How superteams can help marketers to balance creative thinking and analysis

This post is by Andrew Armour. Andrew is the M.D. and Founder of Benchstone Limited and creator of CollaborationCafe and MarketingCafe programmes.  He is a consultant who specialises in marketing collaboration, partnerships and innovation.

Marketers have always faced the delicate task of balancing art and science. Whilst knowing the sensitivities of consumer attitudes, perception and social habits – they live with the reality of P&L’s, distribution costs and sales targets. The good marketing executive appreciates the subtle and valuable psychologies of brand and message but also what impacts ultimately – on the bottom line.

Today, that balancing is more sensitive and complex than ever. They are under increasing pressure to drive creative innovations – whilst simultaneously quickly delivering results. McKinsey – in their Making Innovation Structures Work Survey noted that over the past five years the need for innovation projects to show a profit has grown from 39% to 50%. This places a threat under efforts to explore new territory or develop cutting edge products and in many companies this can create a culture of stagnation and fear of developing anything outside what they already know.

Superteams and collaboration

Yet every business leader, at every quarterly review or annual conference promotes the need for more innovative thinking and entrepreneurship in their organisation. Capgemini reported that 84% of CEO’s they surveyed in 2011 believed innovation was a top three priority. The value of creativity, taking educated risks and building something new is greater than ever. Commentators such as Lynda Gratton, Seth Godin and Gary Hamel stress the need for companies to be bolder, to move away from traditional approaches. Their logic is sound. The argument suggests that if you don’t start to disrupt your own business and exploit gaps in the current offering – then just wait a while and a new and surprisingly agile competitor will kindly do it for you.

Marketers Just Can’t Win

In a recent article Gary Hamel, revealed that most CEO’s he spoke with saw marketing teams as either delivering only minor, incremental step changes that do not innovate enough – or conversely, that they focus too much on developing unrealistic flights of fancy, that do not make sense commercially. And lateral thinking expert, Paul Sloane, believes that whilst the commercial pressures to deliver profits too quickly do restrict the ability to be truly innovative, marketers themselves are often bereft of creative thinking themselves and too confined to their own view of the world. It appears marketing is often stuck, between being too conservative and being too reckless.

In addition, marketers are facing the task of understanding an increasingly dizzying flow of metrics, and statistics from external (increasingly digital) campaigns and internally, from ‘big data’, collated from sales, operations and customer insight. Yet, Altimeter reported that 56% of marketers cannot measure results from social media campaigns. And Harvard Business Review revealed that marketers either do not understand the marketing data being generated or even if they do, they can often end up drowning in an avalanche of reporting. Forrester has noted that 46% of CEO’s they surveyed agreed that understanding data and analytics was the main weakness of their marketing department – with only 25% of marketers said to be properly reporting on campaign effectiveness.

There is no danger that there will ever be a shortage of business metrics. Rather, the issue is how to navigate that ever growing mountain of data and report back with the kind of insights that can help spark innovation. And the pressure is on agency types too. As the owner of a leading London agency explained to me recently; ‘Things have changed so much. Now, the portfolio is only the start of what I look at when I hire a creative. I want to know – do they understand the metrics that we use. And can they apply strategic thinking to what they are doing’.

The Connected Mind…

How can a modern marketer balance these demands? The answer perhaps lies with greater understanding of team work and more effective collaboration between marketing teams, their colleagues across the business, their suppliers and their networks.

An ability to grow a network of experts, comprising both critical analysis AND creative thinking is perhaps the only advantage that a modern marketing executive can claim to have. They become the data mavens – linking key insights with the right people. They become the idea diplomats – crafting proposals and persuading stakeholders to support the ideas of others. And they become the relationship engineers – building networks of partners and allies that are difficult for competitors to replicate.

It’s a view that resonates with another prominent researcher, Nilofer Merchant who believes that we are entering what she terms – ‘the social era of business’. For Merchant, the successful people and companies of the social era will be those that are most open and adaptable.  Traditional strategy has been replaced with the power of the network, the alliance and free flow of information.

