The Future Kind: Designing Inclusive Organisations

For this Inclusive Growth Show interview my guest is Natalie Pearce, one of the co-founders of The Future Kind. I wanted to sit down and have a conversation with Natalie because The Future Kind really got my attention. That’s because they are a very human-centric organisation which appealed to me because before getting into diversity and inclusion I worked in user experience and design at the BBC. I’ve managed to transfer a lot of what I learned from user experience and design over to diversity and inclusion. It’s something I talk about in my first book, Inclusive Growth, where I’ve got a whole chapter on what I call Employee Experience and Design which is really about human-centered design. This means rather than trying to fix individuals, we think about the journeys that people go on and try and make those journeys much more inclusive and accessible. So, I am excited to be able to sit down with Natalie and learn about her philosophy and the work that she does at The Future Kind.

To get started, I asked Natalie to introduce herself a bit more, by telling me who she is, where she is based, what she does and what got her into the work she’s doing nowadays.

‘So, I’m Natalie and I’m based in London. My background is in strategy, service design and experience design. That shifted into culture design and employee experience design and culture change which summarises what The Future Kind collective is all about. We describe our work as helping companies bring together their culture and their strategy through cleverly designed operating systems which I’m sure we’ll get into a little bit more.

How I got into that was a little bit of a squiggly journey. I didn’t know that that’s what I was going to do. I did economics at university so it was quite far away from what I’m doing now. I essentially fell into design but during that process of falling into it, I fell in love with it as well. That was when I was working at a bank and did lots of placements and ended up in digital design. Then I was fortunate enough to join a design agency just as it was forming. I was employee number three and I felt such a strong sense of belonging when I joined that I got hooked on this idea of helping others feel that same way.

I said things like, “Oh I’m going to help design our onboarding experience and I’ll just follow the same kind of human-centered, user-centered design approach that we do in our client work.” So that was onboarding and then it was the apprentice scheme. I kept picking up these little side projects. Eventually, I asked if this could be my full-time role. I felt fortunate because the agency was owned by a bigger technology consultancy which had a traditional HR team. I collaborated with that team closely but it meant that my role was employee experience design and engagement and the things that I really, really enjoyed. I had this wonderful playground to bring these two worlds and these two passions of mine together.’

It’s funny how these things collide. When I left university, I started working in technology, putting systems into businesses. I worked in telecommunications and then I ended up in healthcare and then when I was at the BBC, I ended up working in user experience and design because I was always much more interested in how people interacted with technology rather than the back end of the technology. I worked on loads of UX projects at the BBC. Then, as I mentioned in the introduction, I was able to take a lot of that user experience and design approach and methodology and apply it to diversity and inclusion. It sounds like I’ve had some similar experiences there with Natalie.

Natalie agreed. ‘Definitely. I think that the ethos and principles around user experience and user-centered design support a lot of the things that we’re trying to do within diversity and inclusion, especially around empathising with different people’s needs. I guess what I really like about design is that it pushes you to put yourself in other people’s shoes to try and understand someone’s experience.

I’ve always been a big advocate of the practice in design for your extreme users. It’s the idea that if you design for and prioritise the needs of your extreme users, you end up meeting people in the middle as well. I’ve always been a really strong believer. Sometimes it’s extreme users, sometimes it’s the most marginalised users. I’ve always been passionate about that particular approach, which isn’t always the case. I do think some design processes focus too much on the majority. But when I see the research approaches, especially the pick up on the more marginalised experience, I think that does well.’

I asked Natalie if she had an example of where the needs of marginalised users were considered and how that made the overall design better for everybody.

‘When I came out of university, I did a banking graduate scheme and then ended up in the digital design team. We were designing features in the mobile app and how we could improve those. I think that in the digital world, there is often a focus on getting a broad amount of people. But I think sometimes if we don’t bring in the more marginalised voices, then, we can forget those people and design without those needs in mind. So, one of the projects that we were looking at was around different types of payments that you could do through the app and the majority of our research participants were middle-aged. There was a variance in terms of gender and other protected characteristics but we realised quite quickly that we were missing people who were coming into financial literacy and just getting an account who were probably more digitally aware but hadn’t really entered into the banking sphere before.

