Solving Societal Problems 2.0

Through the joys of going down knowledge rabbit holes, I’ve discovered this recent gem by Yochai Benkler:

Yochai Benkler – Closing Remarks at OuiShare 2016

There are several thought provoking ideas in this short, 17 mins talk. I’d like to focus this post on a few key ones.

Yochai argues that the two core societal problems of our time are:

  1. Climate change the environmental degradation more broadly
  2. Increase in inequality and specifically the negative pressure that it creates on our democracies capacity for peace

Several of the most acclaimed solutions to these problems today are based on some core distributed technology. Be it: Uber, AirBnb, block-chain based applications or distributed energy generation.

In Yochai’s opinion, the use of distributed technology creates a false sense that the solutions are fully aligned with the long term solutions that they are attempting to address. While in fact, they are often time prone to one (or more) of three reactive forces that move them away from solving the problem that they’ve set out to solve in the long run:

  • The power of hierarchy, and specifically the threat of controlling positional power in the way that these organizations are structured
  • The power of property, acting as organizational force for oligarchy and the recreation of power around who owns it
  • The tyranny of the margin – the need to continuously compete and survive in the market, which end up postponing the ethical commitment (that the organization set out to address in the first place)

Yochai summs it up by saying:

“It is not enough to build a decentralized technology if you’re not making it resilient to reconcentration [of power] in the institutional, organizational or cultural level.
You have to integrate for all of them.”

Digging deeper into the structures and processes that can support such organization seems like a worthwhile endeavor. I definitely plan to keep an eye out for more evolved and flushed out articulations of such organizations.

Solving Societal Problems 2.0

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.


PeopleOps – A Primer – Part 1: First Principles

Phyles and Neo-Medievalism

The August newsletter contained this contemporary gem this weekend:

End of Nations: Is there an alternative to countries?  by Deborah MacKenzie

Which immediately connected in my mind with Jon Evans‘ latest piece:


[in searching to it, I also came across another piece of his, touching the same theme, published just a couple of months before the MacKenzie piece]

The oddity of nation states is one of my earliest original intellectual thoughts that I seem to remember. There are very few events in my life that I remember so vividly: standing in the indoor porch of my grandmother’s house, sometime in my early teens, expressing my first contrarian thought on a topic as abstract and unprompted as “whether nation states make sense”.

It’s recently been on my mind a lot, after a colleague gave me Neal Stephenson‘s The Diamond Age (which Evans references in both his posts) as a going away gift before stating my new job.

While Stephenson’s phyles seemed like an interesting idea, trying to address some of the structural, systemic deficiencies of nation-states, it still felt outlandish, and as science-fiction-y as a novel idea can be.

Which made MacKenzie’s piece a joy to read, as she takes a much more pragmatic approach to solving the same problem, anchored in both history and and modern scientific discoveries. She is able to chart a path towards a post-nation-state reality which seems more possible and achievable.

If you bore with to this point, you may ask yourself: what does all of this has to do with organizations and org design? (the key themes of this blog.)

The answer is: a lot.

In many progressive, future-of-work pieces, the way traditional organizations are managed and led is often compared to monarchies and dictatorships with the CEO as the (hopefully benevolent) dictator or ruler at the top. An argument is then often made to use the more modern governance approaches, currently used by democratic nation-states, as blueprints for re-imagining the way organizations should run.

Reflecting on this topic in recent months made me wonder whether we may be setting the bar too low. Rather than trying to catch up with nation-states in the way we run our organizations, perhaps we should try to leap-frog them instead?

If we are already trying to lead a governance revolution, perhaps MacKenzie’s Neo-Medievalism is a better role model to aspire to than the modern nation state?






Phyles and Neo-Medievalism

Vertical (Leadership) Development

This week’s post goes deeper into Kegan’s Constructive Developmental Theory which underlined last week’s post about DDOs, by looking at 3 whitepapers by Nick Petrie at the Center for Creative Leadership:

While the overall context is centered around leadership development programs, which is of particular interest to me, many of the insights here have much broader applicability.

Nick starts by identifying key failure modes that cause leadership programs to be ineffective and ascribes ways to address them:

  • Wrong focus: too much time is spent on delivering information and content and not enough on the hard work of developing the leaders themselves –> focus more on development, less on content
  • Lack of connectivity: content in the programs is often disconnected from the leader’s work, making it hard to convert what was learned in the program into actions that address real problems –> make the development and the work inseparable
  • Leader in isolation: most programs fail to engage the leader’s key stakeholders in the change process, leading to resistance when they are surprised and disrupted by the changes leaders make to their behavior –> Create strong developmental networks at work
  • Too short: programs are designed as events rather than as a process over time. –> Make leadership development a process, not an event

Digging deeper on the first point, Nick distinguishes between two types of development:

  • Horizontal development – development of new skills, abilities, behaviors. Technical learning.
  • Vertical development – refers to the “stages” that people progress through with regard to the way they “make sense of the world”. This is where Kegan’s work and other developmental theories come into play.

The metaphor Nick is using, is that if horizontal development can be equated to filling up a cup with more water, vertical development can be equated to making the cup bigger.

Nick cites several academic papers that show that people at higher level of development perform better in more complex environments, because they can think in more complex ways. Therefore, since the world around is and hence the problems that we ask leaders to solve are becoming more complex over time, investing in a leader’s vertical development is a worthwhile investment.

To give a more nuanced notion of what Vertical Development really means here’s a short expert explaining three of Kegan’s stages:

  • 3–Socialized mind: At this level we are shaped by the expectations of those around us. What we think and say is strongly influenced by what we think others want to hear.
  • 4–Self-authoring mind: We have developed our own ideology or internal compass to guide us. Our sense of self is aligned with our own belief system, personal code, and values. We can take stands, set limits on behalf of our own internal “voice.”
  • 5–Self-transforming mind: We have our own ideology, but can now step back from that ideology and see it as limited or partial. We can hold more contradiction and oppositeness in our thinking and no longer feel the need to gravitate towards polarized thinking

Next Nick addresses the primary conditions necessary to drive vertical development. If one (or more) of the three is missing, no progress will be made:

  1. “Heat” (intense stretch) experiences (“the what” – initiates)
  2. Colliding new ways of thinking  (“the who” – enables)
  3. Elevated sense making (“the how” – integrates)

He then goes deep into 15 different approaches one can use to create an environment/program in which these necessary conditions exist, as summarized by the table below:

vertical leadership dev - matrix

To sum things up on a more personal note: when I decided to make the career change into People Ops, I made a commitment to myself to adopt a “first principles” approach to all “HR best practices” that I engage with and am now responsible for. Traditional leadership development programs was a clear area with a “bad smell” which requires some deep rethinking. Nick’s work draws the full arc for how one may go about fixing this area: from clearly articulating what’s broken with the existing paradigm, through providing a compelling alternative, to offering actionable building blocks that can be used to design the next generation program.

Vertical (Leadership) Development