First Principles

A lot of what I know about HR today is based on experience, observation of trends, blogposts, news and conversations. When I analyze the systems that surround me, they too seem largely based on what organizations have done in the past, few experiments and many perceptions. While I question these often, I rarely dig deep enough to arrive at the basic mental models that defined them. Then today, I was a part of a session where we talked about the importance of managing underperformance and I wondered – If I stripped everything down to the basic facts, what tells me that managing underperformance is important? Why are organizations built on the basis that employees need to be ‘managed’?

Once that question lodged itself in my head, I found it hard to shake it off. I thought about the performance management process (you know how much I love that), compensation and everything I do. It took me back to the concept of ‘first principles’.

First principles is a mental model that tackles solving complex problems by stripping out every assumption, hypothesis and reasoning until you are left with only the facts. You then focus on the facts alone to build your solution. It goes without saying that doing so is more time-consuming, effort intensive and mentally challenging. It requires you to throw out all the mental shortcuts your brain has built ever since the day you were born. Yet often, every fresh outtake requires one to revert to first principles ever so often.

My first reaction to applying first principles to HR was that it is too hard. Isn’t it easier to resort to first principles when it comes to engineering, medicine or pure science? After the denial, came depression and then acceptance (you know the drill).

Why did I believe that it was impossible to apply the concept of first principles when it came to HR? Was it because I didn’t know what the bare facts were? Did this now mean that I need to question studies that have held true over decades? Where do I start – with human psychology, social economics – subjects that I have no real degree in?

The long soul searching left me with two facts – (1) that first principles can and ever so often should be implemented in the world of work and (2) I need to fact check the mental models I hold in my head more often that I do.

While I may have stumbled upon the new magical solution to creativity, brand new ideas and revolutionizing HR, the next natural question is where does one begin? Do I now need to go back to school and pick up a few more subjects? Turns out, not really. The idea is not to solve for world hunger but maybe tackle one problem at a time. Maybe start with the one you disagree with the most. And then apply a solution that we already know and encourage using – The Five Why’s. Now depending on how strong the analogies and perceptions, you may need more than just five but at the end of all the questions, you will most likely land at the fact.

For the purpose of this piece, I attempted to apply this to the question of – why do we need to manage underperformance? The reason you do not see my internal Q&A here is because I failed miserably, but I promise to try again.

And while I do, I hope you will attempt it too.

Am curious though – what question will you choose to strip down to its first principles. Let me know.

P.S: Also watch this video of Elon Musk talking about it.


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