People experience

What is a people operating system?

If you only ever read one blog on our site, make it this one.

This blog explains what we mean by a people operating system and by the end of it you’ll have a completely new perspective on how to approach culture and people management in growing companies.

Let’s start with something familiar

A car is a system. The point of a car is that all the components work together to get you from A to B, quickly, safely and comfortably. If a component breaks, then the car doesn’t work as well or it stops working altogether.

As the driver of the car, the components in themselves aren’t really that useful to you. You’re interested in the performance of the car. You’re not particularly bothered about how fancy your crankshaft is. Whether you’ve got a top of the range drivetrain. Or swanky spark plugs. These things only really matter in so far as they fit into the overall system of the car.

Well, at The Pioneers we take a similar perspective on people management.

What do we mean by a people operating system?

There are lots of ‘components’ to managing people. Think of all the things you put in place to help your employees deliver for customers and grow your business: hiring people, paying them, setting objectives, running meetings, facilitating learning etc.

Now most companies see these components as discreet applications. They focus on all the parts of the engine, but they don’t understand how they should fit together to create the car!

But from an employee’s perspective, what really matters is how all your people management applications fit together to create a seamless, coherent user experience that makes it easy for them to do great work.

That’s what we mean by a people operating system - it's a way of looking at people management with a systemic perspective. A way of seeing how all the applications, initiatives and processes you put in place to get work done come together as a system. A system that has a profound influence on your culture (but not the only influence); and a profound influence on your people’s experience of work, their happiness, decision making and behaviour.

And we think that if you don’t take a systemic perspective - if you can’t see the wood for the trees - it’s very difficult to create a great employee experience or a high performance culture.

Can't see the wood for the trees

How is this different to HR?

We don’t like to bash HR, but it’s worth calling out what’s different about the people operating system mindset and traditional HR…

1. HR doesn’t understand its users

Traditional HR designs and builds stuff for “human resource”, “human capital” or “talent” but rarely for “people”. This might sound like semantics, but it actually matters. Your business employs real people, not convenient abstractions. Real people have good days and bad days. They have emotions, motivations and biases. They forget things. They have personal histories, ambitions and other stuff going on in their lives besides work. Perhaps most importantly of all — you have a moral responsibility to the people you employ to help them live a good life.

By talking in abstractions and compartmentalising employees, HR tends to produce stuff that doesn’t resonate with the important differences in being a human. This is why most HR initiatives have this uncomfortable ‘one size fits all’ feel. We think it’s easier to change the way you manage people than to undo millions of years of evolution. So when we design a peopleOS, we start with the science of how people really work and we make the effort to get a real insight into your employees as people, their stories, journeys and expectations; and then we build the system to respond to the different needs of different people.

2. HR ships its structure

HR departments are often really siloed teams. They employ experts in recruitment, learning and development, HR operations, reward etc and then these people tend to work in isolation on their own area of expertise. The result is that all the effort goes into optimising components and no one takes responsibility for improving the flow and output of the system as a whole.

You can have an amazing recruitment process, but if your approach to onboarding is rubbish and new hires are disillusioned and demotivated by the end of their first week, then the company doesn’t get any value from the great work being done by your recruitment team. It’s a bit like adding a turbocharger to your car engine, but not updating your exhaust so the extra air intake has nowhere to go… (ok, I’ll stop pretending I know about cars now… but hopefully you’ve got the point).

Turbo charged car but no extra speed

The people operating system gives you a reference point for how people management comes together as system and this enables you to design and build more integrated, seamless user experiences for your employees.

3. The road to cultural hell is paved with HR's good intentions

People in HR want to do good work and there’s lots of good work to be done. But when one great initiative gets layered onto another it doesn’t necessarily result in a great culture. That’s because most HR teams ship new stuff without regard to the system. In isolation, these initiatives might be well executed good ideas; but they haven’t been designed with the peopleOS in mind and so they don’t latch on…. they don’t stick… and they don’t result in sustainable improvement. After a while, employees become cynical about each new ‘flavour of the month’ fad and the result is a cluttered, noisy workplace where it’s difficult for employees to focus on the work that matters.

