Director of People Science, The People Experience Hub
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What does your people strategy look like beyond the pandemic?

Strategic leadership involves being able to look past the present moment in order to meet the long-term needs of your people and your business. How can HR go about this, however, in the midst of such a paradigm-shifting experience as Covid-19?

24th Feb 2021
Director of People Science, The People Experience Hub
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The current debate around the future of work is dominated, understandably, by the impact of Covid-19. Is this helpful, in a strategic context, or is it merely ‘noise’? If it is, how can you lift yourself above it and align your people strategy to meet the longer-term needs of your business?

At some point, it becomes essential to lift your head. If the HR director doesn’t do it, then who in HR will?

First, I don’t think that Covid-19 is merely noise, but I do think there’s a danger that we might view everything through the lens of the pandemic, and that’s a risk for HR leaders because other factors are, and will continue to be, important.

Second, I don’t underestimate the importance of dealing with the operational challenges that the crisis and its immediate aftermath present. Providing strategic leadership, however, inherently involves looking further ahead than we can necessarily see.

Developing ‘future focus’

A few years ago, I helped a client develop their people strategy, and a major theme we developed was the need for a flexible workforce and flexible working practices. The people director recognised that, even as a retailer, they had to address this throughout the business – in stores, distribution centres and at head office. Yes, Covid-19 is pushing forward the debate around flexible and remote working, but we all know that this is not a new issue.

The challenge is to take a truly post-pandemic perspective. This is essential if you want to be truly strategic and reinvent the way that your organisation works in the years to come. You have to lift yourself out of the present and lead from the future. That isn’t easy. Anyone that’s dealing with the operational challenges presented by the current situation will testify to the pull of the present moment – but at some point, it becomes essential to lift your head. If the HR director doesn’t do it, then who in HR will?

I see three things as being important to building a people strategy that looks beyond the pandemic:

  • Breaking out of the present
  • Broadening your frame of reference
  • Choosing an effective strategy development framework

Breaking out of the present: a future-back strategy

What my client recognised was what the people strategy she had developed was inadequate for the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world that we’re in because it was constrained by the assumptions of the present, rather than what the future might look like. What she had done, as many do, is take the existing strategy and adapt it incrementally. What she recognised she needed to do was start afresh entirely and take a future-back approach.

To do that, we of course needed a frame of reference. Broadening your frame of reference is about taking an outside-in perspective. As well as leading from the future, it’s important that HR takes a broad perspective or, as Dave Ulrich would describe it, an outside-in view of HR. There are three things you should consider if you really want to align being both future-led and outside-in. 

1. Global megatrends

To what extent do global megatrends around forces such as technology, demographics, geopolitics, globalisation (or regionalisation) and environment affect you? You can get a free megatrends report from most large consulting firms. Some megatrends might seem far removed from the world of HR but it’s important to consider all possibilities, and to consider its potential implications for the organisation and its people.

2. Market and industry trends

What’s predicted to happen in your particular market or industry? These may or may not be direct implications of megatrends, and tend to be closer to your business reality. How are consumer preferences or expectations expected to change? What about the regulatory environment? In other words, the classic fodder for a PESTLE analysis or similar.

3. The organisation’s strategic vision and mission

Finally, and probably most importantly, everything in the people strategy should ultimately enable the business strategy. Assuming your organisation’s strategic plan is sound, if all you do is align your people strategy to it you’ll get a decent result.

So why bother with the external stuff? To put it another way – why shouldn’t HR lead the way in strategic thinking? Why should it only follow?

Choosing an effective strategy development framework

When everyone involved in developing the people strategy process (and it should be a team effort) has had the opportunity to consider these three perspectives, then you are ready to start building the people strategy – but how?

When I was an in-house regional HRD, as part of a global HR leadership team, we didn’t really use a clear framework to develop our strategy. There was no clear process and it showed. Each of the leadership team came to an off-site event armed with our idea of what we should be doing and, with some debate and horse-trading, stitched something together. As a result, it was neither particularly strategic, nor coherent. When I started to use an explicit framework however, to guide the strategic thought process, the benefits were immediately clear.

SOAR: strengths, opportunities, aspirations and results

The strategy development framework I’ve since used is SOAR (strengths, opportunities, aspirations and results), which is an approach grounded in appreciative inquiry. I’d recommend it over alternatives such as SWOT, for two reasons:

  • Firstly, it’s a process that builds towards a clear output, generating a high-level strategic vision and measures, rather than simply being an analytical tool
  • Secondly it is, by its very nature, aspirational and therefore likely to result in a more compelling strategic vision that stakeholders inside and outside of HR can buy into

That, of course, gives you a head start when it comes to the bigger challenge, which is leading people through the change that needs to be implemented.

Interested in this topic? Read Building ‘futuring’ capacity in teams and organisations.

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