How Intuit Thinks Like a Startup

Problem: Intuit’s HR tools weren’t designed with employees’ needs in mind, and employees didn’t feel the tools were relevant or helped them develop their careers.

Solution: The HR team is behaving like a startup to bring better products to the company’s employees. The reult has been more engaged team members taking charge of their development and career growth.

As one of Forbes’ Top 100 Most Innovative Companies and Fortune’s most admired software companies, Intuit has long been recognized for its innovative culture. (Editor’s note: The authors work for Intuit). There were hundreds of innovation catalysts sprinkled throughout the company, but until recently none who focused specifically on human resources.

In the meantime, HR leaders at Intuit saw their team’s engagement scores lagging; employees felt they weren’t able to offer the best experiences to the company, and the tools and services HR offered weren’t easy to use.

Since 2012, the HR team has been working to run the function more like a startup — to work like the rest of the company does to develop, market and sell products to customers. In this case, the HR team’s customers are Intuit’s 8,000 global employees. The company’s product development teams were already applying what Intuit calls Design for Delight, or D4D, principles to help teams create great user experiences for their customers.

D4D principles provide a framework to bring order to a creative process. Employees participate in hands-on, immersive workshops to learn how to test ideas — quickly, without spending money and while having fun — to see if they might work for the business.

With the help of Intuit’s innovation catalysts, the HR team participated in a series of Lean StartIN workshops, in which teams of employees participate in two-day sessions to brainstorm and develop ideas for new products and ways to improve existing products. Following the Lean Startup methodology developed by entrepreneur Eric Ries, experiments were designed to help HR understand more about employees’ and managers’ biggest areas of need, how to add quick value to their offerings and how to measure their results against business outcomes.

“The results have been huge,” said Aaron Eden, an HR innovation catalyst and co-designer of the Lean StartIN workshops. “Lean Startup has given us the vocabulary, tools and empowerment to think about our HR programs as products that will delight our employees. By taking about 20 percent of our HR organization through the Lean StartIN program, we reached a tipping point where the entire organization has started to move very quickly now.”

There have been other benefits to the new HR approach. During the company’s annual employee survey, leaders found that employees who use these techniques in their daily work are happier and more empowered in their careers. “It’s changing how we think, work and act across the enterprise,” Eden said.

Following are five ways the Intuit HR team has learned to think and act like a startup.

Remember the No. 1 customer. When HR business partners give their input on an HR program, a program manager should take this feedback to heart and make changes. But in many cases, HR business partners use tools and systems differently than the average employee. “In the past, we focused a little too much on this feedback from our HR partners and forgot to think of the employees as our top priority,” said Karen McDaniel, HR product manager at Intuit. “It’s their experience that matters the most.”

The HR team changed the company’s career development program after the team received feedback from past participants that career development modules didn’t apply to Intuit’s culture. Close to 90 employees and managers were interviewed and gave input on the development modules. The HR team also looked at three years’ worth of annual employee engagement scores to measure employee perceptions of career growth opportunities, and compared the scores for employees who had gone through the old career development program against those who did not. The team realized the program, developed by a vendor, had minimal impact on employees growing their careers.

With this data, Intuit HR leaders decided to build a new career development program from the ground up. The team experimented with mock-ups of new, more Intuit-friendly content designed to fit more tightly with Intuit’s culture, reinforcing the company’s values and the way employees view their roles. After testing the new content and observing employees using the new modules, the team was able to understand how employees were using the development tool to improve their experience.

The new program, MyCareer@Intuit, was piloted within four months and received an employee Net Promoter Score of 100. Several other innovations also came out of the career development experiment, including a virtual participant guide, which gives employees a road map to continue their development after taking the course.

Experiment a lot. With their own innovation catalysts now on the team, Intuit’s HR employees led dozens of Design for Delight experiments in a matter of months. Ranging from small fixes to large, enterprise-wide problems, the HR experiments were all designed to be fast and to address pain points that came up in employee feedback. Small groups tested and iterated their ideas to find out what products or HR offerings employees value the most and where HR leaders can keep improving.

Once HR built the Lean Startup approach into a signature strength, a sub-team helped to share the skills throughout the company. During Intuit’s 100 Startups in 100 Days campaign, more than 80 teams participated in learning Lean Startup skills and competed to win the best experiment title. There was more than one winner. As a result of the 100 Startups events, Intuit has realized about $4 million in savings across the company and has begun development for more than 15 new products.

Think like a product manager, not a program leader. HR teams don’t always include product managers. More likely, they are composed of program specialists and HR business partners. But in the spirit of running HR like a business, since last year Intuit’s HR team includes product managers who are responsible for understanding HR’s customers, the value of each offering to employees and the change management required to deliver products to employees.

These product managers also make sure that multiple HR offerings don’t overwhelm employees or offer conflicting information. For example, Intuit’s talent management and learning management systems have many overlapping features; it’s the product managers’ job to make the experience as simple as possible between all systems.

“When I talk to people in other HR organizations, they’re often surprised to hear that we have product managers on our team at Intuit,” said Sherry Whiteley, senior vice president and Intuit’s head of HR. “Businesses have product leaders who are responsible for understanding their employees and their markets. Why shouldn’t we do this in HR, too?”

Launch and learn. “If we want to run HR like a business, we have to be willing to take some risks. Sometimes you have to get things out the door and fine-tune along the way, rather than waiting for it to be the perfect offering,” Whiteley said.

One way to move fast is to start small and grow from there. When launching a career adviser program, Intuit HR conducted several rapid experiments to determine whether volunteer employees would be willing to give each other, and receive, career coaching. The HR team partnered with Intuit’s finance operations employee group to pilot Learn2Grow, a training marketplace where employees can post “classified ads” to give or get career advice or job-related training. The tool is now available to all Intuit employees.

Pay it forward. For Intuit HR leaders, it was not enough for HR alone to develop a go-to-market mindset. To focus on the experience their employees have using Intuit’s career development tools, product managers also needed their external partners to have the same mindset.

To that end, Intuit invited product managers from two of its strategic vendor partners, Workday and Taleo, to participate in an afternoon of design and execution experiments with Intuit employees using the products. Lean Startup “is the perfect tool for us to work through some of our ideas and decide where to focus,” said Michelle Knight, Workday customer advocacy manager.

Intuit also sits on Taleo’s strategic advisory board with other Fortune 500 companies to promote this lean experimentation mindset. “By ensuring our strategic vendors understand how we think, they are able to partner more effectively with us to deliver solutions that move the needle for our employees,” said Traci Wicks, HR personal growth and development leader at Intuit.

Organizations can reap great benefits from adopting a “think like a startup” approach. Even a small adjustment, such as viewing employees as customers, can bring lasting, positive change. Employees, the HR department and the organization as a whole benefit from increased employee engagement and job satisfaction.

Intuit HR’s adoption of the startup approach has helped the company win positive recognition from Forbes, Fortune and others. But the focus on building better products for employees is providing benefits more long-lasting than industry accolades — improved HR products help attract and retain top talent.

In the software and technology industries, where competition for human talent is particularly intense, effective HR products that satisfy customer needs are critical. Experimentation, launching and learning, and the other aforementioned principles also allow HR to better align with other functions adopting the same approach.

Intuit will continue to nurture its culture of innovation for all functions, including HR. Maintaining a customer-centric mindset is the foundation of this approach, and in the spirit of thinking like a startup, HR organizations should always focus their efforts where there is room for improvement.

Chris Galy is vice president of talent acquisition, and Rick Jensen is vice president of talent development for Intuit. They can be reached at