Then we had people who were much older and new to the digital world and way of interacting. When we brought those two spectrums into the design process, we started to learn that some of the features that we were putting in were making it harder for some of these groups. But if you looked in the middle, it didn’t really make a difference to them. So, by us inviting in extreme users, on the spectrum of age, we realised that we could make some changes for the older users that would make it easy for them in terms of texts and button size and things like that. |The changes didn’t have an impact on everyone else, but it did have a meaningful impact on them.

‘That’s a simple example, but we didn’t know that and we wouldn’t have considered that had we not said, “Let’s expand this out. We did have quite a good variance, but it wasn’t going right to the outer 20% for example. So that was a small change that I know made a big difference for those that we bought in from that more marginalised group.’

I asked Natalie, ‘What are some of the other things that design can teach us about creating inclusive cultures?’

‘I think that it’s probably worth touching on what we mean by design. I think design, in its essence, from my perspective, is around creating solutions that address the needs and experiences of individuals within that particular market or industry or community. Obviously, there are schools of thought that talk about beauty and practicality and all of that good stuff, but I’m going to focus more on that experience definition. It’s usually discussed in the context of customers, but I think it’s super applicable to creating great cultures and great organisations as well. I guess one of the main principles is a human-centered approach that’s based on empathy. I think that that’s important for inclusivity because it’s all about listening and learning about other people’s needs and experiences. When we think about organisations, there are so many different backgrounds and identities and viewpoints, which means that different employees will have different working experiences.

We want to make sure that we’re bringing all of those different voices and different experiences in, because then it means that we are more likely to meet the needs of our customers who are also diverse and unique and have lots of different experiences. So, empathy is one part of it. But another part of design, which I think is important for inclusive cultures and inclusive growth, is the whole idea of co-creation. This is a more collaborative process that brings together a diverse range of people to create solutions that are meant to engage a really vast, diverse group of customers solutions rather than a small homogenous group with similar needs and interests.

It’s the same thing with our organisation. How can we create more active participation and collaboration from all members in a team? How can we start to co-create things like our values, our norms, our ways of working and practices and even policies? It’s no good us creating policies that don’t affect us without the people who are affected in the room contributing and giving their input. I think empathy is really important. That’s about understanding, but the co-creation part is about action and putting that empathy into action while still making sure those voices are heard along the journey.’

What Natalie is saying reminds me of when I worked at the BBC in user experience and design and we used to do a lot of ethnographic research with the public. There was this funny story where we were developing some new features and we were doing some ethnographic research. We had researchers going into people’s houses and spending time with them. There was this one woman who was obsessed with wild cats and she loved David Attenborough. Anything that David Attenborough made, she was obsessed with it. She turned around to us and she said, “You know what? The BBC should give him a job”.

We looked at each other and we replied, “David Attenborough is, you know, one of the BBC’s main talents”. She didn’t realise that David Attenborough was on the BBC because she was consuming media in different ways. She didn’t watch things on iPlayer, she didn’t go through the BBC website and she was watching this through other channels. She hadn’t quite connected the dots that the BBC created David Attenborough’s TV programmes.

In terms of what Natalie is saying about understanding the user and empathy, that experience gave us an interesting insight into how this person was consuming media. If we had approached people like her and said, “You should watch the iPlayer”, it probably wouldn’t register for her because she was consuming media in a very different way.

Natalie agreed she loved that example, adding, ‘I can probably build on that in terms of what it can look like within an organisation. One of the projects that I worked on prior to starting The Future Kind was with ITV, with their technology team. Their technology team was responsible for supporting the production houses, whether that was Coronation Street or the local news, by providing technology to support their work. They were based in head offices around Manchester and London, and they weren’t in the production houses day-to-day. So, there was a disconnect between those two groups – the production and the technology. Sometimes the technology team would be excited about an idea or a new process or technology that they could bring in. We’d be dismayed that there wasn’t the same excitement from the production houses. Instead, the production houses were thinking, “We need this thing,” or, “We want this thing fixed,” but their issue wasn’t as high on the radar of the technology team.

