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Posted by on Oct 17, 2014

Hedgehogs, Foxes, and the Future of Federal Workforce Planning

Forest AnimalsAs reported by the GAO in July 2014, the Federal Government has a pronounced need to create more agile talent management capabilities to address inflexibilities in current systems.

How can the Federal Government accomplish this? It’s not about the systems themselves, but rather about the approach to Federal workforce planning. Most agencies plan like a hedgehog, but they need to plan like a fox.  Not following the animal references?

Greek poet Archilochus of Paros wrote: “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one big thing.” He was describing:

  • The fox – who knows many things, draws from an eclectic array of traditions, and is better able to adapt to changing events; and
  • The hedgehog – who knows one big thing, locks in on one tradition and imposes rote solutions to even ill-defined problems.

This concept – of depth versus breadth, of strength versus flexibility, of innovation versus efficiency – describes the trade-offs we make in a variety of settings from predicting election results (as described by statistician Nate Silver) to making business decisions (as described by Wharton professor Philip Tetlock). It also applies to two competing approaches to workforce planning:

  1. Building a staff primarily with individuals with deep expertise about your organization’s core offerings like the hedgehog; or
  2. Filling out your workforce with people who have moderate amounts of expertise in a wide variety of areas like the fox.

So, who is better at workforce planning, the fox or the hedgehog? Like so many other choices, it depends on the environment.

In an environment that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA), plan like a fox. In a recent HBR blog, John Boudreau asserts that in VUCA conditions, the best approach to workforce planning is to envision the many possible futures the organization must plan for and build a strategic workforce plan that provides the most flexibility to meet the broadest set of potential future scenarios.

Boudreau suggests that the best workforce plan is likely to diversify your talent, building several different talent arrays that are each well-suited to a different future scenario, building a skillful mix of talent that provides flexibility, adaptability, and resilience to respond to a changing environment.

But what if you have high certainty about the future environment? The hedgehog reigns when your agency has a singular, defined view of the workforce needed to execute their agency strategic plan. For example, in the event of a global pandemic, the CDC may develop a workforce plan neglecting other priorities and focusing on a workforce to address the pandemic. If a global pandemic occurs, that approach to planning would be logical given the scarcity of resources.

Such scenarios may seem extreme – and they are because the only thing most Federal agencies can safely predict is uncertainty. Nonetheless, many Federal organizations take “hedgehog” approach through default rather than intent: building their workforce based solely on achieving the strategic plan under current conditions with no allowance for changes to the environment in which the strategic plan is to be executed. This has resulted in inflexible talent management practices and systems that cannot easily adapt to ever changing needs, as highlighted in GAO’s finding that the Federal Government’s“talent management tools lack two key ingredients for developing an agile workforce.”

With continued volatility in the Federal labor market, rethinking the process and tools agencies use to plan, manage, and develop their workforce is essential. Agencies must begin to plan for how they can create the workforce they need both now and into the future – like a fox.

What is your organization doing to plan for future talent needs? Does your strategic workforce management plan include efforts to hire more “foxes” or are you focusing on finding or developing “hedgehogs” with deep expertise in your agencies core mission areas?

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