When Daniella Patrick was young, her grandmother told her, “study a ‘strong’ subject, like engineering. That way people take you seriously.”
Despite showing a natural talent for subjects like literature and the arts, this was the early encouragement she received when carving out a path in her academic pursuits. But, as Daniella discovered, neither the stereotypical “strong” subjects, like applied sciences, nor the “soft” subjects, like the arts, were without critical thinking. In fact, critical thinking was foundational to everything she worked on.
All subjects were about solving problems in different forms. And being a fixer was what inspired Daniella to go after the classes and disciplines that challenged her most.
“At NYU, math became an obstacle, and I didn’t want it to be there anymore,” she remembers. “I aced all my math classes, and I thought, in addition to my Mechanical Engineering Degree, I’ll add on a Mathematics Degree as a reward for myself.”
Instead of simply getting a double major, Daniella was convinced (personally by the head of the department) to get a combined degree in Mechanical Engineering, as well as a Master’s in Mathematics.
From academia to her professional career – from classrooms to start-ups – Daniella became an expert problem solver. From there, she took her fix-it mentality to one of Accenture’s coveted Innovation Lab as a product manager.
However, it would probably surprise many to learn that Daniella was not building an app like most Innovation Labs charge their PMs to do. She was working in Human Resources.
“Like every department, we have our goals for the year, however, it’s not measured in revenue, rather our ability to attract and retain the best talent,” Daniella explains. “Accenture is our product, and its employees are its users.”
While the problems she was solving looked different than those in a textbook, they were some of the most difficult to understand and solve. Building a more “human” company often doesn’t have the easily quantifiable data a product manager needs. Instead, Daniella’s work heavily relies on qualitative feedback.
But when building internal tools for a user base of more than 411,000 employees worldwide, it’s not just an HR program at a grand scale. It’s an opportunity to product manage human behavior and company culture.
Stop with the assumptions
In the beginning of her career as a product manager, Daniella realized the importance of asking basic questions. It’s the starting point for any product team to better understand users and gain greater empathy for them.
What does a day in your life look like?
What are the things you wish you had?
What could have saved you half a day or improved your experience with X today?
These are all the types of questions Daniella poses to create a baseline of knowledge before trying to improve people’s working experience at Accenture.
“I go into each new project without any assumptions. That way, there aren’t any preconceived notions of what I believe people might want or need,” Daniella continues. “Rather, I build things that fits people’s actual needs.”
“Instead of making a monster, beautiful product, which builders think users need, I’ve learned that sometimes a slight tweak to an existing product will make a much bigger impact,” says Daniella.
However, there is an important distinction to be made between not making any assumptions versus complete blue sky thinking.
It’s often tempting, as a product manager, to want to build a product from the ground up. However, larger organizations often already have their established products or systems in place. So, the “starting fresh” mentality doesn’t often apply, like it may for PMs in an early stage startup.
This is where Daniella thrives as a problem solver for Accenture’s Talent Innovation Lab. She builds internal tools that can create incremental improvements to team members’ working experiences. Because as Daniella has learned from her qualitative research, the greatest impact can come from focusing on small areas of behavior change.
HR as Product Management
Many companies who promote a company culture of “work-life balance” are just paying lip service to what candidates and employees want to hear. It’s a recruitment strategy to showcase a company’s perks and happy lifestyle. But as many professionals know, it’s up to individuals to create their own boundaries and schedules.
Daniella knows this conundrum all too well, which is why she and the teams at Accenture’s HR team and the Talent Innovation Lab are investing money where their proverbial mouths are.
“We’re now realizing as a company that there is no such thing as ‘work-life balance’. There is work and there is life, and they’re completely integrated. And in order to recruit, support, and retain our most important assets – our talent – we need to make sure they can have a life, too, and not just work at peak performance 100 percent of the time.”
