Solving people debt with a product mindset

Sofie Nasbeth
Business Development Manager

Startup life rarely allows the time to plan people operations. More than just the HR function, people ops looks at the management and development of people within the organization. But, when you create an organization by default and not by design, you risk causing ‘people debt’.

Reframing HR and people ops from service delivery to product design–the process of blending user needs with business goals–offers fast-moving companies the opportunity for growth. No one knows this better than Matt Bradburn.

Matt is the founder and CEO of The People Collective. With experience spanning Primer, Vestiaire Collective, and Multiverse, he’s helped more than 120 startups and scaleups to grow their people strategy. We asked Matt about the concept of people debt, how fast-moving companies can avoid it, and the essential skills for a product-focused CHRO.

This conversation has been edited for readability, actionability, and clarity. AI helped us transcribe and research this piece.

The what, why, and how of people debt

What is people debt, and how does it affect companies?

People debt is the consequence of allowing people ops to grow by default rather than by design. In practice, it looks like poorly-defined core values, opaque people processes, or a lack of career development.

These poorly-defined processes result in mounting levels of untapped potential, internal comms errors, and unclear expectations. These problems can create behaviors like slower decision making and lower employee engagement. These are the ingredients for a subpar culture. Left unchecked, people debt results in high staff turnover and poorer commercial outcomes.

Why is people debt a problem in so many fast-growing companies?

Companies that need to prioritize speed often skip core processes. Early-stage companies don’t always have the time to define and roll-out culture, org design, or employee experience.

That’s understandable—it’s normal that people ops take a backseat when everyone’s attention is focused on urgent problems. You can’t ignore product and engineering, sales strategy, or growth. But this lack of attention leads to a gray zone which creates people debt. For example, when expectations aren’t communicated clearly, or compensation rates aren't set and applied strategically, your employees are rightfully confused. And this confusion impacts employee satisfaction.

Read: How to start with People Analytics

But every company reaches a point of needing to pay better attention to HR, to grow their people ops by design. A product mindset makes it easier for fast-growing companies to avoid these problems.

Embracing a product mindset helps because product teams move systematically from idea to product. This system makes it easier to keep the customer at the heart of decision making. Teams can center user experience, keep learning more about users, and apply an MVP (minimum viable product) mindset. This helps teams to ship products and iterate faster, based on user feedback. They keep agile.

Embracing the product mindset in practice

How can an HR team start thinking with a product mindset? Can you break it down for us?

Moving to a product mindset allows HR to drive the creation of a commercially-driven people ops strategy. Employees experience problems and pain points just like consumers. They get frustrated. They don’t understand why things are moving so slowly, or why they can’t make decisions. The only difference is that the pains are happening at work.

Product teams usually start with an MVP. This is a version of a product with just enough features to make it usable by early customers. They in turn provide feedback in exchange for early access. Product teams make assumptions–what users want, how it should work. Some assumptions will be wrong. The only way to test your assumptions is to put your product in front of real users as quickly as possible. Here’s how it can work in people ops.

Step 1: Understand the problem

Humans love jumping to solutions. But unless we start by probing the problem we’re trying to solve, we may end up creating the wrong solution. This is why we have to talk to our customers, or, in this case, our employees. Whether it’s understanding job titles, how equity is calculated, or annual leave across markets, the same rule applies. You’ve got to find what’s causing confusion or frustration. And you’ve got to bring your employees on the journey. Do they understand why you’re building these strategies? Do they agree with the approach? When you’re talking with your colleagues, you're talking with your customers. This is important.

Read: How L&D can today's solve business problems

Step 2: Identify customer-centric solutions

Once you’re armed with employee pain points, it’s time to start zoning in on solutions. Here, you want to keep a laser-focus on your customer and the user experience (UX). What will your product look and feel like when people are really using it? Say your workforce is hybrid, and employee benefit uptake is low. Does that mean your employee portal should be mobile-first? Or maybe you need more remote-friendly benefits? Exploring solutions across the employee journey will lead to a more holistic experience.

