• Molecular Ideas

Dungeons, Dragons, & Diagnosing Startup Challenges

Updated: Apr 10, 2021

Welcome to Molecular Ideas, and thank you for sharing your time with us! Today, we'll explore an unusual parallel between facilitating team collaboration to solve problems in fast-paced startups and role-playing games. Enjoy!

Among the most common hallmarks of an early-stage company is that everyone does a little bit of everything. Wearing multiple hats, despite differing technical proficiencies in key business areas, ensures that the day-to-day tasks get done.

It also all but guarantees that major strategic decisions involve the majority of the team. However, this can lead to a challenge when faced with these inflection points - deferring to one of three mindsets that fail to capture key information during discussions:

a) 'Let's defer to the common consensus' - Groupthink

b) 'Let's defer to the loudest (or most convinced) voice in the room' - Apathy

c) 'Let's defer to the founder - after all, s/he's the boss' - Authority

Whether the choice is conscious or not, deferring to any of these mindsets has vast implications on the short- and long-term viability of your company. Simply put, they represent a flaw in the team's ability to make decisions by failing to explore or consider relevant data.

These mindsets are especially risky for early-stage life sciences companies. Early-stage companies do not have deep enough employee 'bench strength' to check and balance ideas before, during, or after meetings. Further, we are trying to save and safeguard lives as life science entrepreneurs - errors in experimental or project design can be dangerously misleading. In aggregate, the risk of poorly considered choices in life science startups are exacerbated by the higher opportunity cost of decision-making; there's limited funding available and time to reach the next milestone while facing intense investor scrutiny.

So, how do we avoid these paradigm traps and encourage thoughtful discussion?

While hanging out with some of my nerdier friends, a solution came to me in the most unexpected and likely of forms: Role-Playing Games (or RPGs for short). Role-Playing Games (the most notable of which is likely Dungeons & Dragons or D&D), are imaginative escapades where you take on a persona (or 'role') on a small team dedicated to making the world a better place by diagnosing and solving complex challenges together.

Sound familiar?

The process of developing a new therapeutic, vaccine, or diagnostic is certainly a long, unclear path with many obstacles and pitfalls. Overcoming regulatory and clinical hurdles can feel like you're locked in battle with a mighty beast of myth. And convincing investors, patients, and providers that it can happen is nothing short of an epic task.

While the comparison may seem outlandish, the way in which you work together is not all that far off from the case-solving methods taught in most business schools. Watching or experiencing how these groups play can give real insights into how to approach teambuilding and making complex decisions with significant ramifications.

Some of those insights include:

a) The importance of taking on a persona in team discussions

b) The value of facilitating creativity in problem-solving

c) The role of a leader in empowering the team as a narrator or 'DM'

a) The Importance of a Persona

In RPGs, you design your character based on a backstory that you've crafted, and the specializations that determine what you're responsible for on the team. While everyone is expected to work together, this may look like 'good at convincing strangers that helping you is to other's benefit' in the game and 'marketing' in your real life. In principle, your backstory - the basis for a persona - is not that different than your career path and technical background. You use it to provide your perspective through rationalized experience for how you have approached similar cases.

Taking on a persona takes this backstory to the next level. You probably shouldn't start talking in ye old English during your meeting - but as you start to dig into a challenge, you need to step back and consider the benefits and biases of your experience. Essentially, you have to create a separate headspace where you aren't 'you' - you're embodying a character that is aware of their strengths, weaknesses, proficiencies, and biases upfront. Taking this one step further, each person stating these elements of their thinking can help you and your colleagues evaluate contributions and while relying on experts to answer technical questions in equal measure.

The other benefit of adopting a persona paradigm is that it allows you to more easily propose, evaluate, and debate ideas for their merits, rather than the personality behind them. Put another way, your persona becomes a mental buffer zone between you and the debate where you can objectively consider proposals.

It is also relaxing, which makes the entire process of solving problems more fun.

b) The Value of Facilitating Creativity in Problem-Solving

Once you adopt a persona during strategy discussions, collaboration becomes easier by reducing intensity brought on by people needing to have a personal stake in their ideas. However, it also allows you to step outside your typical ways of thinking. As you get comfortable crafting and adopting your personas for high-impact discussions, you become less encumbered by your traditional paradigms and biases.

Put another way, stepping back into a persona allows you to think outside the box of social pressures and typical methods to approach problems. It becomes easier to ask questions and propose unusual ideas - which facilities creativity.

c) The role of a leader in empowering the team as a narrator or 'DM'

This brings us to the role of team leaders in the decision-making (and role-playing) process. Startups have a wide variety of complex challenges with long-reaching implications:

a) How do we identify, obtain, and secure a clear market position with our product?

b) How do we limit cash burn while crafting a minimally-viable product (MVP)?

c) Who do we need to speak with to validate our approach?

The list goes on.

While there are many styles of leadership that can help raise successful, sustainable businesses, I have found that the most effective leaders share two key qualities when it comes to team discussions:

a) They ask questions of their colleagues to help them share and defend their proposed ideas, and:

b) They provide their colleagues with 'directional' context to help everyone form their own, informed perspective.

This is essentially the role of a narrator, or 'Dungeon Master', as they're referred to in D&D. This approach has two benefits. First, it allows the team to debate without the pressure of a senior leader influencing the team's opinion by prematurely engaging due to their authority. Second, it allows the leader to gauge their colleague's strategies and press for more relevant information. These benefits help leaders make more informed decisions, while cultivating collaboration and respecting the skills of individuals.

That said, the role of the leader (or Dungeon Master) is not passive. It is their responsibility to guide the discussion through thoughtful questions, clear contextual descriptions, and proposing scenarios for the team to pressure test (or role play!) their ideas.

While this method may not be appropriate for every team discussion in the fast-paced startup world, I hope it provides some insight into how to manage complex cases with far-reaching implications, and encourages creative solutions.

With that said, may your trials meet their endpoints, burn rates be low, and regulatory reviews be positive! Enjoy your life sciences startup adventure!

That’s all for today! As always, feel free to share this post with friends, colleagues, and entrepreneurs! You can sign up to leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions in the comments.

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