What is People Operations? | Part II. Principles of People Operations

What are the principles behind the shift in paradigm between HR and People Operations?

Can we learn to apply them in our day-to-day, are they helpful principles regardless of your department?

What do great People Ops teams do that makes them transcend the HR paradigm and its heritage bad rep?

Hang in there. The below is my attempt at defining People Operations. I hope it helps.

Grouping interdisciplinary learnings to make something new and great

And it goes like:
⚙️ Learnings from Operations Principles
🚀 Learnings from Product Principles
🧠 Learnings from Psychology Principles
🙌 Bonus: Interdisciplinarity knows no limits

⚙️ Learnings from Operations

TL;DR: Start with why, ask “what are we trying to achieve?” and work backwards from that.

🤔 What is that?

In the words of Penny Penati, ‘think of the Ops role like a Rubik’s cube: only 6 colors but so many combinations.’

Operations people navigate ambiguity and pave their own way while simultaneously focussing on impact and having an impact, which is why ‘the Operations person needs to be versatile, quick to think on their feet, and problem solve on a daily basis.’

Ops is about rolling up your sleeves and relishing the blank canvas to juggle compliance, keeping the show on the road, and focussing on business and team improvements.

That means ‘on the one hand, you are prioritising and putting out a multitude of fires. At the same time, strategically thinking about building this business, which includes infrastructure, scale, repeatability and core processes.’

Operations is hard to grasp because it builds its own framework depending on its specific context. It’s resourcefulness embodied: creative, strategic, entrepreneurial in its mindset and in its actions. Operations delivers impact and inspires trust across the employees because they ‘get shit done’.

🤨 What does it look like in practice?

The below framework may be from Organisational Development rather than Operations, but given the elusive (because context-bound) nature of Operations, I think that its “common sense”, strategic and outcome-focussed principles capture the essence of Ops thinking quite well.

Source: OrgDev SubStack: The Common Sense Framework

Through 10 essential principles, the Common Sense Framework helps you grow and maintain organisations where both the people and the organisation can thrive.

The Framework lays out the big picture of what to consider to achieve this, and suggests specific practices and tools that can help you to get there.

  1. Clarify Purpose Make sure everyone understands the organisation’s users, product and purpose. Who are we? What do we do? Whom for? Why?
  2. Develop Strategy Proactively plan stuff out with a clear idea of how it adds value, aka developing a strategy to guide value creation. What are our main goals for this year? How do we prioritise this quarter?
  3. Focus on Value Impact Prioritise ruthlessly and focus your daily work on value delivery — what’s the least amount of work I can do to have the most impact?
  4. Sense & Respond Embrace change, be agile, identify, prioritise and respond to challenges and opportunities.
  5. Run Experiments Run experiments to address complex challenges.
  6. Enable Autonomy Free individuals and teams up to create value as autonomously as possible, for example through automation and lean processes.
  7. Collaborate on Dependencies Co-create and evolve a coherent system to deal with all dependencies, like the need we all have for context in order to have clarity: what’s your internal comms strategy?
  8. Invest in Learning Deliberately ensure the people grow competence and skill, so that they develop.
  9. Intentionally Develop Culture Strategically foster a cooperative culture where people champion shared values and are empowered to achieve their fuller potential.
  10. Build Shared Mental Models Invest in building shared mental models, so that people can engage in meaningful dialogue about what’s happening and what needs to be done

🚀 Learnings from Product principles

TL;DR: You don’t have all the answers, and neither should you. Adopt a bottom-up approach, ask your people what they want and what they need.

🤔 What is that?

A product is something we consistently use that we need and/or want to engage with, because it adds value to our lives. That’s why Product teams refer to their target audience as users.

you + using the product = augmented version

Source: What is Jobs to be done

A product can be a tool (hammer, washing machine, computer), a software (Adobe, Word, Excel), an app (WhatsApp, Telegram, Instagram).

A product mindset is ‘an all-round approach to delivering value for users — prioritising continuous evolution, data-driven decisions, and user delight’. Teams with a product mindset are strategic, agile, and user-driven.