Step 3: Set your goals and create the first MVP

Prioritize your goals by aligning the people ops strategy with the overall business strategy. Ask your commercial or business development team to share their goals, and then adopt the MVP approach.

Imagine your VP of Sales wants to create a new onboarding program to reduce time to productivity. Instead of spending 3 months creating all the material and scheduling all the courses, ask yourself: what's the minimum thing we could create to learn if we're on the right track and creating value? Start there. Then release that MVP to your next round of new hires, and ask for feedback. Use that feedback to inspire the next round of improvements.

Step 4: Test and learn

Problems and products change. You can’t assume your product will always fit for purpose. So identify a review and iteration cadence that makes sense for your company’s stage. It could be when your staffing has grown by about 20 people, or you’re opening your first overseas office. The important thing is you return to the start of the product process and start talking to your customers. Then cross-check that against learnings from other People leaders who have already experienced this phase. What common problems did they see and how did they adapt? What HR tech helped them scale efficiently? Learning from peers in other industries help you build an agile and targeted people ops strategy.

The product-focused CHRO

Moving to a product mindset is quite a shift! What are the skills that the aspiring Series C or D CHRO should be building?

CHROs headed towards IPO need to combine sharp commercial thinking with power skills like empathy. And, of course, a product mindset. In my experience, these first two skills actually increase the chances of developing that product mindset muscle. A commercial mind optimizes for outcomes and impact, and an empathetic mind seeks out and understands customer needs and pain points. These are the key ingredients for the product mindset.

Demonstrate commercial thinking

An advanced understanding of commercials allows a CHRO to own their place in the C-Suite. By aligning people ops strategy with core business goals, HR shows the board how people ops supports core business strategy.

Read: Learn how to interview your employees

To deliver these commercials, a CHRO must be able to define what a successful outcome looks like. Say marketing is asking for more budget because there’s a planned expansion into new markets. They need new staff to deliver the company’s goals. A CHRO needs to understand the business case for the new strategy, the goals, and how the CMO will prove success. The CHRO is clear on what those metrics look like. They’re confident to report progress to the board.

Leverage power skills

Power skills are the essential human skills for the digital workplace. Empathy is an essential skill for all senior leaders, and brings the product mindset to life. A product-focused CHRO is humble enough to analyze where problems really lie—even if that means backtracking on a previous hypothesis.

Let’s take talent drain. Imagine a scaleup is losing top people despite investing heavily in leadership training. And that training’s had high completion rates. Here, the CHRO needs to be prepared to dig deep and diagnose the real, underlying cause. That means showing empathy and curiosity when talking to employees. And creating a safe environment for them to share candid feedback.

Power skills and commercial thinking are essential for the CHRO that’s ready to lead a company across markets. At Series D or IPO, this is a typical growth motion. And from an HR perspective, it brings significant policy challenges. Say you have staff in France, the UK, and the US. As the CHRO, you need to create an equitable maternity leave policy across markets that provide very different legal rights to time off and statutory support. But your employees are your employees, wherever they are based. Solving this problem requires advanced problem-solving and power skills. It requires HR to liaise with legal and commercial teams, internally and, potentially, with external consultants.

Inside the leader’s mind

Welcome to the lightning round, where we ask every guest to answer these three questions…

What’s been on your mind lately? What’s been keeping you up at night?

I’m worried about communication between the generations. Gen Z started their careers working from home, during a period of rapid growth. Leadership needs to learn to integrate this generation into the workplace, and how to set more realistic expectations.

What one thing would you love HR and L&D leaders to start doing today?

Step outside the bubble! Talk to people who work in different industries, make friends with folks who are working in different disciplines. This is how true HR innovation happens.

Which L&D and People leaders are you following and why?

Jessica Zwaan
Jess coined the phrase ‘People Debt’, and she’s COO of Whereby

Marie Krebs
Marie is at Learnaly, and she’s insightful around people debt

Lars Schmidt
Lars’s ideas around transformation are impactful

Kaitlin Holloway
Kaitlin’s insights around VC and culture building are a breath of air

Lavinia Mehedinţcu’s weekly newsletter provides everything L&D needs to know now

Daniel Huerta
Daniel's updates bring new narratives to life

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