It Takes a Little Friction to Generate a Spark
By Holly Wasson, Marketing Strategy and Branding Consultant / Interim CMO, We Are Rosie
Recently, I spoke at the SoundBoard Marketing Conference on behalf of We Are Rosie about the importance of embracing friction and differing points of view to achieve marketing brilliance. This is actually a lesson that works for a much broader audience given today’s climate, so I thought that I’d share some of the key points.
With more than 20 years of experience building brand and agency teams to develop multi-platform marketing campaigns from Fortune 50 companies to start-ups, I’ve seen a lot of change throughout my career. In fact, the only constant has been change. However, one thing has remained the same regardless of advancements in technology, shifts in media usage and ever-changing marketing platforms and media mixes: the genius behind all brilliant marketing campaigns is the team that fosters a groundbreaking idea and brings it to life. And the teams responsible for memorable, innovative, award-winning work have something in common: they aren’t afraid of a little friction to generate that spark of genius.
Okay for all of you liberal arts graduates (like me), here’s an oversimplification of friction. Friction is the force that resists motion between two surfaces. That resistance can cause the necessary heat to start a fire. In the business world, the word “friction” is often seen as negative. Many of us think of friction in terms of interpersonal disagreements. However, in nature, friction can save your life if you need to use it to start a fire for survival. So, how does friction apply to leading successful marketing teams?
Whether you are a marketer within a Fortune 50 company orchestrating a team of five agencies to launch a multi-million dollar initiative, an agency account director constructing an internal team to pitch a new client or a brand director tasked with rallying an internal cross-functional team to launch a new product, the goal is the same: You need to kindle inspiration, fan the flame and bring a roaring fire of genius to life. This requires building and inspiring a passionate, diverse team that feels empowered to lean into their area of expertise and challenge each other openly. A team of passionate experts will definitely encounter a little friction along the way and you want to encourage that! It’s the only way to find that spark. So, as a marketing leader, how do you build and inspire a confident team that’s not afraid of a little friction?
INGREDIENTS FOR A CONFIDENT, PASSIONATE TEAM
Let’s start with the ingredients that are needed to start a fire: fuel, oxygen and heat. When enough of these three factors are present, a chemical reaction occurs that results in fire. This is why you can start a fire by rubbing two sticks together: the fuel is the sticks, the oxygen comes from the air and the fiction provides the necessary heat. You are probably thinking, “Thanks for the physics lesson, but how does this relate to sparking genius in a team?” Well, let’s turn these three factors into the elements you must provide a team in order for it to be successful.
PURPOSE = FUEL
As humans, we all need a purpose – a reason to be here, a goal to achieve in life, a “why” behind wanting to make a difference. Brand marketers will most likely agree that successful brands are usually driven by a purpose – something to stand for and deliver upon – so that consumers know what to expect from you.
Successful marketing teams also need to be driven by a purpose, a common goal to rally around that unites the group. A common goal immediately aligns a team and allows them to trust in one another because they are on the same side working to accomplish something together. They are more likely to tolerate disagreements in points of view if they are unified around achieving the same goal. Knowing that they are all trying to achieve the same outcome, they will dig deep and deal with the uncomfortableness that it may take to get there. As the team leader, it is your role to clearly set the team purpose, ensure everyone understands it and keep them focused on that purpose along the way.
EMPOWERMENT = OXYGEN
Empowerment is oxygen to a team. Many leaders struggle with empowering their team members because it means relinquishing control. That’s fear based management. The best teams consist of members who feel empowered to bring their craft, passion and expertise to the table.
Successful teams are led and inspired by coaches who encourage their teammates to bring forth their unique skills and approaches. These leaders encourage team members to spread their wings and empower them to approach their area of expertise in whatever way it takes to achieve the purpose. You have to let go of any notion of trying to control a team of marketers. Provide them with the air cover and encouragement to do their thing while giving them the purpose to drive them. Team members in this type of environment feel safe and inspired to push boundaries and ideas. They will bring differing points of view to start that much needed friction.
DIVERSE THINKING = FRICTION
Finally, you need a diverse team to add in the most important ingredient – friction. Diversity can be in expertise, background, age, demographic, approach, experience level and even energy. A diverse team that has different opinions, points of view and approaches is key. This way you avoid the dreaded “group think.” Yes, these differences will cause some friction. However, if the team is united by a common purpose and bolstered by being empowered to represent their area of expertise, this friction will result in positive heat rather than negative energy.