Product principles enable People teams to frame employees as users and apply strategic, agile and user-driven principles to understand their people’s needs (accomplish everything through others) and tangibly move the needle (maximise impact on the mission).

🤨 What does it look like in practice?

What does JooBee Yeow mean when she says “an employee is a ‘consumer’ of HR services and products”? What does Jessica Hayes mean when she compares employment to a monthly subscription model?*
*To answer those questions, I recommend reading the hyperlinked articles!

Here’s one for you: As a user, would you deliberately use an app or subscribe to a service that you neither need (100% useless) nor want (0% entertainment value) and adds no value to your life? Probably not.

People Operations’ goal is to attract, nurture and retain a particular type of user (the future high-performing employee) of its product (the organisation), and keep building trust & adding value to their life in order for the users to keep their subscription up (stay at the company and keep adding value there).

In Jessica Hayes’ words, ‘People Operations is the (largely unseen) product your team buys into during recruitment, and then continues to subscribe to until they hand in their resignation (and even beyond in alumni programmes, famously the brilliant one run by Google).’

People Operations is about consistently finding innovative solutions to the ever-evolving challenges that arise from questions like: What do the employees of my organisation need? What do they want? How can we do what needs to while adding value to their lives?

As Lucia Guillory puts it for First Round, ‘While plenty of startups devour Daily Active Users and churn metrics, too many manage their employee experience according to whim or legacy practices. “Observe, experiment, measure. Understand whether something actually works, and don’t be distracted by the fact that it’s been done before.’

📣 Bonus: A little rant

People Operations is a strategic discipline. The whole concept of having a product mindset and treating your people like users helps re-frame the importance of employees and provides a supportive and innovative methodology, but the basic underlying principles are pretty straightforward: add value to people’s lives and treat them with respect.

They may be two sides of the same coin, but I hope we need those business metrics to make informed strategic decisions and not to legitimise the value of product principles.

🧠 Learnings from psychology principles

TL;DR: Put people at the centre of their own experience. Listen, empower and guide.

As a reminder, People teams are responsible for all processes across the Employee Journey, which is the time an employee spends at a company, starting when they apply to the organisation and ending when they leave the organisation (and beyond — think alumi programmes!)

Source: JooBee YeowHow to walk in your employees’ shoes

At each step of the employee journey, the ‘🔎 Employee Lens’ on their ‘🚶Employee Journey’ is rooted in behavioural and social psychology that spans across people’s hierarchy of needs.

Source: Simply Psychology — Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

On the great Olya’s advice, we’ll first explore behavioural psychology and then social psychology.

⚛️ From process to practice: Behavioural psychology

🤔 What is that?

According to James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, behavioural psychology is ‘the study of the connection between our minds and our behavior.’

🤨 What does it look like in practice?

In action, behavioural psychology can help People teams tackle challenges like: How do we drive specific behaviours? How can we improve engagement?

For example, let’s take the project “define and embed our company values”, with the understanding that we can drive but we can’t control behaviours.

Source: Learnerbly, Marie Krebs — How We Built our Learning Culture

Ie. We can’t hire for culture fit, but we can define values and build rituals that drive value-aligned behaviours and allow diversity to flourish.

  1. Purpose of the project: Drive value-aligned behaviours to foster a safe and enabling culture.
  2. Scope of the project: Defining and embedding a specific company value. Let’s take Inclusion and Diversity as an example.
  3. Theory aka defining the value Definitions need to be specific or it’s all gonna feel like tokenism.
    For example, “Inclusion and Diversity” doesn’t stick, it doesn’t give me a definition I can appropriate to guide my behaviours.
    But “Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance. We look for people who share our values and contribute to our culture. Diversity alone is not enough. We believe by being diverse and inclusive we make better decisions.” sticks because I can apply it to my day-to-day.
  4. Processes aka practice Processes are well-defined, repeatable steps that a chieve a predictable result. Practices are the ongoing pursuit of a goal of interest often comprised of many processes.
    For this project, it’s building rituals through tools, policies, guides that result in behaviours aligned with our inclusion value, and allow people to contribute to the culture in diverse ways.
    For example running and sharing and actionning reports on DEI across the Employee Journey (hiring, progression, separation), no dress code, employee user guides, asking for pronouns, new joiners meet every department, deliberately make time for coffee chats across teams, 360 feedback, proactively posting on diversity job boards, skills-based recruitment, anonymisation at CV stage & at exercise stage during recruitment, talking about stuff (every day but also formally in employee guides eg. wellbeing, periods, anti-racism), inclusive socials (eg. not booze-only), flexible bank holidays and more.
  5. Impact aka resulting individual behaviours: People have constructive disagreements, apply to jobs because they feel like they can belong, are respectful of each other’s differences, broaden their perspective, trust they are valued and respected as individuals. All of which contributes to attracting, nurturing and retaining them, because they are where they want to be.

