How to create belonging in your business – a real-life example

Written by: John Scarrott
Published on: 26 Feb 2015

Create Belonging article image

John Scarrott writes: If life is a series of moments, strung together by time and meaning, it’s a fact that a good proportion of those moments will happen at work. So what does being “at work” mean to your people? Do they see it as a transaction where they appear at a certain time, sell their individual labour and then at a later time, disappear again? Or does it mean more to them than that? Do they “belong” to something bigger, a team endeavour that is striving to achieve something together? Perhaps they have days when they feel it’s more one than the other, and vice versa.

Given we spend so much time at work it seems right to strive for something more meaningful than a simple exchange of labour for money, essential though that is. Most modern theories of motivation would back this up. The trouble is that businesses are not entities best suited to creating belonging or the meaning that leads to it. This rests on the collective efforts of the people, much like a group of members meeting around a set of common beliefs and values.

So what has all this got to do with running a creative business?

In a word, everything.

Creative businesses sell ideas that create change and achieve goals. And these ideas come from people. But it’s a different set of beliefs and ideas that these people have: about themselves, their work, their colleagues, their agency, their clients and their shared understanding of these ideas that affects and ultimately determines the quality of their creativity. If there’s an inner game of running a business, this framework is the playbook from which all of your moves come. Get clarity around these ideas, enable everyone to tune into them and the outer game seems a whole lot easier; even the toughest situations are mere bumps in the road rather than the end of it.

So how do you create your playbook? How do you discover, clarify, create and then sustain your consultancy culture, values and behaviour? How do you give them to your team to carry themselves along, in such a way that the outer game is a joy, is easy and means that work becomes the home of some of the best, most rewarding and fulfilling moments of their life. How do you do this in a way that means that work does not seem like work anymore, that it’s just an extension of life?

Let’s start with a real-life example. By no means the only one, but a concrete example of what happens when you start at the beginning, as opposed to starting as a start-up and finding the beginning later. This is the (short) story of the growth of consultancy Bow&Arrow told through the eyes of its creative partner Natasha Chetiyawardana and three of her team – Joel, Kieran, and Jackie.

Bow&Arrow’s journey has been shaped by how it has created its inner game playbook. The consultancy has kindly given us permission to share its story, and given how rare it is that other businesses get to see how others do things, we hope it can be one of those bright spots that when broken down, is of real value to other creative businesses.

Bow&Arrow started six years ago, a partnership between Chetiyawardana and Ben Slater. Natasha has a varied work background, experiencing lots of different design environments. She did some lighting design with Stijn Ossevoort, lecturer at Lausanne University, and Will Carey, Design Director at IDEO. Then she moved to New York, working at first a boutique consultancy and then a corporate packaging company and then freelanced at more than a dozen or so places. She then began teaching at Pratt Institute with Kathleen Creighton, head of communications and over time she turned it into an innovation course. Then she had an early mid-life crisis, summed up as “I’m bored.” She had a nice life in New York but wanted more. She spoke to a close friend, Cindy Gallop, and Cindy introduced Natasha to Ben who was at BBH at the time. They decided to start a consultancy. In the first year this consisted of Natasha, Ben and two other employees.

Ben and Natasha decided that what they wanted to create was different to a strategic consultancy or a design studio. The outcome of their thinking might be creative solutions, but that was not going to be the only thing to lead their thinking. In this sense it was going to exist at the crossroads where a management consultancy meets a design consultancy. As such, it was not going to be built around structure, parameters and brand guidelines. It was going to be built around change, brains and speed, solving problems for big, mass-market brands both strategically and creatively.

These foundations had big impacts for their people. There would be no project managers and no “middle-men” (or women), to buffer relationships. With this bare set-up would come a demand for high levels of responsibility and flexibility from the team. They were pioneering a new industry, the leading idea being about high performance and innovation through growth.

Getting the right people into the business who would fit, and for whom the consultancy was a good fit, was crucial. It became apparent that hiring designers with extensive experience would not work. The view was taken that they would find it difficult to adapt both to the culture of the business and also the fast pace of work. The solution was to establish an intern programme that enabled the business to seek out candidates with the raw material and thinking to fit, and then train them into the business. Bow&Arrow has grown as a business from two staff to 35 staff in six years.

There is a sense a genuine buzz and fluidity about the business as you walk around. Without prompting, Natasha introduces three of the creative team to give their perspectives on the culture of the business.

Joel Ng: senior creative. “I’ve been at Bow & Arrow for five years. This was my first full-time employment. I did a few internships before. I studied information design which taught me to ask: ‘What is the problem? How can we fix it?’ Our work here is about finding the solution and designing the solution. The outcome can be anything. There are many problems and many solutions so there is no chance to get bored. I did not want to do brand guidelines forever. Designers want ‘to do everything but we can’t’ or so the thinking goes. But at Bow&Arrow variety is wired in. Every day is different. Every day brings a new deadline. It’s intense but there is a really good energy. We have a very hands-on relationship with Natasha and one of open collaboration. You grow up quickly, especially when having to explain and guide on complex work to more junior members of the team. We are united in our passion for what we do, a really close knit team.”

Kieran Mineham: creative lead. “I’ve been at Bow&Arrow for two and a half years. ‘MBA Level feedback’ builds our collective confidence. It is a natural part of what we do and crucially it also cuts down on stress. The speed with which we work is driven by a proactive outlook and a desire – we want to do it. We’re a bonded team – we socialise and get on outside of work. Freelancers are often baffled because they get treated with the same respect as everyone else. We’re all clear that our purpose and impact is broad and visionary. We don’t just colour in.”

Jackie Law: creative lead. “I’ve been at Bow&Arrow for three years. At other places that I worked, I found there was a wall between strategy and creative, which created a lack of ownership of the overall process. That’s not the case here. We’re involved in the end-to-end process. The pace of work and the amount of work we do is phenomenal. We don’t work to a minimum aesthetic. It’s about strategy as well. We strive to show our direction- show our workings to clients.”

John Scarrott is membership director at the Design Business Association. He Tweets at @DBAScarrott.