As a leader, you must set the tone for the team by encouraging them to bring differing points of view while remaining cordial. Debates can get heated and that’s a good thing as long as everyone remains respectful of each other and acknowledges the common goal. As team lead, it’s also your role to make sure that all of the diverse voices are heard. Remember that not everyone on a team is an extrovert and comfortable boldly communicating their thoughts. Some people need time to sit, think and toy with their ideas. To generate that spark, all voices need to be heard. It’s important to continually ask the group what they think.
A diverse, passionate team will not always be harmonious, and that’s a very good thing. The best ideas don’t usually just pop up. They are molded and strengthened by a friction among a passionate team who is empowered and aligned around a purpose.
BEWARE OF FLAME EXTINGUISHERS
Occasionally teams constructed with the best intentions can flame out for different reasons. If the key elements are not balanced, you will suffocate the flame. Here are extinguishers to avoid with each element:
Purpose Extinguishers: It is extremely important to be led by a purpose. However, don’t get so blinded by the end goal that you aren’t able to tweak that purpose if necessary. Remember that one constant in marketing is change. If a major news story or industry-wide incident occurs that impacts your product, if your product adds a new feature, if your brand experiences bad press, if you find out something completely unexpected in a focus group, if a different product within the company experiences a dip in sales and needs to be the focus of marketing budgets, you have to be flexible and ask, are we still on the right path? Is this still our goal?
Make sure to ask that question if a major change happens. But on the other hand, don’t change your purpose for small environmental changes – your budget is cut, you see a shiny new object or your competitors did something cool. In these instances, your purpose likely remains the same, but the way to get there may be slightly different. Teams can fail by not being flexible enough or being too wishy washy on purpose. Know when to ask the question: Are we still on the right path?
Empowerment Extinguishers: Great leaders empower team members to bring their craft, point of view and expertise. This is incredibly important and the team members need to feel they are in a safe environment to shine. However, there are boundaries to empowerment. There needs to be a clearly defined decision maker and that is usually the team leader. This person will need to listen to all points of view, but make the final decision on how to move forward. Also, empowering a team doesn’t mean leaving them without guidance. A true leader still needs to be a part of the team, but provide space for them to do their best thinking. In the same respect, empowering team members to lean into their area of expertise does not mean that experts can work in a silo on their part of the project without collaborating with the full group. The team needs to work as a group to ignite brilliance. A leader also needs to keep a team on track. Empowerment doesn’t mean that the team members can run off and brainstorm without hitting deadlines.
Diverse Thinking Extinguishers: Passionate, engaged debates are encouraged and part of the process of landing on a brilliant idea. It is okay and good for a team to get comfortable with not agreeing with each other on every aspect. However, a team must be willing to listen to differing points of view. They also must respect each other even if they don’t always agree with each other. Without respect, a team will implode. Like with empowerment, there must be a final decision maker, usually the leader of the team. And there must be clear ground rules that once a final decision is made, there will not be back room conversations about not being aligned with the decision. If that happens, the team is misaligned and will not be able to take that brilliant idea and execute on it because there will not be trust among the members.
EMBRACE FRICTION AND REAP THE REWARDS
Purpose, Empowerment and Diverse Thinking are the three ingredients to inspiring brilliant marketing. These ingredients work for any marketing team: agency side or brand side; small teams and large teams; teams with multi-million dollar budgets and teams with little to no budget; multi-discipline teams executing a fully integrated marketing campaign and single discipline teams constructing a social media strategy and plan.
As marketers, we have to change the negativity associated with the word friction. I’m sure that most of us have had heated strategic or creative debates with colleagues. And yes, those discussions were probably stressful in the moment and most likely uncomfortable. But, if you think about that meeting or that moment, I bet you can see now that it was passion that drove those heated discussions. If your team had a strong purpose in place, the individuals felt empowered to share their expertise and everyone remained respectful, I’m willing to bet that you created a spark of genius with that friction.
As a team leader, when you see that spark come from a team, recognize it. Fan the flame by encouraging the group for being on the right track. They may be so “heads down” into the work that they don’t feel it immediately. Inspire them to take that genius idea and build upon it adding the elements that will kindle that fire. From that spark of genius, you and your team will definitely fuel awe-inspiring work.
Holly Wasson is a marketing executive with over 20 years of experience developing successful strategic, multi-platform marketing and communication campaigns for a wide-breadth of business-to-business and consumer brands. Experienced in translating market and consumer insight into actionable opportunities, negotiating multi-million dollar partnerships, uncovering new revenue streams and building high-performing teams across many industries—from media, sports, entertainment, food and retail to travel/tourism, CPG, financial, business services, and higher education. Known as a natural leader, skilled negotiator and persuasive communicator who emboldens teams, knocks down political barriers and unites disparate parties to achieve powerful results.