Hedgehogs or Foxes: Which Are You?

Nov 10, 2009

le-mapThe 21st century has opened with a flurry of disasters, economic crises, acts of terrorism, and wars that underline the need to adapt quickly. The skills of planning, goal orientation, and consistency that we taught and practiced widely in the 20th century are no longer success factors. Workforce planning seems oxymoronic, and a three-year plan is looked at with both skepticism and humor. Trying to predict who we should hire in February or May is most often a futile act, yet we are still required to produce the right people — fast!

Whether we are talking about corporate strategy, HR strategy, or talent strategy, we are talking about probabilities. And the closer the desired outcomes are to today, the higher the probability that they will actually happen. But, rapid change makes planning less and less relevant, and recruiters, planners of all types, and organizations are trying to find ways to cope with the lower and lower probability of being able to predict anything.

Historically our plans have been based on an assumption that is increasingly in question: that most things are going to be the same or at least similar in the near future to what they are today. Planning has relied on consistency and stability and to some extent a simple world.

The Greek poet Archilochus wrote a poem about the fox that knows many things, and the hedgehog that knows one big thing. His point was that some of us — the hedgehogs — are inclined to hold one big idea or view of things and disregard all others. But some are more likes foxes that go from one thing to another easily and hold many divergent ideas at the same time. This seems to be the winning approach for this part of the 21st century.

The world is not consistent, stable, or simple. Three-year and five-year plans are at best general, low-probability indicators of goals deemed desirable at the moment of creation. Any event might change those goals. The recruiters you hired in last year’s frenzied market weren’t needed months ago and may never be needed again. No one wants those HTML programmers who were in high demand just months ago. The sudden failure of banks, the quick economic fallout of 2008, or the seemingly sudden surplus of workers has changed many organizations’ plans. Falling home prices have made unaffordable property affordable. Fat savings accounts have become slimmer, changing retirement plans. And something as simple as the CEO leaving or the arrival of a new VP of HR can change the best laid plans.

So how can we deal with constant change and the need for fast action?

The best approach may be twofold: (1) develop an accepting attitude about change and a belief that change will lead to winning, and (2) design systems and approaches to deal better with change. Building skills that improve your ability to adapt is important to both personal mental health and to organizational success.

The change competencies are agility and resilience. A book that I highly recommend is called The Age of the Unthinkable by Joshua Cooper Ramo. This short video will give you a sense of his perspective. In it he outlines why Al-Qaida is successfully beating the U.S. in Afghanistan and how Hezbollah is winning over Israel. Both of these groups have learned that they cannot succeed head on against a powerful foe like the United States or Israeli military, but they can win by being able to move fast, adapt to changing situations, take advantage almost instantly of any advantage, and break all the rules.

So what does this mean to us in recruiting?

Accept Change/Gather Information

Today everything from hiring managers’ needs to recruiting technology are a river of change. Wherever you step in today, it will be different tomorrow. Old rules are suspect; old thinking about competencies and job requirements need to be rethought. Part of a recruiter’s responsibility is to educate managers and candidates and encourage flexible approaches.

Social networks are a good example of flexible, readily tapped sources of candidates of all types — if you have mastered how to use them and have developed your own network. Rather than seek only people with particular narrow skills, include people with a variety of backgrounds, experiences, and skills so that you can respond quickly to any request.

By using statistics and by gathering data about people and what competencies and mix of skills is most successful in particular applications or situations, recruiters and hiring managers can make better decisions about who to hire, who to keep as a regular versus contract employee, and so forth.

Develop Agility

Develop multiple scenarios that balance people against costs against expected outputs with consequent resources allocations, time requirements, and costs.

Invent processes that are flexible. Instead of planning a candidate’s interview schedule days in advance, explain that she will interview with a variety of available people. Get hiring managers to agree to accept opinions of a variety of potential interviewers. Or, let the interviewee and interviewer schedule themselves for mutually convenient times whether face-to-face or virtual.

Have on tap not-needed-now talent so that when needs arise suddenly, you can meet the demand with part-time, contract, or sometime workers. Know everyone internal to your organization so you can encourage them to move or use their network to find what you are looking for. Build networks and use them to create a workforce with multiple levels and a variety of skills that can be used when needed.

Insist that plans, procedures, and your own schedule are as flexible as possible. Use virtual tools blended with office-based and face-to-face tools and options. Blend, flex, and act quickly.

Remove barriers or policy. Reduce signatures and permissions. Put the candidate in control as much as possible and get out of the way. Act as a guide and coach, not a clerk.

Build Systems That Respond Rapidly

Instead of encouraging your firm to hire lots of regular employees, take a look at the current workforce and make some quantitative decisions on which roles add the most value.

Leverage all the Internet tools available to you from email, IM, and Twitter to your applicant tracking system.

Encourage departments and people to self-manage and organize. Provide resources to support a variety of directions and options.

Hedge Your Bets and Experiment

What-if analysis is a powerful tool for uncertain situations. Take time to develop a variety of possible scenarios for possible future talent needs. Try to incorporate unlikely possibilities like Shell did in the 1960s when it postulated that a cartel (later known as OPEC) might emerge and corner the world’s oil supply. Consequently, Shell developed a scenario (which was executed) of always preserving an exploration function within Shell and thus maintaining the ability to deliver oil without reliance on other shippers. This led Shell to be the only competitor to OPEC for years and added billions to its profits.

Hezbollah is perhaps best at experimenting. It tries a wide variety of tactics against the Israel army and then quickly adopt those that are successful. No one wastes time trying to fix things that didn’t work nor on improving those that do. The attitude is simple: use it as is until it stops working and then have several other approaches to try.

Nothing is stable or predictable, so neither should you try to be that way. Learn to thrive on change because it is the way of this century.

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