Agreeing To Disagree May Work at the Thanksgiving Table, But Not in Business

Author: 
Michelle Huff and David Satterwhite

Ahh, Thanksgiving, the holiday of turkey and stuffing, pumpkin pie, football games, cozying up by the fire… and praying that Grandpa Joe and your brother Lucas don’t get into it over politics or some other divisive topic.

Most families are likely to adopt an “agree to disagree” policy in an effort to keep discord off the festive table. That’s typically a good thing (unless you enjoy dysfunction), and it usually works.
Unfortunately, “agree to disagree” also is a common tack inside many companies when departments like sales and marketing can’t see eye to eye over one of the many things they really need to tackle together.

Collaboration vs. Alignment

When people end an argument this way, they fall into a trap that ultimately can hurt the overall organization’s effectiveness – misunderstanding the difference between collaboration and alignment.
Collaboration is good, of course. It bespeaks a fruitful relationship in which different parties come together to creatively and purposefully tackle a challenge. Everyone loves collaborators – they’re thought of as team-oriented and pleasant to be around. The word’s Latin roots literally mean “work together.”

Many people use “collaboration” and “alignment” interchangeably, but there are key distinctions between them. Alignment is a higher state: everyone from senior executives to individual contributors marching in lockstep toward the same objectives, with the same mutually agreed-upon game plan; and it’s critical for most high performing teams.

You can’t have alignment without collaboration, but collaboration without alignment falls short. Think of collaboration as the car and alignment as the destination.

The Importance of Unity

In today’s hyper-fast, constantly evolving and ultra-competitive digital age, it’s not enough for sales and marketing to merely collaborate, they must truly work in concert to deliver revenue growth and exemplary experiences to customers.

It can be hard work for sales and marketing, with their different cultures and sometimes opposing viewpoints, to unify behind this strategy or that tactic. But the stakes are high and the investment is well worth the effort. An aligned organization can put its best foot forward in improving the brand experience across the entire customer lifecycle. A non-aligned one risks inefficiency, siloed thinking, confusion and internal discord.

Agreeing to disagree betrays a corporate tendency to take the easy way out and settle for the appearance of harmony rather than toughing out the extra phone calls or meetings to reach a consensus. It’s really a way of giving up, not putting in the hard work to align around a joint approach.

What can an organization do to foster a culture of alignment? Here are four tips.

Make alignment a cornerstone of how the organization is structured. Establish roles whose charter includes partnering with another team. For example, in the classic marketing organization structure, many different people own many different pieces, such as demand programs, PR, content or digital channels or what have you. Seldom are they formally linked to some corresponding mission on the sales team. Look for opportunities to make those linkages happen – any and all aspects of the go-to-market plan where sales and marketing have common interests and would benefit from a coordinated approach.

Match up incentives. Marketing teams are often evaluated and rewarded based entirely on marketing metrics. And they’re important metrics; leads, conversions, webhits etc. The problem is that none of them really matter unless they end up as revenue. The result is that you can have a marketing team that’s giving each other high-fives over some marketing-specific metric goal while the sales team and the company miss their revenue goals. So while it’s fair to have some incentive tied to key metrics that marketing people are focused on, in order to support and build alignment, it’s important that the majority of the incentives for marketing be based on revenue. 

Agree on the big picture first. It starts with the company vision and mission. (Hopefully, those exist!) The executive team needs to align around this vision and create functional strategies so their teams align to achieve it. As part of this process, the heads of sales and marketing need to align around a shared strategy and a mutual understanding of their joint mission. The top goals and challenges for each team should be shared, aligned and prioritized. With this, a unified plan of attack can be generated and cascaded down to the teams. In kind, at each level, team leads can line up their goals and challenges. The bottom line: If there is alignment at the top, you're far more likely to have alignment across the teams; without it, teams diverge and alignment is next to impossible.

Encourage a joint sense of ownership. Be understanding of each other. Take the planning process, for example. In the typical scenario, each department works unilaterally on its plan and then – tada! – there’s the big reveal. An aligned organization has a more iterative process that encourages collaboration between both teams.  In the perfects scenario, through ongoing communication and discussion, nothing is a surprise.  The ownership is clear and the goals are aligned.

It’s important for sales and marketing to understand that though they share the same overall objectives, they come at it from different angles. Marketing people and salespeople are often wired differently and speak different languages. Short-term mindsets are the norm in sales, where in marketing it's important to plan out multiple quarters, even years in advance.  Sales people often rely heavily on their intuition, their gut feel. Great marketing people are metrics driven and “read the tea leaves” across lots of data sources. Part of what functional heads need to do is translate and share context.

As you can see, alignment takes understanding, effort and the right approaches, and doesn’t lend itself to shortcuts. In a collaborative environment, you can’t agree to disagree. That may be fine at the Thanksgiving dinner table, but it doesn’t work if marketing and sales want to be truly aligned.

Michelle Huff is chief marketing officer and David Satterwhite is chief revenue officer at Act-On Software, a marketing automation provider.