In order to support employees at scale, Daniella and the team are building digital tools, services, and even physical places and experiences to support its diverse teams around the world. That way, everyone can design their schedules and integrate work into their personal priorities, and vice versa.
“By acknowledging that work and life are now intertwined, we want to empower our employees to create those boundaries that are most important for them,” she says.
Daniella uses herself as an example. “For me, I have ballet on Tuesday nights. I only do it once a week, but I swear by it, so my team knows that I’m offline when I’m dancing. If emails are sent, they’re not going to get answered until after I come back. And that’s okay.”
For others, the healthy integration of work and life may look like leaving the office at 4 p.m. on a Friday to pick up a kid from school. It also may look like having a dedicated space for team members to meditate, pray, or take care of personal needs, like exercising, that don’t often come with traditional white collar “corporate culture.”
But Accenture and so many other large companies have learned is that if global firms don’t evolve and serve the makeup of its diverse talent, they risks losing them to the competition.
Attrition is, of course, the leading indicator of an unsupportive company culture. If you double-click into lagging indicators for employees who are feeling restless on a team, companies might find that it has everything to do with not having enough autonomy.
In her user research, Daniella discovered that the best way to support employees and help them grow is to encourage people to advocate for themselves and for others.
“It’s about creating the right conversations with our people, equipping them with tools that can help them accelerate those conversations with their managers and teammates, and ensuring that our company has the right policies so that the organization is truly backing an employee up.”
However, systematically encouraging individuals to advocate for their own working styles and schedules can’t just be done with coaching. It requires education and a community that can support new cultural norms.
“The research we’re doing with HR isn’t to seem lovey-dovey. We need to begin to understand our employees – our users – in order to effectively educate,” she says.
This is why so much of Daniella’s work is focused on empathy interviews, user insight research, and experimentation with trial and error. Changing the behaviors and beliefs around how work should be done within a 411,000 person-company takes persistence, patience, and ultimately, building internal tools to create iterative changes that compound over time.
Building tools for employees, as if they were customers
According to Daniella, the process for building an internal tool or product for internal stakeholders isn’t much different than doing it for external customers.
“Right now we’re creating an internal content site that aggregates the digital tools and solutions people need to fight burnout culture,” she says.
“For example, we’re partnering with Arianna Huffington’s new company Thrive Global, in order to motivate and inspire them to make changes that are meaningful to them.”
Daniella’s team has found that people like lofty speakers and motivational content, but it’s the execution and day-to-day practice they need more support with. This has inspired Accenture to encourage their employee base to not only be the consumers, but also the content creators as well.
Being a consultant can be a draining lifestyle – travel, long hours, and lack of sleep. So, people who have (quite literally) accrued their mileage, can also be the ones to offer up advice. It’s this cultural shift of creating one-on-one connections between employees that can turn a content platform into a community.
But the internal tools go beyond community building: “We also experimented with digital solutions to help people prioritize emails in their mailbox. That way, when people only have 10 minutes to check emails in between calls, their inbox can tell them which are the most important ones to attend to. That’s where technology can help you do the quick thinking.”
Product management plays a crucial role in HR especially at a place like Accenture where its most valuable asset is its people.
“We have to figure out how to tackle challenges as an organization so that support not only comes from the leadership but from the ground up – whether that’s with technology or with a community,” Daniella says.
“Everyone should be able to go to their manager or team lead and say, ‘I need a break or a walk around the block to clear my mind.’”
If the experts don’t feel like they can have that conversation with their team, then the organization hasn’t set up the right mechanisms to support its people.
Because that’s Daniella’s ultimate measurement of success when product managing HR: How do I get people more engaged at Accenture?
Sure, the external reputation of being one of the best companies to work for may come from awards and press, but that begins with employee happiness and fulfillment.
Like for any form of product management, knowing what to measure is foundational to progress. However, when your products are rooted in people services, quantitative data might take a back seat.
Instead, a measure of Daniella’s products might ultimately boil down to this simple question: “Do you like working at Accenture?”