Forget About Strategy. Reality is a Mosh Pit

CROWD S U R F E R. By Keami Hepburn
CROWD S U R F E R. Photo courtesy of Keami Hepburn.

Strategy is not superior to tactics.  At best, strategy and tactics can be integrated as equals.  In this day and age it is looking increasingly unlikely that a senior leader will come up with one brilliant idea from the top of the organization and cascade it downward through the chain of command.  Rather, we live in a world where ground-level employees determine business success; information is diffused through friends and cube-mates; and the best ideas move diagonally through the organization’s subject-matter experts with minimal regard for the org chart.

A classic example of the disputed importance of strategy is the difference between Workforce Analytics and Strategic Workforce Planning.  I routinely use Workforce Analytics to help a variety of managers and professionals adapt to an unpredictable array of questions.  Workforce Analytics has a kind of “older sister” business practice called Strategic Workforce Planning which has been around for a little longer.  Strategic Workforce Planning is the practice of using analytics in the formal process or organizational re-design.  The re-design is intended to align human resources to internal and external context, a forecast about the future, and organizational strategy.  It makes perfect sense on paper.

In my opinion, there are three major frustrations with strategic alignment.  First, it makes a presumption that organizational strategy in your organization is in its prime.  If your org strategy is in its final approval stage or a complete re-write of that strategy is about to begin, then alignment to that strategy is a dubious effort.  Second, if any of the organization’s major leaders are in transition (both incoming and outgoing) their personal enthusiasm for the formal strategy could be in play.  To some extent, strategy is a debate amongst executives, and that debate can shift as the players are in flux.

Third, forecasting is a moving target.  In the middle of the Strategic Workforce Planning process there is an attempt to identify a future state and assess scenarios where a different staff composition would prepare the organization for that future.  However, society is changing so quickly and in so many ways that speculation about any likely future state has the shelf life of about a month.  Try writing down your predictions about the future on a piece of paper and then come back to it in 30 days.  With the passage of time you will either be humbled, or you will assert that it’s been doctored and you couldn’t have written something so clueless.  As such, alignment to strategy is brief, making the overall process less tangible and less relevant.

A good example of the struggles of strategic alignment is Uber.  Uber appears to have been built around a culture of rules-breaking on taxi licensing, grey-ethics exploitation of private information about a customer’s physical location, and a backroom culture of dot-com, locker-talk bravado.  With just a little bit of blowback from the public, Uber has been obliged to change senior leaders and reverse elements of the very organizational culture that made it great.  Good luck identifying what their sector will look like in two months, what this week’s executive team is going to do about it, and calibrating staff accordingly.  They might be fine in the near future, but we won’t really know until after the fact.

Consider by contrast an impactful tactical change which adapts to emerging evidence.  There is evidence that an equitable and inclusive work environment fosters better commitment and idea sharing.  There is evidence that workplace incivility has a dramatic impact on general productivity.  There is evidence that customer engagement is hyper-sensitive to employee engagement.  It is possible to develop a supposition that millennials are quitting at a higher rate, only to discover evidence that this is more nuanced and is really about career advancement at all ages.  These insights can have a dramatic impact on an organization’s opinion about what their core function should be, how managers should treat employees, and what kinds of employees and managers you should be hiring or promoting.

Then you would need to double-down and anticipate that even more disruptive evidence will continue to arrive at an even faster rate.  And if you did not adapt in this manner, you can bank on the fact that this adaptation is happening at rival organizations.  This brings us back to the possibility of even more leadership change and yet another re-vamp of organizational strategy.

If you are a manager, a human resource leader, or an analyst you might need to abandon all delusions that you can chart a clear path.  Rather, you are in the mosh pit of life, and your prime directive is to keep moving and not get hurt.  Keep your tempo, have fun, and follow the mood.  You cannot simply obey the directives of those with money or rank.  You must arrive at work fresh and rested, and play hard.  Every day.

