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Unsung Heroism of SWP

Ever have a crisis of purpose?

Strategic Workforce Planning has become my life’s work.  However, I confess to wondering at times if it’s doomed. 


Alicia Roach and I have been advocating SWP together for years.  At times over the past 12 months, it has felt like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up a mountain.  The sense of shared frustration with other SWP practitioners is palpable in conversation after conversation.

The very special SWP Conferences almost feel like mental health support more than an industry conference. 

We are frustrated because SWP is the right thing to do, yet our organizations do not yet value it. The critical discussions about future scenarios are not being had because leaders are reluctant to engage. Investment in SWP is very hard to get because the tangible business case is necessarily theoretical.  And this last one is a killer when trying to justify the cost of teams and infrastructure to broader HR and Finance. 


This week I hit an epiphany about this polarity; Strategic Workforce Planning is hard to explain but crucial to do.

Chris Hare

As part of an executive leadership program, I got to meet with Dan Heath
 who wrote Upstream

It turns out that SWP is an “upstream thinking” mechanism, which is why both things can be true. The problems our organizations face are not pre-ordained by nature. It is not how things have to be. We are not crazy!

For people trying to make progress in this space, let me explain why SWP requires upstream thinking and then what that means for overcoming barriers. 


SWP is an Upstream Thinking Exercise 

Dan shared the parable of the river, with which many may be familiar.  In short, picture yourself on the side of a river and you see a drowning child.  As soon as you return to the bank having saved the child, you spot another kid in trouble.  Most people save that child, and the next and the next. But really, you should’ve gone upstream to stop the person shoving kids into the water! For those with more interest in parables, Lance Eliot breaks the parable down deeper in his Forbes article, The Venerable Upstream Parable Helps In These Trying Times, And Applies To The Future Of AI Self-Driving Cars. 

In the world of SWP, our leaders are too busy delivering for customers now, optimizing costs now and being agile now in order to go seek the root cause of these critical problems: 

  • 1.Customer needs and market potential are not being met.
  • 2.Organizations are being disrupted.
  • 3.Transformation initiatives regularly fail to be delivered on time in budget and then adopted well.
  • 4.Digitization work does not deliver on the promised benefits.
  • 5.The business is carrying too much workforce cost.
  • 6.The workforce cannot hire critical workers fast enough.
  • 7.Skill gaps are sapping the ability to deliver on the strategy.


And while SWP is the right mechanism to see the answer, our leaders do not engage.  There is much more heroism in saving the drowning child. Beyond the heroism factor, it is much harder to show the explicit gains from upstream thinking.  We can point to children actually saved, but who will listen to the number of theoretical children who never got into the river in the first place? Yet this is clearly the better solution.  

SWP is crucial because it materially improves three tangible business outcomes:

Makes the company money
  • 1.Customer outcomes, and thus revenue, are constrained when there is not adequate capacity to deliver.
  • 2.Think about the fueled-up airplane with passengers ready to go and no pilot.
Saves the company money 
  • 1.Carrying too much capacity in the wrong areas wastes salaries, manager time and HR attention.
  • 2.Think about massive layoffs at social media companies this year that should have been foreseen before the previous hiring binge.
Optimizes the spend on people programs 
  • 1.A business case approach can only be taken to Buy Build Borrow decisions if your company knows where it is heading.
  • 2.Think about all of the corporate HR functions struggling to engage managers in their laundry list of program.


Overcoming Barriers 

Many of you immediately understand that the three impacts above will occur through SWP. However, your leaders repeatedly disregard them because they are theoretical.  We have to overcome this now or be doomed to suffer through the critical problems above forever 

Dan Heath’s book shares three barriers that must be overcome; Problem Blindness, Lack of Ownership, and Tunneling. When we apply these to the SWP perspective, it becomes obvious on why we get stuck. 

Problem blindness is where we assume the problems that we face are inevitable. Finance and the business never agreeing on the resource requirements, recurring restructures, hidden contingent labor costs outside of budget, and the ever-present last minute mass recruiting emergency are examples.  Are they inevitable? Not if you can sit around a shared model of the future, debate that future, and then monitor progress against the agreed future. SWP! 

Lack of ownership means no one is accountable for the overall problem. When one or more of the problems explode, in come the management consultants to pick up the pieces, or possibly create new problems.  Why weren’t our very smart leaders able to head off the explosion? You need a mechanism that brings together sharp thinking across the silos of Strategy, Finance and HR that also gives business stakeholders voice.  SWP! 

Tunneling is the classic tragedy of never engaging a complex long-term problem when you can heroically solve a crisis now. I bet the seasoned leaders at Blockbuster were magnificent at selecting the right footprint, centralizing costs, and implementing the latest POS software. Leader attention is too often on the quarter, hoping that results in a year and never really internalizing the three-year plan. You know that the mantra of agility is not a substitute for facing into structural disruption. SWP! 


Back in 2019, Alicia’s article on the SWP pyramid created so much fanfare.  We had just launched our tech startup and got calls from leading organizations across the globe, several of whom became customers. Practitioners told us that they finally felt heard! Four years later and the same laments in this discipline have not changed, but more companies have practitioners experiencing them. To lift this practice faster, we have got to change the dialogue. SWP is not a nice optional vitamin, it is a preventative medicine. 

SWP is hard to explain but crucial to do. Despite our woes in trying to get people to see, we cannot give up.  Our leaders are great at adapting. This has caused them to forget about solving these big problems.  We must be the ones to fix them through upstream thinking. We will show the leaders how to lift their gaze from our immediate patch of river. Along with getting familiar with Dan Heath’s work, I suggest you use eQ8’s financial exposure calculator as a starting lure for your leaders to contemplate upstream value. 


Organizations will increasingly depend on SWP because the world is changing too rapidly for “fast react” agility.  The workforce is the organization; by its long-term nature, it must be planned for strategically. 


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