Fluid Versus Rigid: Organizing Your Marketing Team


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So far on the Cardwell Beach blog, we’ve covered key questions to ask when putting together a new marketing team and ways to visualize and structure that team.

Today, we’ll look at another aspect of a high-performing team: the roles and responsibilities of each team member that you’ll be hiring.
Here, you have yet another strategic decision to make. Do you hire based on short-term deliverables, where every role fulfills a strict function? Or do you hire based on long-term goals, where every employee brings a unique skill set?

Today we will look at two perspectives on these questions and then share our take.

The “rigid” view: This more compartmentalized structure encourages managers to hire based on the tasks and deliverables they need completed. This article for Inc makes the case that a marketing organization runs best when the members of your marketing team have clearly defined titles, roles, objectives, and areas of expertise. This is a model that would be familiar to anyone walking into a corporation in the last twenty years: each employee brings a set skill set or area of competency and works in a predetermined silo.

Inc recommends that any marketing team be led by a strong marketing director who knows the market, understands your company’s internal and external processes and set strategy relative to other departments in the firm. From there, constructing a team is all about finding experienced specialists who can fit into specific roles— like marketing managers and strategic planners.

On a bigger corporate-wide level, we could also call these “hierarchical” organizations. These are often large, regimented corporations like GE or IBM, managing hundreds of products, brands, or services.

Why hire a “rigid” team: A hierarchical team works best for deadline-driven projects that require deep specialization. When everyone has a narrow specialty and a small window of responsibility, products and services can be executed quickly as long as every team member performs their role appropriately. The classic example of this system is the automotive assembly line, where one employee attaches bumpers while the other attaches hubcaps.

How to hire a “rigid” team: A manager looking to staff based on their own deliverables would have a very different strategic approach than a manager hiring based on individual talent.

For example, a firm that sells consumer-facing services would seek out marketers to directly support their sales goals for that quarter or calendar year, while a company that  produces, say, Software as a Service would choose content creators to promote their brand in a tightly executed and regimented campaign.

The “fluid” view: This more dynamic structure is a good model for managers looking to hire based on skill sets rather than highly regimented work categories. At first glance, the more fluid structure presented here by marketing consultant Ernest Barbaric doesn’t look all that different from the model Inc has presented. But look closer and you’ll see that the structure and rigidity of the Inc plan is mostly absent. Instead, Barbaric recommends a team that doesn’t have set titles and responsibilities but rather focuses on broad areas of competency that fit into a digital-centric model.

For example, rather than a marketing director, Barbaric says a team needs a “captain” who can act as a liaison to executives and manage big picture digital strategy. But they should also manage uniquely digital tasks, like managing analytics and developing a PR strategy if a social media campaign backfires.

A real-world example of the “fluid” approach can be seen at PR agency Golin’s “G4” approach, in which employees only have one of four job titles- strategists, creators, connectors and catalysts- and collaborate over a distributed, worldwide internal “social network.”
This structure is sometimes also called an “adaptable” organization.

Why hire a “fluid” team: In a more flexible organization, team members can bring their own strengths, interests and opinions to the fore, often making them more outspoken and engaged employees. At the same time, adaptable teams can switch quickly from task to task and can often push for new and unconventional ways of addressing problems.

How to hire a “fluid” team: A manager hiring with talent in mind would strategize more about complementary skill sets than job titles or roles. For example, a marketing team filled with high-performing content creators would benefit from colleagues who are more adept at executing marketing plans or managing project budgets. Collectively, everyone’s talent base should work mutually towards overarching organizational goals, but not be narrowly tailored towards specific deliverables.

Our take: So where do we come down on the “rigid” versus the “fluid” approach? Here at Cardwell Beach, we work in a largely “fluid” model, where everyone works collaboratively on projects and all opinions matter. Within that model, we have people with various specializations and competencies- creatives, researchers, business development professionals. But everyone works together collectively to produce strategies and services we stand behind.

There are trade-offs to going too far in either direction, of course. A fully rigid structure is ideal for producing high volumes of work in a process-driven organization, but isn’t very adaptable when shifting to new projects or tasks (think back to that assembly line analogy.) An entirely fluid structure is great at adapting to new projects, since you’re relying on the talent of the team you’ve assembled. But sometimes too much fluidity can be a detriment during deadlines or when highly specialized work is needed.
Here are some key points we recommend you keep in mind when planning your own team:

  • Are work deliverables or work culture more important to you as a manager? Are you looking to accomplish projects that encourage collaboration or require specialization? Your answers to these questions can help determine which staffing structure might make more sense for you: a rigid structure based on the work output or a more fluid structure based on employee talents.
  • Remember that building up a new team is very different than restructuring an existing one. When building something from the ground up, get buy-in from top-level executives. When restructuring, make sure you understand that long-time employees might struggle to adapt to sweeping changes and plan accordingly.
  • We favor a mainly “fluid” or “flat” approach— one that you may want to consider for your own team. If so, one easy way to do that is to take a look at what’s not working in your team right now. Are team members afraid to take ownership over projects? Are colleagues eager to embrace the status quo rather than trying something new? Check out these “enemies of adaptability” put together by the Management Innovation eXchange to get started.
  • What does the rest of your organization look like? Is it highly regimented and structured or is it more decentralized and open-ended? You can make change no matter your organizational structure, but understand that it can be slow and painstaking. But here are some examples of global corporations that have made the transition and remain successful. Maybe that company-wide change can even start with your individual team.


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