From dissent to doubling down: Co-Founder conflict is the best session yet

Team building and co-founder conflict. These were the topics for our last session. They looked simple and straight-foward to us. However, the CEOs and the PLs thought otherwise, they believed these topics can be dealt only in an unusual setup, out in the wild. So, even before the start of the previous session, the CEOs and the PLs started seeking our opinion about a 1.5 day program, including camping out as a group. After much deliberation and scheduling conflicts, it was decided that we would do the session outdoors. Unfortunately, this meant some people would miss out, because of personal and professional constraints.

Well, I bet no one would have realized how much fun and engaging the outdoor experience would have been. I, for one, wish every session is held outdoors, but then again, I know I can’t ask for unicorns.

The day session began at the usual location with a couple of talks, about team building and conflict-resolution. After the lectures, we carpooled to the outdoor location, the simple, serene Divya Retreat Resort in Keesargutta, about 30KM outside of Hyderabad.

Once everyone reached the location and settled in, we were introduced to the CEOs for the outdoor program, Diyanat Ali and Nishant, both of whom run India’s fastest growing community, the Greater Hyderabad Adventure Club. Diyanat, with his experience in handling in corporate outings through his startup, Outlife, designed the agenda for the program and would conduct it, with support from the usual suspects, our PLs and session CEOs as well as SLPeers and friends, Karl and Varma.

The first part of the program was about team building. It started with an interesting question: 4 sessions into the program, “how well do we know our SLPeers?” It appeared, perhaps from our chemistry, that Diyanat already knew the answer: not very much. So started the first exercise. In about 5 minutes, each of us wrote things we personally connected with, cared about and wanted to achieve on a piece of paper. We then use craftsmanship to turn those papers into planes and flew them all into the open grounds at the same time. In no time, we lost track of our planes and started flying others’. After about a minute, each one of us had the personal story of another SLPeer in our hand. All of us then settle down into a circle and started a game where each of us tried to identify the person depending on what the contents of the plane in our hand read. It was one of the most fun ways of learning about others. It was nostalgic too; reminding us of clipboards, exams, complaining of non-working pens, trying to copy from others and turning papers into planes!

The peer-learning was followed by quick activity that tested (and eventually improved) our ability to sync our minds and bodies as a team to perform seemingly-easy PT (Physical Training) instructions. As much fun as it was, it would fade out in comparison to what lay ahead.

It was an hour of pure fun and understanding our peers. Yet, it was only the beginning, of both learning and fun.

After the PT session, we divided ourselves, randomly, into two teams, Idly and Dosa. Each team formed a circle and made a spaghetti by holding each others’ hands in the most random way possible. We were then asked to untangle the spaghetti, without ever unfolding hands. Of course, Idlies and Dosas were competing with each other to see who could untangle first. Dosas won by a big margin and their victory streak was only beginning (I guess you figured out by now which team yours truly belonged in :-) ).

Anyway, as the Idlies proceeded to untangle their spaghetti, some dosas took to sledging them, while other took off to enjoy some fruit and play Frisbee (at least, until yours truly fired it into the adjacent lake). In no time, Idlies finished their game and joined the rest of us in conversations, games and snacks. The nice, green open grounds and the calm, pleasant and pollution free atmosphere was just perfect to indulge in a break from our typically hectic entrepreneurial lives. We made the most of it at the slightest opportunity. 

After a brief break, Idlies and Dosas organized back into team and formed circles as human chains for another game. Each team was then given a hula hoop. The idea was to start the hoop at one joint in the chain and move it across all the joints until it back to where it started; all of this, without breaking the chain at any time. It took a lot of jumping-through-the-hoops and cheering from other teammates to get it done. Of course, between Idlies and Dosas, it was again a competition of who would finish sooner. This time, the Idlies beat the Dosas by a healthy 25 second margin, flaring up a rivalry. Not the ones to be bogged down, Dosas called for another challenge, and this time, they beat the Idlies by finishing it in less than half of Idlies’ time. It wasn’t a straight shot, though. We (Dosas) discussed and arrived at a strategy that would help us move the hoop faster and it surely did wonders.

Next up was a, literally, heavy task. So, Diyanat and gang prepped us, mentally, for it. Dosas and Idlies were asked to designate a member from their teams as their captains. Dosas picked Sai Krishna and Idlies picked Venkat as their captains. The teams were now to come up with a name and war cry for themselves. Dosas renamed themselves “Delivering Dare Devil Dosas” with the war cry “More Cheese!”, while Idlies renamed themselves “Trojans”, with the war cry “Fry the Dosas”. We then announced our names and acted out our war cries for the other teams, pumping ourselves up before the heavy duty game.

