepreneurial Team Composition Characteristics and New Venture Performance: A Meta–Analysis’, Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 41(5), pp. 743–771. doi: 10.1111/etap.12232.

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