Those results are based on my work and experience embedding this value at Learnerbly. We’re kicking off Values work at MoonPay at the moment, and I cannot wait to share how we’ve done it and what we’ve learnt from it with you!

💓 The human stuff: Social psychology

🤔 What is that?

If you check Wikipedia out, social psychology is ‘the study of how the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined, and implied presence of others, ‘imagined’ and ‘implied presences’ referring to the internalised social norms that humans are influenced by even when alone’.

It’s the wiggly, sometimes elusive side of our humanity. It’s complicated (you know this hyperlink is only 50% sarcastic if you listen really closely).

Circling back to our learnings from product principles, Jessica Hayes says about People Operations as a Product: ‘I don’t think you can really treat [the human stuff] as a product, because it’s more like a bespoke service. It’s where my values around servant leadership come into play.’

Applied social psychology principles echo another concept, that of Emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is ‘the ability to understand, use, and manage your own emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathise with others, overcome challenges and defuse conflict.’

Emotional Intelligence is the muscle you build when engaging in social psychology. In action, it can help enable dialogue and handle difficult or delicate situations.

The so-called ‘soft’ skills which can be developed through coaching, servant leadership, or vulnerability.

🤨 What does it look like in practice?

Social Psychology principles can be put into action through active listening, asking questions that make people think critically and develop their growth mindset.

How? Talk to People. Systemically. It’s called People Partnering.

People Partnering is made of regular, structured catch-ups with people across your organisation to develop people focused solutions to their challenges, coach them through people-related situations, advise them on organisational design and keep aligned with the bigger picture.

It’s all about empowerment and helping people learn rather than teaching them.

🙌 Bonus: Interdisciplinarity knows no limits

Interdisciplinary must-haves: They’re not just words, go out there and ask those team members to mentor you!

👉 Provide guidance and on-demand services like you’re Customer Success

👉 Strategise with design thinking like you’re a Designer

👉 Build MVPs like you’re a Product Manager

👉 Measure what matters like you’re leading Marketing

👉 Engage people like you’re selling for Business Development

👉 Involve everyone in L&D like they’re the People Partner

👉 Upskill all your managers into coaches

Those bonuses are not full sections of the article because there would be quite a lot of cross over with Operations, Product and Psychology learnings, but you think about how versatile, hands-on and strategic Operations, which lent its name to People Operations, is as a function…

It’s only fair to wrap up with an open end on interdisciplinarity and all the wonderful and exciting possibilities it opens up to People teams when you think about how versatile and hands-on as well as strategic Operations, which lent its name to People Operations, has got to be as a function.

Competencies matter more than experience. Welcome to interdisciplinarity, my friends.

Spotted a typo? Found yourself conflused? Have some suggestions or stuff you want to challenge?

Please, please, share your feedback here or in the comments. Or anywhere that reaches me, really. I want to keep learning and iterating, and I value your thoughts.

Thank you!

This article stands on the shoulders of those who shared feedback: Barry Cranford, Claire Linder, Elisa Piau, Emilie Leury, Guy Reading, Jacq Bridge, JooBee Yeow, Kasia Szelagowska, Lucas Brech, Olya Yakzhina.

Let's build people-centric, value-driven and strategy-led experiences. Let’s foster engaging, enabling and inclusive cultures.