As you read this, two or more people on your marketing team are probably at odds over some question – big or small – about the right way to do their jobs. Maybe it’s the right way to set goals or structure a campaign. Or allocate budget. Or utilize consumer insights. Maybe it’s something as small and seemingly unimportant as the meaning of the word “content”.

Researchers at the University of Birmingham who have studied the way marketing teams work (yes, this is a subject worthy of academic research!) have found that this sort of tension is very common. The source of the problem: individuals in mid-to-large sized teams typically hold divergent – and usually unspoken – mental models regarding ‘how marketing ought to be done’.

In other words, each marketer has an inner playbook. And even the most thoughtful, self-aware of them can’t escape its influence.

Much of the challenge boils down to neuroscience. Most of the decisions we make are the byproduct of what Nobel-winning economist Daniel Kahneman calls System 1 cognitive processes – modes of thinking that are intuitive, automated and unconscious. In other words, the power of the inner playbook is practically invisible, even as it drives our decisions and actions.

To add to the complexity, the pages of our inner playbook tend to morph over time as we are exposed to new ideas. Just think of how many new notions you’re exposed to each year from books, articles, conferences or charismatic new colleagues.

Tensions caused by conflicting playbooks can create real problems. For example, consider the ideological battle that sometimes takes place over the correct promotional mix for a marketing campaign. During the campaign planning process, multiple tensions might emerge:

  • Tension between employees who believe that sponsored/earned content is more effective than advertising and those who have deep faith in the power of advertising.
  • Tension between employees who believe that digital tactics are more effective and efficient and those who think it’s important to consider analog tactics like print, OOH and experiential.
  • Tension between employees who think messaging ought to focus strictly on brand image/values versus those who want to use sales promotion-style tactics like offers and contests.

Failure to resolve these tensions often results in a lack of strategic clarity, inefficient spending, sub-optimal marketing performance and poor communication between the marketing team and agency suppliers.

Of course, some tension is healthy. A little push and pull can often elevate the final result – re-framing problems and pushing through creative boundaries in search of new and fertile territory.

But too much tension can create real problems.

The real question, then, is this: How can marketing leaders ensure that their team-members are singing from the same songbook without restricting innovation and creative problem-solving?

Pull Inner Playbooks Out Into The Open

Create semi-annual forums – outside the chaos of daily execution – to discuss, debate and document marketing beliefs and practices across your team. The intent here should not be to enforce conformity, but rather to increase self-knowledge and mutual understanding. These sessions can give everyone a chance to externalize knowledge that has been acquired in the trenches of execution. They can also provide a platform to discuss and internalize the latest industry perspectives and research. The end result can be positive on multiple fronts – a positive mixture of diversity, alignment and mutual respect and understanding.

Take Small Steps

Structure workshops around bite-sized parts of the marketing playbook. It can be overwhelming and intimidating to sit down with your colleagues and discuss your grand unifying theory of everything to do with marketing. But a one-hour session focused on ‘how are we using / not using segmentation’ is a lot more tangible and easy to digest.

Choose Your Words With Care

Pay careful attention – all year round – to nomenclature and definitions. There are times where the tension between employees is a simple byproduct of using slightly different terms to refer to the same practice. The seemingly simple exercise of defining a small set of marketing terms can quickly reveal the complex diversity of opinions on your team.

Don’t Over-Do It

When working to align divergent team-members, shoot for a small set of guiding principles rather than detailed step-by-step processes. Striving for 100% alignment isn’t possible or even desirable. Diversity is healthy. A collective marketing playbook should reflect this. So avoid being overly prescriptive and instead focus on creating a small set of guiding beliefs that thoughtful marketers of all stripes should be able to rally around.