Giving employees specific titles, roles and tasks may be tempting from an operations point of view. But if you’re pigeonholing you might not be getting the best out of people. We talk to two businesses that have unlocked creativity and cultivated a collaborative approach to working.
If you’re on the hunt for new ways of managing and leading, the first of port of call for many is the disruptive digital startup world. Many digital businesses are early adopters of new methods of working, unencumbered by old hierarchies and spurred on by a 24/7 market environment.
Ipswich-based digital marketing agency Crafted, and fintech startup RoosterMoney, based in London, are two SMEs with innovative management approaches that mean each firm can get the best out of workforces by not pigeonholing staff.
Ian Miller is CEO of Crafted, a full-service digital agency that was founded in 2005 and has 56 staff. Recognised as one of 100 best small companies to work for by The Sunday Times, Miller said the company avoids pigeonholing staff by role or by tenure, background or age. “By the nature of what we do, an integrated approach will always outperform a siloed one. People do have their primary role and skill set, but ideas come from everywhere and sometimes a fresh view or take on things really pays off when delivering the best result for our clients.”
The culture at Crafted is one where the sharing of opportunities, ideas and knowledge is actively promoted. Regular “sharing sessions” are organised for employees (and videoed for those who can’t make it), as are cross-team roundtable and working groups. The management team also regularly physically move desks around to mix things up and encourage the cross-fertilisation of ideas, an idea further encouraged by taking cross-discipline groups to industry events. A developer will be allowed to go to a marketing conference, or a project manager to a design show, so long as what they have learnt is brought back and shared across the whole agency in workshop sessions and presentations.
For Miller, refusing to pigeonhole staff goes beyond their job roles. He never went to university, and explained that this informs his personal philosophy of refusing to typecast anyone by their educational background or age.
“I get frustrated seeing organisations pigeonholing those with degrees rather than looking at what makes that person tick,” he explained. While Crafted has run graduate schemes, it doesn’t have any “must have a degree” requirements. “I don’t want to ever make that a prerequisite to get through the door,” he said.
Instead, he is keener to look at the interests and personal comments people list on their CVs. “Some of our most successful people are self-taught, or their CV mentioned how they organise a sports team, were treasurer of Young Farmers or have done personal projects in the same field. Those are the qualities we look for: initiative and taking on responsibility. We can teach anything except for attitude,” he explained.
The ethos of taking an integrated approach, rather than pigeonholing staff, has paid off, according to Miller, who said the results of that approach regularly outperform a more siloed one and the business has never looked back. By giving staff access to new ideas, Miller believes his firm has a performance advantage in terms of quality and results of projects, as well as making for a happier and more engaged workforce.
However giving staff the chance to learn new skills or hear from others requires investment in everyone’s time. Said Miller: “We must be conscious to provide the bandwith to staff”. The company does this by scheduling knowledge shares and roundtables on a regular basis. “It’s much easier to schedule than try to find time for the first one,” he admitted.
Earlier on his startup’s business journey is Will Carmichael, CEO and founder of RoosterMoney, which was founded in 2016, and whose ten employees work on an app that is designed to help parents teach their children the value of money through the smart management of their pocket money.
“What makes a brilliant company,” believes Carmichael, “is a framework that encourages team members to take on new challenges in the business.” That can be a side project or swapping roles for a period and making clear that anyone can bring ideas outside of their current role to the table. “This not only empowers the team, it breaks down silos, addresses group-think and creates more 360 degree commercial awareness,” he explained.
In day-to-day practice, this means that new projects are shared out on criteria based more on the enthusiasm and confidence of individuals than their prior experience. “We’ve had developers who pivoted their skills and the languages they write based on what we need, rather than what they can do,” Carmichael explained. “We also all regularly take it in turns on core operational tasks, whether its customer service or user testing, as it keeps us connected and maintains a state of ‘hustle’. Whether you are a ten-person team or a 100-strong, you need to keep your business connected. Town halls won’t do that at a practical level.”
Taking such an “all-hands” approach to management is based on necessity. With such a young and fast-growing business, Carmichael doesn’t have the luxury of waiting to bring someone in to pick a new project up. “But this is also a philosophy,” he explained. “If you want interesting ideas to keep flowing, you need an adventurous attitude amongst your team. By exposing team members to other verticals and functions in the business it also gives them a rounded overview that will help them make more realistic and informed decisions within their role.”
From a business perspective, mixing up staff with projects casts new light on how things are done. “If you send off a compliance officer to the innovation team, you are likely to get much more realistic ideas from the innovation team and potentially much more flexibility and understanding from the team that have to de-risk it,” explained Carmichael.
His advice to other business leaders who want to experiment with taking staff out of their niches starts with emphasising the error some make with taking someone out of their role completely to give them variety – it can be done on a project-by-project basis. For larger business, he suggests creating a project or talent pools within departments – or at different management levels as a way to try things out.
The second tip he has is to recognise that some staff enjoy total dedication and focus on what they do, and would be uncomfortable switching around. “Don’t rock the boat unnecessarily by applying a catch-all culture,” he added. It also takes experience to realise when it’s appropriate to push someone into something new and have confidence it will have a good outcome, and when this isn’t such a good idea.
He believes it is important to be clear with someone who comes to you wanting a different role, or to work on a different project, that now might not be the right time. It’s then about working together to get them there. Carmichael’s final piece of advice is to avoid asking who wants to pick up a project in an all-staff meeting. “It might be democratic but that doesn’t mean the person sticking their hand up will be the right one for the role.”
It is far better, instead, to create a more formal framework by getting your team to map their skills and interests and put that into a matrix that will match interests with the demands of new projects. Profiling can also be an excellent way for both the business and the individuals inside it to understand more about each other and themselves, Carmichael advised.
Both he and Miller are advocates of taking an open-minded stance towards what their workforce are interested in and able to achieve – making for a happier, more engaged and productive business.