The history of entrepreneurship, creativity, commerce and science shows that the importance of collaboration and co-working should not surprise us.  Steven Johnson, who shares the stories of great breakthroughs in his book ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’ – summarises it neatly, with his famous comment that; ‘chance favours the connected mind’.

The McKinsey survey noted a strong trend for team and project work across organisations who wanted to innovate. Organisations are increasingly recognising the need to foster greater team-work across the business by either delayering levels of management – and / or utilising the increasing power of social business collaboration tools (video conferencing and file sharing) – to help speed up social interaction.

Rather than relying upon their own individual genius – the smart marketing leader blends a mix of creative talents and helps them build a common purpose around a clear business goal.

Avoiding Disappointment

How do you do this? Two recently published books provide useful signposts on how to build flexible, creative – yet high performance teams. In Superteams’, Khoi Tu examines a range of organisations and how they create effective teams to solve tough problems; from the cutting edge creativity of PIXAR Animation to the dangerous precision of the SAS. And from the high-speed pressures of Formula One engineering to the rolling and rocking of the Rolling Stones – he explores what successful team work is – and what it is not. He notes that high performing teams need to contain talented individuals who are united behind a clear and common aim – even if they have very different roles and skills within.

And in their recent work ‘Team Geek’ – two senior Google software engineers (Fitzpatrick & Collins-Sussman) shared their insight from working in the world’s greatest software development teams. A key piece of advice they offer to geeks and non-geeks alike is worth etching into the marketing team’s wall; working in isolation leads to disappointment’.

Yet what may come as a surprise to many, is that both Tu and Fitzpatrick agree that some degree of conflict and unreasonableness within the team is not a bad thing. Indeed, some form of ‘creative abrasion’ may be a requirement to be a truly great team. By their very nature – high achievers are not satisfied with being average and accepting solutions that maintain the status quo. The SAS is often comprised of military mavericks who know when and how to break the rules when they need to (see my previous piece about them here). They have a stubborn belief that often sees them viewed as radical outsiders – not conformists, despite their own disciplines and skills. As General Montgomery said about their WW2 founder Colonel David Stirling; ‘He’s quite mad. But in a war, we need people like him’.

And a healthy dose of debate and challenge can help build creativity and new ideas. It is in the clash of ideas that the spark of creativity can ignite and group think tends to lean towards mediocre. Most importantly, Tu notes that the best teams are always, always improving the way they are doing things. In this point, his findings reflect those of another prominent researcher into team effectiveness, Humphrey Walters who has also studied highly successful teams working highly competitive environments. Walters says the secret of great teams is often lots of small improvements rather than giant leaps. Or as he puts it – ‘consistently doing 100 things 1% better – not 1 thing 100% better’.

So what lessons can we draw from all of this? How can marketers balance the increasing pressures to be both creative instigator and rational analyst?

Firstly – it pays to be a smart collaborator. As Tu puts it in the forward of Superteams ‘Individual excellence is both necessary and critical but the skill and the will to build, lead and perform in a team is often the difference between success and failure. Even for individual stars, failing to work effectively in a team can be a career limiting flaw.”

Secondly –marketing leaders need to be comfortable that great teams may have some abrasions and edges within. Nurturing diversity and expertise is highly valuable in building both good creative and effective analytical solutions – even if there are some clashes and disagreements along the way.

Thirdly – marketers need to recognise and invest in the value of the network. In a complex and technical environment, isolation is a huge weakness. Whereas conversely, a smart network of connections can enable marketers to focus the right expertise and talents on the right issues, to enable them to be the leaders of great ideas and effective analysis.

Ultimately, whilst marketers need to balance the needs of creativity and analysis, the trick is to understand that experts and colleagues across their network will help them get there quicker. And often smart people, well challenged, will respond to that call to arms, that belief in a project they can sign up for. As Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones says, “I honestly believe none of us is as strong individually – as we are collectively”

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About Andrew Armour

Andrew Armour, is the M.D. and Founder, Benchstone Limited and creator of CollaborationCafe and MarketingCafe programmes. He is a consultant who specialises in marketing collaboration, partnerships and innovation. For further research, articles by Andrew Armour on partnerships, collaboration & innovation please visit andrewarmour.com. Or you can email him; andrew@benchstone.co.uk
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