Great marketing teams love having a good fight

Thomas Barta TryThisBlog
By Thomas Barta
Last updated: April 09, 2015

Consumers’ lives wouldn’t be the same without Diet Coke, Swiffer, or Red Bull. The key to market success is innovation–and a fair amount of constructive conflict (from my column).

When A.G. Lafley took over as CEO of Procter & Gamble in 2000, his first priorities were to make innovation a part of the teams’ daily routine and to establish a culture of innovation. This focus on more and better innovation soon pushed P&G’s new-product success rate up from between 15% and 20% to between 50% and 60%. Many factors played a role, but Lafley’s team-culture shift was definitely one.

“How can I get my team to innovate more?” It’s a common question my clients ask. Constructive conflict could be the key, as Patrick Barwise and I have found in our latest research. A team of US researchers led by Stanford management professor Kathleen M. Eisenhardt made an important discovery while observing top teams: the most productive teams knew how to have a good fight. These teams passionately debated ideas, used facts, avoided personal conflict, respected others, and rallied around common goals. Teams that didn’t know how to have a good fight got into personal arguments, shut ideas down, explored only a few routes, and were ultimately less productive and innovative. Eisenhardt could prove teams that fight constructively have a deeper understanding of issues and produce a richer set of solutions.

Here are six effective techniques to help you foster innovation in your team:

Focus On Factual Data Rather Than Opinions
Gut feeling, expressed too quickly or too passionately, can kill even the best ideas before they get a chance to live. At IBM, a team led by scientist Dharmendra Modha successfully created an innovative new microchip architecture inspired by the human brain. To innovate and collaborate better, the team used colours to label their arguments in emails (e.g. white for facts, green for ideas, and red for emotions). This shift forced everyone to stick to facts and ideas and avoid negative emotion (positive emotions were okay).

Explore Several Possible Courses Of Action
Don’t narrow your team’s options too fast; let them explore different routes and ideas for a while and see what you can learn.

Emphasise Common Goals
Start your meetings by sharing the common goal (for example creating profitable growth as a team) and refer to the common goal when fights erupt. End the meetings by reiterating how the team made progress towards the common goal.

Create A Balanced Power Structure
Don’t settle in meetings until everybody had a chance to speak up – even the most silent or junior people. Don’t have all the innovative work led by the heavyweights in your team. Instead, ask your heavyweights to coach leaders who want to step up to innovate. It’s a great chance for your top people to grow as well.

Coach, Don’t Tell
Your people grow and innovate when you ask good questions; not when you give them the answers. In the next project, try this: tell your team that you want them to come up with the answers and that you’ll only step in if needed. In meetings, don’t give them your opinion; listen instead. Pose open-ended questions that start with, “What if,” “How would you,” etc. Try not to say, “I would,” for as long as you can. Take over only when the team gets stuck, but let your team know that you are taking over and why. This can be hard, but the effect can be amazing.

Use Humour
You are the Chief Mood Officer. Humour can reduce the tension that results from disagreement. That can help a lot when things get difficult.

How innovative is your team? Does your team present unique new ideas, or are they holding back? Are you building on these ideas to make them better, or do you look for ways to shoot them down? Are you keeping to facts in a discussion – or do let your emotions rule?

You can create a culture that fosters innovation in your marketing team. Teach your team the art of having a good fight.