7 questions for the new year

In preparation for a PeopleOps dinner at First Round Capital, I was asked to share 1–2 questions that will help drive the group conversation forward. The timing was right, as I was already in a more reflective mode, and I ended up going a bit overboard and submitting more than two questions. The ones that we did get to cover during dinner drove some really interesting conversations in the group.

I’d like to share a more refined version of them with this audience, as these are questions that I’m interested in exploring in this publication in the upcoming year. Right now, I’m not intending to do any direct focused feedback aimed at answering them, as I suspect just keeping them top-of-mind, will end up surfacing some interesting insights from my standard day-to-day work and readings. Maybe that will change as the year progresses and I’ll start tackling them more directly.

The overall tone may come across as contrarian, but what I’m really advocating for is a more first-principled approach to answering them. Many PeopleOps theories and practices haven’t fully caught up to everything we’ve learned about “what it means to be human” in the last 20–30 years, and there’s very strong inertia around some key “best” practices. That being said, I’m skeptical that throwing out everything that exists today and rebuilding it from scratch is the right answer. At their core, many of them contain some fundamental truths that still hold true, so the risk of “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” is high. We should proceed with caution.

  1. What does the future of the firm really looks like? The recent Benkler piece is the best stab I’ve seen in answering this question, but it still stays super high level. But if the future of the firm revolves around “building communities of meaning around economic collaboration” — what does that really look like?
  2. How do we find and attract the best talent to our organizations? The ineffectiveness of resumes is just the tip of the iceberg. We need to take a deeper look at the entire recruiting process: from the way we figure out what we’re really looking for, through the way we position ourselves against and interact with the talent market to a more holistic approach for thinking about motivation and the way that the financial incentives fit into this broader picture.
  3. How do we effectively manage deep diversity? the current diversity discussion seems to be focused around the aspects of diversity that are easiest to measure (gender and ethnicity) and within that focus, on the business practices that are easiest to change (recruiting). But the diversity that we truly seek goes deeper than that, and actually getting value out of it goes beyond creating “psychological safety”…
  4. What will we find if we start peeling the “employee engagement” onion? Keeping in mind that it was invented by a company that’s deeply in the business of “fixing” it, but wasn’t successful in doing so in the last 3 decades. I have yet to have seen a real randomized controlled test on this, conducted by an independent 3rd-party.
  5. How can we up-level development programs? Can a program that’s purely focused on the “outer game” (skills and competencies: presentation skills, listening skills, giving feedback, having career conversations) without any attempt the change the “inner game” (the way people make sense of the world around them) have any transformational impact on the organization?
  6. Is there a performance-development Heisenberg Principle? Can we accurately measure performance without hindering our ability to measure development/learning? What is the right balance to strike between the two?
  7. What are the various paths from Patriarchy to Partnership? In my opinion, this is a better, more nuanced description of what many people mean when they talk about getting a way from hierarchical organizations or becoming more self-organizing/self-managing. So far, I have yet to have seen a comprehensive alternative to the “managerial hierarchy”. Holacracy comes close, but is still incomplete and has some significant deficiencies. How do we un-bundle all the functions that the current hierarchy supports? and what are the alternative structures that can fulfill them?

Goodbye 2016, Hello 2017!