PeopleOps — A Primer — Part 1: First Principles

This is the first part of what may (or may not) turn into a series of posts about some of the key ideas in the broad domain of People Operations.

It’s impossible to start with anything but first principles. When I first took an official PeopleOps role it was very clear to me that in order to make a meaningful impact, I would have to question some of the key assumptions behind the domain’s “best practices”. And questioning I have. The content below is the more academic version of the initial outcome coming out of this exploration process.

PeopleOps = Organizational Fitness

Patrick Lencioni coined the term Organizational Health by comparing it to a more well known attribute of an organization:

  • “Organizational Smarts” — having expertise in strategy, pedagogy, technology, finance, marketing, etc. Intellectual horsepower of the organization.
  • “Organizational Health” — creating an environment with minimal politics, minimal confusion, high morale, high productivity, low turnover, etc.

It is the job of PeopleOps to drive organizational health, but that bar is too low. What PeopleOps is really responsible for is driving “Organizational Fitness” which means creating an environment that best enables the company to deliver on its mission. While the characteristics of organizational health are consistent across companies, the characteristics of organizational fitness vary according to the company’s mission.

Rather than spending a lot of work and time in explaining what is not working in the existing paradigm, I’d like to start with a different basic statement and work my way from there.

That basic statement is:

“organizations are selective, humanistic systems”

To understand it in full, we need to unpack each part of that statement.

Organizations as Systems

I’m using Ackoff’s definition of a system as a collection of at least two interdependent parts that serves a function. The parts can change their own behavior/properties, but the way each change impact the behavior of the whole, depends on the behavior of the other parts.

Ackoff’s also classified systems into 4 types based on whether the whole, and its parts, can display choice and purposeful behavior:

  1. Deterministic systems: neither the parts nor the whole can display choice. Example: a Clock — both parts and whole are completely mechanistic.
  2. Ecological systems: the parts can display choice but the whole cannot. Example: Nature — some parts of it (the animate parts — like people) can display choice. We can affect our environment, but the way the environment reacts to our actions is determined (though not always fully understood).
  3. Animate systems: the parts cannot display choice, but the whole can. Example: a Person — we can make choices, but our organs cannot — their behavior is determined in a similar way to the behavior of an engine in a car. They do not make choices.
  4. Social systems: both the parts and the whole can display choice. Example: Organization — but the parts (people) and the whole (organization) make choices.

This gives us the terms need to describe why more traditional approaches to PeopleOps failed: you cannot drive organizational fitness if you misclassify an organization into the wrong system type. And in a sense, in many cases, organizations were classified as animate systems at best and deterministic systems at worse, thinking about their employees more like machines than like human beings driven by choice and purposeful behavior.

Humanistic Systems and the Fundamental Organizational Challenge

Since we have a system consisting of humans (not machines) we need to figure out what what sets it apart.

First and foremost, we have self-interest — we get very little done with inertia, we need to be motivated to take action. Our behavior is also heavily influenced by our three major “bounds” (h/t Richard Thaler):

  • Bounded Rationality — our cognitive abilities are not infinite
  • Bounded Willpower — we sometimes take actions that conflict with our long term best interests
  • Bounded economic self-interest — we are not solely motivated by our economic self-interest. We also care about things like pride, fairness, and the greater good

These bounds sometime cause us to behave “irrationally” or make mistakes.

This notion of having self-interest leads us to the fundamental organizational challenge:

Maintaining organizational fitness requires continuous management of the tension between the needs (self-interest) of the organization and the needs (self-interest) of the individual

What Motivates Us?

The key to managing this friction requires looking at is from a humanistic perspective — through the eyes of the employee rather than through the eyes of the organization.

To do that need to start by understanding what is driving our self-interest? What motivates us?

We first need to take into account that the nature of work is changing.

For simplicity sake, we can divide work into two distinct types:

  • Deep (heuristic) Work: Cognitively demanding tasks that require you to focus without distraction and apply hard to replicate skills. Such tasks typically require open-ended problem solving, experimentation and novelty.
  • Shallow (algorithmic) Work: Logistical style tasks that do not require intense focus or the application of hard to replicate skills. Such tasks can often be completed by following a checklist.

As more and more shallow work is being automated, outsourced or offshored, work is shifting to become more heavily weighted towards the deep type. In this type of work, intrinsic motivation is the only type of effective motivation.

Dan Pink’s framework is a good starting point. Dan argues that we are motivated by:

  • Purpose — work that supports a cause greater than yourself
  • Autonomy — acting with choice (different from independence)
  • Mastery — becoming better at something that matters

PeopleOps Strategy

Our strategy is then derived out of these drivers:

  • Purpose through Intellectual Alignment — on-going clarity on the strategic direction of the company and how it ties to the day-to-day activities that each employee owns
  • Autonomy through Behavioral Cohesion — a shared set of core principles that we all adhere to (reinforced through key levers) creates the trust necessary to enable autonomy
  • Mastery through Professional Development — make professional growth a top priority in everything we do


Now we can turn to the last (first) part of our basic statement (“organizations are selective, humanistic systems”).

The greatest advantage an organization has over a country is its ability to select its members.

People naturally like to form ‘tribes’ where they experience a sense of belonging. The concept of being inside or outside the group is probably a byproduct of living in small communities for millions of years, where strangers were likely to be trouble and should be avoided.

While certain kinds of diversity (gender, background, experience, education, etc.) tend to produce interesting and productive work environment, other kinds of diversity (beliefs, life priorities, etc.) tend to produce a lot of ugly strife.

This derives the fourth component of our PeopleOps strategy — Disciplined Selectivity.

Our individual ability to influence who gets to be part of of the organization (sourcing, screening/interviewing and letting go) is one of the most important responsibilities that we have as employees, and necessitates an approach that is methodical, data-driven and bias-free.

Levers of Proactivity

Organizational Fitness doesn’t happen on its own as both time (social entropy) and size (Dunbar’s number) work against it.

This is where the more well-known tools come into play:

  • Org structure
  • Incentives — primarily as they pertain to the notion of fairness, and the few edge cases where extrinsic incentives were found to be effective (more on that in Part
  • Processes & Programs
  • Knowledge management — both pull (repositories) and push (communications)

In Sum

It is PeopleOps mission to drive organizations fitness,

Knowing that organizations are selective, humanistic systems,

We promote purpose, autonomy, mastery and belonging.

Through intellectual alignment, behavioral cohesion, professional development and disciplined selectivity,

Using org structure, incentives, process & programs and knowledge management.