The teams were each given an area of 9 tiles (of 1×1 feet) each. The objective of the game was to squeeze ourselves into lesser and lesser number of tiles over 30 second laps. The team that squeezed itself into the least number of tiles wins. Both teams set had the same strategy of big guys lifting the smaller ones onto their shoulders and the rest would balance themselves on single foot. Being lighter, I was on a stronger teammate’s shoulders, while another lighter member clicked away selfies to capture the moments. Eventually, Dosas squeezed into 3 tiles and Trojans into 4. The next game was ever-more-slightly less intense, but required different strategy than before. Each team could have 3 people, each with one foot outside the tiles. This time, each team employed a slightly different strategy. Dosas ended up on 2 tiles, while Trojans finished on 3.

With that, the games concluded for the day and we wrapped by congratulating and thanking the strong ones for hoisting us “lighter” ones up in the air and bringing us down safely.

While we only saw the fun in the games that Diyanat designed for us, there were a lot of undertones to it. Starting with the peer-learning session, each subsequent session build on top of the previous one to help us connect with ourselves and with each other in much better and fun-tastic ways. Each session was an exercise in discussing, motivating, tolerating, respecting and, most of all, trusting each other and working as a team that worried about fierce competition and had fun in the process. More than anything else, it’s a reflection of our own (in some cases, potential) entrepreneurial journeys.

After all the games, we settled down into one big circle to reflect on the day and what we take away to improve our own teams, cultures and strategies.

At the end of the tiring day, we went in for an indoor exercise that helped us understand our own leadership styles, based on KOLB’s Learning Style Inventory.

We then went off to check in to our camping tents and reassemble in some time around a campfire for a bar camp and BBQ. Sai Krishna Popuri took the opportunity to learn from the peers how he could improve his sales figures. After intense debates, it boiled to a couple of strategies, including hiring an expert marketer in the food industry and exploring new sales points, including educational institutes, IT parks, hospitals, etc. Here’s wishing him the best of luck!

Even as the bar camp was in progress, some of the peers jumped in to kickstart the BBQ. While the non-vegetarians had tasty chicken at hand, the vegetarians weren’t as lucky (but then, who could blame the organizers for not having veg options for a private BBQ :-) ). Anyway, this kindled the entrepreneurial spirit in Manoj Surya, who set out to making something out of pineapples, bananas and potatoes. After a lot of deliberation, he named his veg BBQ stall “Bandi lo BBQ”, a brand he (tentatively) plans on bringing to life some day.

After the BBQ, some of the peers retired from the session and went back home to attend their personal and professional responsibilities. The rest of us got dinner and headed for a late evening walk into the wilderness around the resort. The hour long trek squeezed out the last bits of our energy and we finally headed to the tents to retire for the day. Little did we know that we were in for a treat by Anurag, one of the peers. As people started arriving at the tents, Anurag assumed the role of an old housewife and started a conversation with her neighbor, played by another peer, Sindura. The next hour would be a laugh riot that saw Anurag exploit his acting, dialogue delivery skills and his accent to entertain the rest of us to the hilt. The play stretched for about half an hour followed by recap of the highlights.

The conversation extended into sharing of personal stories, which brought the team closer than ever. Eventually, barring a few who chose to start another campfire and enjoy the rest of the night, we retired for the night around 2 AM.

The CEOs were brutal about waking us up at 6 AM to keep us on schedule. The beautiful morning mist and the lush open ground awakened the frisbee players in us and we started playing as some other enjoyed their morning coffee and tried out their exceptional photography skills to capture the rising sun.

The morning coffee was followed by a quick warm up and then we headed for rappelling. The resort offered a 40 ft rock that was too intimidating for some and too small for others. Nevertheless, after a quick demo by the organizing staff, led by Shariff, our PL, Subbu, kicked it off by being the first one to rappel down the rock. Praveen Kaliga led the photography (helped by others) and Anurag led the commentary. For many of us it was our first rappelling experience and the organizing team helped us overcome our anxieties and fears. That said, I guess the entrepreneurial spirit turned the anxiety and fear into a thrill. We missed Sai Krishna, though, as he was down with a cold from last night’s fun.

As we wrapped up rappelling, the hungry hearts munched on the breakfast and set out for another class, this time on co-founder conflicts and general conflict resolution among team members. Unsurprisingly, this indoor session was about getting back to pen and paper exercises – The Kraybill Conflict Style Inventory to be specific. The idea of the exercise was to evaluate our own behavior in dealing with certain scenarios we may across in our businesses and how that behavior translates into relationships with our co-founders and other team mates. 

And that was pretty much the last session for the day, by the end of which, almost everyone of us was tired to stay on for lunch. So, ruminating on the memories of the last 24 hours, we trudged back to our tents, packed up our bags and headed back to the concrete jungle.

The session that started with date conflicts and some people’s reluctance ended on a super triumphant note and will remain as the most engaging, energizing and physically tiring session of SLP 2015-16.