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Key to Improving Talent Readiness in a Turbulent World

Wednesday, September 30, 2020
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Strategic workforce planning was once a rational and useful process. There appeared to be time to think through future scenarios and involve stakeholders to build consensus. But this is no longer the case. In a fast-changing world, by the time strategic plans are formalized, the plans are outdated, opportunities are lost, and risks have accelerated beyond reason.

Sensing and anticipating the future have become not just survival skills but critical leadership requirements for all leaders. These abilities are essential in a world characterized by uncertain prospects and growing global interdependence. It has been said that there are two types of companies: the quick and the dead. Organizations that do not sense, adapt, and quickly respond will be left behind. This is not true only for organizations but entire industries. Consider the examples of the newspaper, banking, energy, automotive, and hospitality industries. That’s to say nothing of the catastrophic effects we are feeling because of inadequate preparation for the pandemic.

Lead-Time Ahead Building Blocks

Being a “lead-time ahead” is one of six Fearless Talent Choices (Forman, 2020) that leaders can choose to make or ignore. Leaders can wait to react to new circumstances as they occur or try to anticipate and address problems before they become serious impediments. The former is easy, but the latter is much more difficult and takes conviction and even courage to move past being always “behind the curve.” Furthermore, the act of waiting to address an issue rarely solves the problem; it only ameliorates the symptoms (Heath, 2020).

You cannot, however, just flip a switch to suddenly become proficient at identifying possible futures and improving readiness. Here are four key building blocks to better prepare, be ahead of the curve, and get out in front of the competition.

  • Demonstrate a Forward-Looking Mindset. Look beyond the immediate and prepare for what may come. Ask questions, be curious, keep looking ahead and take ownership. Behaviors follow attitudes and mindsets.
  • Recognize the Landscape of Impending Changes. Be aware of the external factors that can affect people and organizations and look outside their own silos. What happens over there affects everyone and can be here in a flash.
  • Anticipate Possible Futures. No one can predict the future, but we can prepare for different futures now. There is a benefit in the actual process of thinking through possible futures (Duhigg, 2016). By thinking through different possible futures, our ability to respond to them improves greatly, even if the future that eventuates was not among those anticipated. The more we practice, the better we get.
  • Demonstrate Emotional Strength. For real solutions to emerge, it takes strength and fortitude to confront risk, take chances, and be fearless. If emotions are ignored or shortchanged, there will not be enough power to break with past practices. Emotional strength is more easily demonstrated in organizations that exhibit psychological safety (Edmondson, 2018) and value setbacks as learning opportunities, not failures.

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Three Techniques for Anticipating Possible Futures

There are several ways to develop skills for sensing and anticipating possible futures. One technique is to work with colleagues to identify two or three likely futures that are on the horizon. This brainstorming session is useful because it gets people viewing the business in a broader lens and thinking about what can be done now to enhance readiness. Three futures, for example, that may appear on many lists are a new spike in COVID-19; climate change and resource scarcity; and the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and smart systems. Getting the team to focus on these scenarios—and what to do about them—once a month or even once a quarter can be beneficial.

A second technique is to use external factor frameworks, such as PES-TLE-HES, because unstructured brainstorming sessions can overlook factors that might not have occurred to participants. PES-TLE-HES is an acronym for political, economic, social-technical, legal, environmental-health, ethical, and security. Using this framework, factors that may emerge could be cyber security, speed of economic recovery, tariffs, legal restrictions, changing consumer preferences, or increased social tensions.

A third technique focuses on the societal megatrends that will likely affect everyone. PricewaterhouseCoopers has identified five such global megatrends (Figure 1). A useful exercise is to assign each megatrend to a group of colleagues and ask them to delineate the possible effects; and from this large list, pick three to five impacts that are most likely to occur. Once this is done, identify the skills and capabilities needed in the workforce to address these challenges.

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Figure 1: Societal Megatrend Scenario Exercise

Forman Societal Megatrend Scenario Exercise.png
The fundamental dilemma is that being a lead-time ahead is personally difficult but a business necessity. At a strictly personal level, it is safer and more comfortable for people to wait and respond to what is known. But, as we have seen, being late and reactive can have adverse effects on organizations and industries; and, perhaps worst of all, the problems never get resolved. Bandages do not fix systems. It is possible, however, to solve this dilemma by enabling leaders to sense and anticipate possible futures by accepting the risks, thinking differently, embracing the opportunity, and practicing and refining these skills with colleagues. We can and must do a better job in preparing the workforce and improving readiness for the uncertain world that awaits us.

Want to learn more? Join me October 26-30, 2020, during the ATD Virtual Conference for the session, Building Agility and Resilience for Uncertain Futures.

About the Author

David C. Forman is president of Sage Learning Systems. His career spans four decades and has focused on improving the knowledge, skills, and performance of people. As a learning scientist, business leader, chief learning officer, adjunct professor at the Pepperdine Graziadio School of Business, and bestselling author, his actions, courses, and writings have been recognized all over the world. He has worked closely with such business clients as Apple, IBM, FedEx, Ford, American Express, SAP, Prudential, Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers, DuPont, and Allstate. In the nonprofit arena, David has worked with the Ford Foundation, Children’s Television Workshop, Cedars Sinai Hospitals, and Johns Hopkins University, among others.

David’s most recent book is Fearless Talent Choices (2020), which identifies six critical choices that leaders at all levels can make to unleash talent and improve business results. These choices are even more vital today as the world is buffeted by constant change and increasing uncertainty.

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