Teamwork, the special ingredient of Israeli startups

From Australia to Europe, Singapore and China – everyone is trying to copy the Israel Startup model. A steady stream of visitors tours the country, meets with incubators and accelerators and talks to entrepreneurs in order to crack the code and bring home some of the magic startup dust that is so prevalent here. But is it just a matter of copy-paste?

Recently a friend of mine took part in a European – Israeli tech development event. The Israelis wanted exposure to Europe and the European teams wanted to be exposed to some of the high risk Israeli culture. The differences between the teams were remarkable: the Israeli team were all over each other, sharing information, asking questions, challenging each other and helping out. The European teams basically kept to themselves, keeping out of each other’s way and worked quietly. The difference in behaviors is important. In Israel there are few rules, personal space is not highly respected you are expected to share everything from your political views to your tech ideas and your family life – nothing is out of bounds. It is this high contact team culture that makes up one of the pillars of the Israeli startup phenomenon.

Israeli behavior, well documented in Senor and Singer’s “Startup Nation” is rooted in the military, the pioneering spirit and irreverence for accepted rules. No one is born with these behaviors but they can be learned.

Until the past few years the startup club was limited to the Jewish sector. Lately, a number of organizations such as Tsofen and IT Works have been working on increasing the participation of Arab Israelis in high tech and keeping them there. I recently facilitated a number of groups of Arab engineers who have rallied to the task of creating networking groups and mentoring for Arab graduates. Even though many of them may have not been in the army and there are cultural gaps, young Arab professionals are looking and feeling more and more like their Jewish counterparts. I increasingly find it difficult behaviorally to tell the difference between Arabs and Jews working in industry. All of the regular stereotypes about young Jewish Israelis seem to apply to young Arab Israelis: brash, confident, daring, creative and communicative come to mind.

Teamwork is just as important as tech knowledge and experience. Some years ago I helped teams participating in a future talent week long strategy training workshop. My job was to give the teams a chance to play, hone their teamwork skills and give them a chance to vent about how they were doing. I was no expert at the strategic content they were working on but as the week progressed it was clear which team worked well together, which dealt with and overcame difficulties and which team developed a toxic relationship. At the end of the week an internal panel was brought in to judge the strategic presentations. The results reflected directly exactly what I had seen in their relations: the team that got along well came first, the two teams that struggled came second and third and the stalemate team came last. It did not seem to matter how clever they were – the team that communicated well, dealt with and overcame difficulties and did not get bogged down in trench warfare got the job done.

In order to build a high class team in a startup try these Israeli methods:

The First Ten. Choosing the first 10 employees can affect the chances of ongoing success. Ill-informed decisions can doom the outcome.

High Contact It is no wonder tech hubs are springing up everywhere in Israel. New ideas need constant stimulus, input and challenging. Make sure your team is in constant contact and that includes face to face meetings and fun.

A Clear Vision If everyone is pulling indifferent directions it is only a matter of time until the team falls apart. Strategic pivots will have to get buy in from the key players.

Conflict is the basic building block of teamwork in Israel. Raised voices, protracted debate and criticism are all a regular part of developing ideas and plans. True, the lack of discipline in Israel means that many decisions are second guessed – successful teams know how to put the team output to work.

Team facilitation. Getting this bunch of highly talented and driven people to work well together often needs external assistance. Short and sharp interventions can stop the bus from driving into a wall. Israel is rich with companies offering a wide range of experiential team workshops that get the creative juices flowing and allow for the toughest issues to be put on the table.

About the Author
Richard is an organizational consultant and facilitator working with organizations in Israel to develop their teamwork and leadership. He is a founder of the Tuval Training Center specializing in experiential learning and lives in the Western Galilee.
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