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Are We Asking the Wrong Question?

First Principles Thinking in Context of Employee Wellbeing Strategy

It’s that time of year when employers are asking “how can we improve our employee wellness program?”

If Aristotle were to poke his head in the room, he’d likely point out that’s the wrong question. Instead, he’d likely suggest leaning in on First Principles Thinking, an approach he is credited with originating, but one that is garnering new attention due to its consistent use by Elon Musk, as highlighted by a recent article in the Wall Street Journal and the writing of best-selling author James Clear. When it comes to creating the most effective way to support and enhance the physical and mental health of your employee team members, first principles thinking may provide your optimal solution.

Rather than starting with the current baseline program or process, first principles thinking eliminates all assumptions and takes us back to the fundamental axioms. Think of it as a benefits programming version of zero-based budgeting, where instead of simply adding a percentage to the previous year’s line item, budgets are built from the ground up based on rational analysis. Start with what is true (versus a previously held assumption) and work your way up from there. While Aristotle may have taken the reset to the extreme, you can keep it simple. First principles thinking can enhance your approach even if you just go a couple steps further back in your analysis than may have been done in the past.

Elon Musk used this strategy to conclude he could build and re-use rockets for pennies on the dollar compared to purchasing them. This eventually resulted in the creation of the SpaceX company and a 10-fold reduction in the cost of a rocket launch. Looking for a more “down to earth” example? Author James Clear points out everything necessary for a rolling suitcase existed for thousands of years but nobody thought to put them together into one product until 1970!! That was the year Bernard Sadow made the connection while hauling his own luggage through an airport and thus improved the travel experience for millions of us in the process. Mr. Clear points out that we usually look to improve the form (create a “better” or more colorful bag to carry things) while Sadow turned his attention to the core function (moving clothes and shoes from point A to point B more efficiently).

So, what does first principles thinking have to do with your employee wellness program strategy?? Everything. Literally everything.

Most likely you already have some form of an employee wellness program in place (80% of organizations with 50+ employees do). Perhaps it isn’t working the way you’d hoped? Engagement is limited, mental wellbeing is relegated to the fringes and employees find themselves checking plenty of boxes but rarely experiencing real change. As a result, we huddle up with our team and our benefits consultant and ask, “How can we improve our employee wellness program?” It’s valuable to remember the outcomes in our lives are often driven by the questions we ask (thus producing the answers we create). As such, asking the “how do we improve our current program?” question results in answers involving a cool new app, an updated health assessment, more lunch ‘n learns, bigger group challenges, etc.

OR – we can turn to first principles thinking. Doing so shifts the discussion from the traditional “How can we improve…?” (form) emphasis to the far more valuable “What’s our purpose?” (function) approach. Rather than making incremental improvements to a prior solution that was foundationally inadequate, we instead focus on why we’re having the discussion in the first place! Most likely, your compelling purpose (function) question will reveal far more powerful answers than the more simplistic form question, including but not limited to:

  • Support/enhance the physical and mental wellbeing of our employees
  • Help employee team members create lasting, meaningful behavior change
  • Provide a trusted, confidential (and affordable) means of supporting the unique needs and goals of each individual team member


With these identified, we can now focus on optimal strategies to address what matters most. Rather than simply putting the proverbial lipstick on the pig, we can instead consider more effective options available right at our fingertips. First principles thinking shifts us away from simply pursuing the latest shiny employee wellness-related object (form) and directs our attention toward addressing the core (purpose-centric) questions (function). Yes – the natural tendency is to build (through addition) on what we currently have in place. With first principles thinking, we have the permission (and the steps) to clear the table and purposefully create something that will make an exponential difference for our employee team members and our organization for years to come.


For more information or to discuss ways in which to implement first principles thinking into the design of your employee benefits/wellbeing strategy, please visit or contact Dr. Cooper directly or 303.521.1570.

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