Workforce Management Strategies For Turbulent Environments


In order to be effective workforce management strategies need to be a good fit to the context within which they must function.

It takes a long time to formulate strategies for staffing, development, performance management and rewards management and to develop the programs to support these strategies. But what happens when the context shifts even before implementation can be completed? This author scraped the rocks on the bottom of the rapids portion of the Rogue River in Oregon even though he had developed the ideal strategy. He consulted the river maps, observed the flows from the rocks above and developed a plan for navigating the series of rapids. But, by the time he got back to the kayak the flows had changed. The lesson learned was that static strategies do not work well in dynamic contexts… what fit when the plan was formulated became less and less appropriate as the river evolved.

Many organizations underinvest in workforce planning. And conventional planning may turn out to be of limited usefulness if what was planned for is not what materialized. Scenario-based planning is a technique that has proven to improve the odds that strategies formulated through planning will be reasonably successful. This is accomplished by developing multiple scenarios about what kind of future may manifest.

The most common approach is to define an optimistic, a pessimistic and a most likely future and to plan for all of them.
Then strategies can be crafted that are robust… they will work reasonably well in any of the possible futures. Of course this requires forecasting, which is challenging in an environment that has been as volatile as the one realized over the last three decades. And forecasting is never perfect… but it typically beats a resigned “whatever” attitude. The book Superforecasting” reports characteristics of exceptional forecasters, based on an enormous body of research. These characteristics are:

not being wedded to a single outcome
being open to considering new information and revising when necessary
changing one’s mind when evidence warrants
attempting to minimize the impact of cognitive bias
attempting to continuously improve
Possessing these characteristics does not act as a magic formula. Cognitive bias exists… we all are prone to more readily accept evidence that is consistent with what we already believe or that is convenient, shunning contradictory data that is inconvenient. Just recognizing that bias exists can help to control the distortion of reality it can create.

Forecasting is a lot of work, but it can increase one’s batting average.
Organizations that staffed using a strategy that supported being a low-cost provider will find that shifting to winning through innovation may be impeded by a workforce ill-suited to doing what is now required. Training people to become skilled type-setters may make them ill-suited to using computerized front-end systems, as discovered by newspapers when they made the shift. Defining and rewarding performance in a way that encourages efficient adherence to cost-minimizing routines does not motivate employees to learn, take risk and to innovate.

Workforce planning is not optional. Even though the best strategies planning can produce may turn out not to be ideal for the future that does materialize. But continuous anticipation and flexibility can enable the organization to refine strategies to minimize the likelihood of ending up with a workforce that cannot cope with the context, lacking the knowledge/skills and the motivation to do what is now needed. The worst strategy is to accept whatever happens. Competent and committed workforces are not built overnight and cannot be ordered through Amazon. They need to be created and sustained using dynamic strategies guided by scenario-based planning.