When you have the overall purpose of the people operating system as your starting point, you get why you’re building things and what they’re meant to do to improve the performance of the system. And this means you can get insight from the data you collect - because rather than just looking at numbers on a spreadsheet, you can assess whether you’re making progress in your journey.

A quick overview of our peopleOS canvas

At The Pioneers we’ve created a peopleOS canvas to help companies map their people management system. You can click here to download a free copy of our guide on how to use the peopleOS canvas.

peopleOS Canvas – The Pioneers

Our starting point is that your people want your company to succeed. We believe most people want to do a good day’s work, it’s just that more often than not, companies make this harder than it ought to be.

The purpose of your people operating system is make it easy and motivating for your employees to do the work that will move you forward in your journey as a business.

Different companies are on different journeys - they’re trying to achieve different things and to nurture  their own distinct culture. The make-up of their peopleOS therefore needs to reflect this. But in our view, the requirements of a peopleOS are consistent across companies.

Let’s go back to our analogy of the car as a system to explain what we mean…

Every model of car is different - its been designed to fulfil the needs of a particular type of driver, just like each peopleOS ought to be designed for the unique needs of a company. But different models of cars can make use of the same standard components; just like companies don’t need to build every element of their people operating system bespoke. And there are consistent requirements or expectations we have of cars that distinguish them from boats.

Our peopleOS Canvas is structured around three core requirements. This is to say, that in order to manage your people effectively you need a system that:

  1. Engages people so you can attract, align and retain the talent you need to grow;
  2. Enables your people to execute on your strategy so you can translate your value proposition, brand and vision into customer experiences;
  3. While also enabling your people to explore — to learn, experiment and innovate so that you can remain resilient and discover your next wave of growth.

Why does this really matter to scale-ups?

1. You’re trying to break through the ‘natural’ limits of growth

When you take on VC funding, you do it because you want to grow fast. Much faster than what you might think of as the ‘organic' rate of growth for an organisation. This means you need to smash through the social inflexion points like Dunbar’s number and the ‘village to city’ transition that usually inhibit the growth of a company. Taking VC funding is like taking steroids — it helps you to overcome the natural limitations on your growth. But just like steroids, it can all go badly wrong if you don’t know what you’re doing. Most scale-ups experience unnecessary pain, mess and failure because they approach people management like the gym monkey who always skips leg day! They over index on one or two components and they don’t build with the whole system in mind. It’s not healthy and before too long you’ll fall over!

2. Rapid growth is already hard enough

Working in a rapid growth company is intense. Why make it harder than it needs to be?! If you don’t have a coherent peopleOS, your employee experience is going to be clunky and frustrating. People are going to be wasting their time, effort and energy. There will be conflicting messages, too many distractions and too much noise. You’ll have unnecessary inconsistencies, tensions and constraints on people’s performance. Perhaps the greatest utility of the peopleOS is that it stops you wasting time building stuff you don’t need and helps you to keep the employee experience as simple as possible. That makes a huge difference to the pace at which you can grow and the sustainability of your growth.

3. You’re building the future

The average person will spend something like 90,000 hours of their life at work. And for most people work is a pretty mediocre experience. This is what drives us at The Pioneers: trying to find ways to make work more fun, more engaging and more fulfilling. We want to work with scale-ups because they’re the disruptors, the visionaries, the ones who are actually creating the future of work. Every time we see a scale-up decide to “grow-up” and become a corporate, a fairy dies.

You don’t have to copy the failed management practices of big companies in order to scale your business. But if you want to avoid creating the company you once left and swore you’d never work for again, then you need a tool that helps you see People and Culture in a new light. That’s the people operating system. It’s the key to creating a seamless experience for your people, where it’s easy for them to focus on what matters most and where the environment and the culture lifts people to do their best work.

If you’re interested in creating the culture that will drive your growth - please get in touch, we’d love to help.

And if you want an insight into the constraints and tensions in your current people operating system, have a chat with my co-founder Bee; if nothing else comes of it, you'll get some helpful (and free ;) advice over a friendly cup of tea and a biscuit.

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