We helped them do lots of research with different productions to find out what those needs were. That shone a light on how different the needs can be between two different productions. Let’s say Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway versus Coronation Street, how can it be that different? It’s so different, so wildly different. And I mean, those are examples that are quite different. Then you’ve got another, like the news, which is a lot more high-pressure. You’ve got a temporary show that isn’t on you all year round, and then one that’s there all the time and you have one team that’s servicing all these different needs. So, we have to find ways to constantly get feedback.

I think an organisation’s the same, because you’ve got a marketing team, a finance team, a sales team, all of these people with all of these teams with different needs and then all of these individuals with different needs. That idea of constantly listening and co-creating and evolving with those groups, I think is incredibly important and something that I think should be embedded in organisations.’

I know that something Natalie has created is the company operating system. I asked her, ‘Why did you develop that operating system and what is it?’

‘Thank you for asking about this. We have recently shifted towards this way of describing culture and employee experience and the work that we do. At its core, a company operating system refers to the rituals, frameworks, processes and practices that guide how a company operates on a day-to-day basis. How its people interact with each other and interact with their customers and so on. In a way, it’s like an operating system within a computer which manages hardware and software resources to help the user reach whatever goal they’re trying to reach. A company operating system manages the various elements that create an organisation. Things like its culture, its strategy, its structure, its processes and its ways of working. It should serve as a foundation for aligning employees, driving performance and essentially helping a company to reach its goals. Another way to look at it is like a blueprint. It’s like a blueprint for how we operate and how we’re going to be successful.

When we’re helping a company build their company operating system, we would be looking at stuff like their purpose, their mission, their values, as well as their strategy and what that means in terms of measurable objectives. Those things that set the intent for that organisation. But then, we also want to look at, “Okay, if that’s the intent, how do we execute on that on a day-to-day and ongoing basis?”

So that next level would include things like core behaviours that we expect from each other. Rituals around things like how we communicate, how we make decisions, giving and receiving feedback, as well as the kind of systems and processes like hiring and onboarding. All of the moments across an employee’s experience that are opportunities to reinforce what you are and what you care about as an organisation.

There are lots of things that come into it, and that’s why I quite like to say it’s like a blueprint of your organisation. It’s the foundation and the outcome is hopefully a successful strategy that you’ve executed on and the ability to realise your desired culture. I think that we need to elevate the conversation around culture. I think it’s still seen as something that’s fluffy and we believe it’s something that’s incredibly strategic. In the last couple of years, as we’ve been working more and more with clients, we realise that we actually operate between the intersection of culture, strategy and operations. So, a company operating system brings all of these disciplines together and we hope it dispels the myth that culture and strategy aren’t the same when actually they work very much hand in hand. Our thesis around the company operating system is that it elevates both the importance and the interconnectedness of these three elements of an organisation.’

I was curious to know if Natalie had an example of how they’ve applied the operating system to an organisation and what benefits the organisation got out of that?

‘Our approach always starts at the top. So, it always starts with purpose, mission, and values. Clients don’t necessarily come to us and say, “Hello, we want a company operating system. Can we have that please?” Hopefully, we might see that change in the coming years but people usually come to us and say, “We’ve grown to this size and suddenly it feels harder to manage and we’re seeing some growing pains and we want to get our arms around this and make sure that we’re growing sustainably in a positive way whilst protecting what we believe our culture is.”

We say, “You need a company operating system.” So, as I said, we would start with understanding what they’re about and what they care about. So that’s a purpose, mission, values piece. We would also understand where they’re at. Doing a culture assessment, or we call it as a culture scorecard to say, to understand, “What does your culture look like on its best day? What does it look like when it’s not working well? What’s most memorable about working here?” And everything in between.

That sets the foundation. Then we go to a deeper level and we say, “Okay, let’s get really clear on your strategy and your measurable goals and objectives and look at how that influences each part of your business”.

