Applying Design Thinking to HR and People Operations at FiveStars

This post is written by Claudia Fry, VP of People Operations at FiveStars. Founded in 2010, FiveStars is a customer loyalty and rewards platform that has grown to over 400 employees in 14 locations. The company’s mission is to help businesses and communities thrive by turning every transaction into a relationship.

Claudia, shared with us how she goes beyond the conventional HR model and how the fresh mindset and insights she gained from IDEO U help her team shape the employee experience and enable the FiveStars team to do their best work.


As a leader in my company, I want to consistently push my team and our company into new territory when it comes to how we engage in the workplace. I want us not to be confined by the usual boundaries of old school HR. We want to show people that HR, or POPS (short for People Ops) as we call it, can be done in a way that impacts the bottom line but also does something very special for our employees; it creates meaning in their work and it helps us build a community at FiveStars that can’t be duplicated.

Claudia Fry, VP of People Operations at FiveStars

I signed up for IDEO U courses as part of my continued obsession with learning and growing as a leader, and because I have a lot of respect for IDEO in general. I’ve followed IDEO for about 15 years now and I love Tim Brown’s refined approach to leadership. The way we work is changing, the impact we want to make at work is becoming more important than ever in our daily lives, and POPS needs to adapt, embrace, and iterate on it all with a fresh and creative approach.

The creative and innovative philosophy driven by Tim Brown and the IDEO family—especially in their classes Leading for Creativity and Storytelling for Influence—has impacted the way we approach our work. In Tim’s course, he introduces the topic of “leading through questions.” The question we set out to answer at FiveStars was:

How might we improve the employee experience and make it memorable through fostering meaningful relationships?

We're obsessed with the employee experience and we want it to have a big impact in people’s careers, not just here at FiveStars but far beyond that. So, a year and half ago we went to work to prove our theory that if we create a memorable employee experience we'll be able to build a strong community of people that are highly engaged—which leads to great business results. Here’s a small sample of what we put into action after taking the IDEO U courses.

Telling Our Story and Redefining Who POPS Is

Along the lines of designing for impact, our team is constantly working to develop and polish the way we deliver our new ideas, programs, and trainings. After taking Storytelling For Influence we’ve refined our communication strategy. We’re working on engaging our audience by making our communications, trainings, and company wide presentations fun, engaging, and clearly defined by our unique POPS voice, which is simple and lightweight. We tell our story in a way that our employees understand we’re not an ordinary HR department—we’re here to create a powerful employee experience, help them do their best work, and build an awesome community.

Storytelling for Influence helped us focus on telling our story and think through what we want to share and how we want to share it. By being warm, funny, and unapologetically authentic we connect with people on a deeper level. We seek to inspire and make people’s lives better and remove obstacles by building tools and programs to help them do their best work. We are not the scary HR department that old school HR used to be.  


"People should follow their leaders because they want to, not because they have to."



Brainstorming as a Tool to Get Creative

All our voices matter, no matter what role we have on the team. To ensure everyone’s voice is heard, we follow the IDEO brainstorming techniques and we begin every brainstorm session with brainwriting a la Adam Grant. Based on decades of research, Grant proposes soliciting ideas from individuals before moving into group brainstorming.

How We Do Brainwriting:

  • Grab Post-it notes
  • Spend 5-10 minutes on solo brainwriting before group collaboration
  • Everyone posts their Post-its on the board
  • Each team member comes up and talks about their ideas
  • Keep refining until it’s distilled into 1-3 takeaways
  • Create, Pilot, and Refine as we go

Our team has brainstorming sessions frequently and sometimes on the fly. We use these sessions to dig into bigger challenges we’re trying to solve for the company, and we’ve created some real innovations and fun programs.

High Five Recognition Program

Our new recognition program, The High Five Program, is one example. Startups, by their very nature, tend to run at insane speeds, and we often don’t stop to celebrate wins—whether big, small, individual, team, or company related. The High Five Program encourages employees to reflect and write High Five notes recognizing each other for something that made a difference.

Message In A Bottle

We also have another program called Message In A Bottle. Every team member writes something on a scroll they are grateful for or a random act of kindness that they’ve done for someone else and passes it on. We’ve got 400 people, so lots of bottles to fill up with greatness!  We want people to get into the habit of appreciating everything around them and impacting the lives of others in small meaningful ways.

Bots As FiveStars Icons

We love icons that we can take anywhere with us. They fly, drive, boat, train and travel with us.  We put them in our purses, we pack them in our travel bags, we have them on our desks. We recently had an all company offsite and hired an artist to create Value Bots. These Bots were designed to help all of us live the FiveStars Values by reminding us of each of the four values and their deep meaning. The Bots are these hand-painted, one-of-a-kind creations of artist Gary Hirsch, who leaves similar Bots all over the world for strangers to find.

Company Values That Inspire Action  

As a leadership team, we’ve also been doing regular brainstorm sessions and several of those sessions focused on community and the values and behaviors that define our community. We defined what community means to us internally and included all of our managers/coaches and employees to be a part of this process. It was invigorating and inspiring to see the excitement around this! Essentially the entire FiveStars company defined what our community is together, which puts a ton of onus on every single individual in our community on living out what we believe.

We wanted to put behaviors behind these values and help people live them out every day. We’re there for each other and for our community, and we’ve built actionable values to reflect that commitment.

  • We have hard, honest conversations with each other.
  • We treat feedback as a gift.
  • We own our areas of growth openly.
  • We celebrate each other along the way.

Our community and values initiative have been incredibly impactful. It’s affecting more than 400 people, and it’s something we, as a community together, strongly believe in and are committed to living every day.

Business Impact

We believe in brainstorming. It inspires innovation. It motivates us.  

We believe leaders should lead through relationships. We believe relationships should be built before we ask people to do their best work for us. People should follow their leaders because they want to, not because they have to. We call our managers Coaches and we want them to coach, lead, mentor, and motivate.  

That call to action and that effort has yielded great results in the engagement of our community members. We measure our impact through an innovative third party survey tool. Via this tool our engagement scores show that 86% of our people are highly engaged and doing their best work. This is 15% higher engagement rates than the benchmark for startups.  

High engagement means healthy business results.

Personal impact

Overall, the IDEO U courses brought more inspiration to my leadership style and conviction in why I lead the way I do. I believe in a people focused approach to our business. I believe in leading through building strong relationships. I believe in communities at work because it gives people purpose beyond their day to day roles.  

Leading HR through innovation is critical, necessary, and a passion for me. Implementing fresh ideas, trying them out, and constantly refining them isn’t easy—but it’s more meaningful to our people. We see our work come to life in shaping a powerful employee experience and becoming part of this awesome community we’re building. All that hard work is worth it for me every single day I come to FiveStars.


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