Then, we would get into the rituals design and the detailed design of what needs to happen backstage and behind the scenes to deliver on that. It sounds like quite a linear process. In practice it’s often not, it’s quite cyclical. Things are pulled forward and we do them in different orders depending on the client. But that tends to be the process. We’ve done this across several different organisations now. We’ve done it in Fintechs and banking. We’ve done it in AI consulting. We have done it in psychometrics and media companies – a real range.

What we see as some of the biggest benefits is alignment, which is so, so, so important. Everyone being able to point to something and say, “That’s the priority. That’s what we’re aiming for”. There’s a snowball effect that alignment enables. Better collaboration, better connectedness between teams, it helps break down silos because it helps people lean into the fact that all of our roles are supportive towards this greater mission.

When we started working on the rituals as a collaborative piece within the organisations, we saw people start to get proactive around wanting to help create and get involved in this and continue evolution of the organisation over and above their roles. I think there’s an accountability benefit and an ownership benefit and linked to that a morale and motivation benefit that comes from this as well. Because what we are saying in company operating system work is we are building a company together. Let’s build the company of our dreams together. There’s so much ongoing and long-term benefit of morale and motivation towards continually creating that.

Hopefully, that gives a bit of a picture of what that process looks like in practice.’

Natalie mentioned working with clients on their mission and vision and purpose. I know that The Future Kind mission is to create a world where all people get to work for kinder, fairer, and better design companies, which sounds really cool. I asked Natalie, ‘Why did you come up with that particular mission?’

‘When Alicia, my co-founder, and I started the business, we went back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth on that purpose and mission. And I say that so many times because it was probably one of the most painful processes, but the two of us really connected over this idea. So, our wider purpose is to create a world where all people have the opportunity to do great things.

That’s what excites us. Empowering people and motivating people to be able to live a fulfilling life and to get enjoyment and fulfillment from their work. And then, we were like, “Okay, that’s really, really, really broad, really, really lofty. We’re going to have to get a bit more specific for our mission.”

We reflected on the fact, well, we spend so much of our lives working and in employment, so that idea of creating kinder, fairer, better design companies felt like a really great place to start in order to start living and delivering and supporting our purpose. I think both of us have had good experiences and bad experiences of work. I think that the sad thing is, is that some of those bad experiences of work can be so damaging and have a long-term effect on people’s wellbeing, on their confidence, on their self-belief. We got really excited about wanting to change that and ensure that there’s more good in the world of work than bad.

We believe that bringing more design and human-led approaches into how we run and operate internally within the organisations that we are part of can have a big, long-lasting impact on that mission and that wider purpose. So that’s how we narrowed in on that. It’s definitely been a process of evolution and refinement, but we’ve been pretty settled on this one for quite some time.’

I think loads of companies would be agonising for a very long time to come up with their vision and mission. I did a similar exercise with my team, which was quite productive. One of the things that we did when it came to our values was that we brainstormed projects that didn’t go well or projects that we didn’t enjoy doing and also times when we felt things didn’t go well or when we were not operating at our best. Then we flipped those around and turned them into more positive values. So, for example, we’ve got a value around engagement and that came from the frustration of working with organisations that just became disengaged with us and weren’t accountable when it came to diversity and inclusion. That’s where we kind of flipped it so we’ve got values around accountability and working at pace rather than taking our time and dragging our feet and things like that. That was a really good exercise to go through.

I asked Natalie what she thinks is the power of bringing together designers and people professionals such as heads of HR, HR business partners, occupational health colleagues, diversity and inclusion practitioners. Essentially, anyone who’s working in an organisation on the people agenda specifically and professionally.

‘I love this question. It’s important for us to acknowledge that the scope of the people profession is now so broad. I think it is near impossible to expect one individual to cover the breadth of what’s expected from a modern people team. As mentioned, there’s the traditional HR side, which is still very important. Legal compliance, policy, investigations, all those are incredibly important. We can’t forget those. They have to exist. Salary, payroll, all of these things. So, you’ve got that.

You’ve then got employee experience design, which is traditionally a different type of skillset. You’ve got the whole engagement and facilitation side of things. So, bringing people along a journey. You’ve got research, understanding your teams. And you’ve also got things like marketing because hiring is a marketing activity – employer brand, things like that. That’s brand and marketing. It’s such a huge scope.

I do think that generally we need to lean into the fact that we need multidisciplinary people teams in order to do this well. I didn’t even mention talent acquisition there and recruitment, which is a whole skillset in itself. That has experience parts as well, candidate experience being so important. So I really do feel for single person or very, very small people teams of which there are so many, because I think the expectations on them are very tricky.

But to go back to the question, what’s the benefit of bringing designers and people professionals together? I think there’s so many. Some of the top ones that come to mind are that designers can bring a unique perspective to the table. Understanding human behaviour and being able to spot pain points and opportunities for improvement is a great skillset. To partner that with the HR skillset as well coming together around what’s possible and what’s available – that is great. I think HR teams can benefit from the fact that designers are often experts in stuff like research and ideation and prototyping and testing.

I’ve heard many, many horror stories of HR teams with the best of intentions working hard on a launch of something new. And when it’s been launched, it hasn’t landed in the best way because of a lack of testing and that iterative process. I think that designers can help with that.

I also think that designers are visual people. So, they can take goals and needs and strategy of an organisation and create visual representations of this. I think that’s a real benefit for people teams, especially when we talk about stuff like employer brand and marketing. It could be a real superpower to level up and elevate the messages that people professionals are trying to land.

It also makes it easier for non-designers. Thinking about senior stakeholders that have very limited time, it can help them engage in the people process and the important ideas and initiatives that are being rolled out.

I guess my final point, and there are so many that I can list off, but I’ll try and stick to three, is that designers and “people” people can come together as a superhero team around the whole attraction and retention piece. In design, we often talk about creating delighter moments within experiences. Designers can help us identify those based on research and people teams can use this to then prioritise their efforts, which I think is crucial given everything I’ve said about how stretched people teams usually are.

I think there’s so much opportunity for collaboration. And I think that, okay, in some organisations they might not have budget or scope to bring designers into their people teams. But I wonder if there are opportunities for secondments. Or maybe you can get some support from your internal designers to work a little bit on some of the things that you’re doing. Even just small pockets of that collaboration can have a massive impact.’

I like the idea of those delighter moments in software development, or when we look at user experience, those surprises that you get as an end user. It could be clicking on a button and the button starts sparkling or changing colors or something like that. But using that design thinking in terms of the employee experience, as Natalie describes I think there’s so much you could play around with for onboarding, for new joiners to delight them, so that they’re excited about coming to work for you. The onboarding experience might take weeks or sometimes months before they set foot inside the office but there’s so much that you could do before somebody’s first day to make them feel like they’re welcomed. Then they’re really excited to come and work for you.

My final question for Natalie was, ‘What does inclusive growth mean for you, in particular, when it comes to applying design thinking or even companies using the operating system that you’ve developed?’

‘For me, and this links to the broader purpose of The Future Kind, it’s a lot about promoting equality and equity of opportunity. Achieving that is where innovation comes from. I don’t think any organisation can truly be innovative if there are groups of people that are excluded.

I also think it’s about growth coexisting with an effort to prioritise and protect individual wellbeing and the dignity of all individuals in the workplace. I’ve definitely experienced the exploitative nature within work, especially in consulting, when your worth is a percentage on utilisation. I think that that’s the opposite of inclusive growth for me. So, I think it’s the idea of building companies in a way that doesn’t leave anyone behind.

But I really like the idea of creating companies that last for hundreds of years and are loved for hundreds of years, so I think sustainability is an important part of inclusive growth. It’s like the antithesis to growth for growth’s sake or blitz scaling. It’s more thoughtful and intentional while still being ambitious. Inclusive growth is supportive of people, which I think aligns to what we’re all about at The Future Kind and our personal beliefs as founders as well.’

To learn more about the work Natalie does at The Future Kind or find out more about their company operating system there are several ways to get in touch. Visit The Future Kind website and subscribe to the monthly newsletter our learn more about their perspective and frameworks. Alternatively, reach out to Natalie on her LinkedIn page where she is active.

The Future Kind: Designing Inclusive Organisations - Mildon