Service With a Smile

GS Cashier. By Derek A.
GS Cashier. Photo courtesy of Derek A.

What’s with all this bold talk from millennials?  Don’t they know to keep hush about their outlandish opinions?  In a recent article from Lisa Earle McLeod the author submits an open letter (closer to a manifesto) that explains why millennials have the opinions they have.

She has two key points.  First, employers are tolerating poor performers, and those poor performers drag everyone else down, including highly-motivated millennials.  It’s not so much that millennials are unreasonably ambitious and over-eager, it is that their enthusiasm is the correct attitude and lower-functioning colleagues should not be setting the pace.  Fair ball.

Secondly, we must give our work purpose.  Organizations that have “a purpose bigger than money” have better business results.  This purpose-driven organization is reminiscent of Simon Sinek’s Power of Why although McLeod’s critique is closer to a sense of Noble Purpose amongst the sales team, a major concern of hers.

This focus on enthusiastic front-line staff is consistent with other critiques.  Josh Bersin notes that many organizations are flipping their hierarchy to place priority on engaged employees first, who then attract and retain customers who, in turn, keep the profits alive.  If it works, go for it.

Millennials Saying Aloud What Others Are Thinking

laughs. Courtesy of Marc Kjerland
laughs.  Courtesy of Marc Kjerland.

The real reasons millennials are described as different is that people are jealous of their courage and freedom.  I can prove it.

There is an interesting report available online at the University of British Columbia (UBC).  In their 2014-15 Benchmark Report to the Board of Governors, UBC Human Resources developed insights about staff turnover that were new at the time.  In particular, they identified that staff turnover was mostly about career advancement.

One of the things this report straightens-out is turnover amongst new people and young people.  The challenge is that there is a large overlap.  A lot of the new employee are young, and vice versa.  To untangle these two populations the report shows a simple 2×2 diagram with subtotals and labels on the outside edge of the grid.  The results on pages 8-9 of the report look like this:

1-3 Years in Job 4+ Years in Job Total (All Lengths of Service)

Age 34 & Under




Age 35 & Over




Total (All Ages)

9.7% 4.1%


It takes a minute to get used to it, so look at it carefully.  Look at the (vertical) columns for years of service, and compare the percentages side-by-side between the 1-3 Years and 4+ Years length of service categories.  For younger staff (the top row) there’s only a 2% spread by years of service, and for older staff (one row down) the spread is 3%.  The total at the bottom shows that new staff quit at a rate that is 5.6% higher for all ages combined.  But that difference is skewed by a large number of younger-and-newer people in the upper-left corner.  When we look at it carefully, there is a very small difference in turnover according to length of service.

Then look horizontally at the rows.  Those age 34 and under have a quit rate of 13.5% in total, and in this case the number is relatively similar by years of service (13.8% for new people and 11.8% for those with longer service).  One row down, you see that those age 35 and over have a quit rate of 4.4% in total, and once again it’s relatively similar by age category.

This means the important information is the totals by age category.  Those aged 35 and over have a turnover rate of 4.4%, while those who are younger have a turnover rate of 13.5%, nine percentage points higher.  Simply put, younger people have a high quit rate.  This phenomenon is not unique to UBC, as the external benchmark provider had similar findings.

Why are young people quitting?  The report looks to three additional data sources and finds that young people largely resign from their jobs for reasons of career advancement.

However, it’s not entirely accurate to say that young people resign because of career advancement.  The problem is that everyone is concerned about career advancement, and it is a major workplace frustration.  What makes those under 35 different is that they are getting frustrated about career advancement and then quitting.  Think about the different home lives of those over the age of 35.  There are things that keep older people in place.  There is home ownership, mortgage payments, the obligation to support kids, spouses who have a job in the same city, and the commitment to their current profession.

It turns out that millennials did not have career expectations that were different from that of others.  They were just more likely to express their opinions in a display of freedom.  Millennials are the gregarious friend at the pub who says out loud what everyone else is thinking.  You can’t really scold them when you’re jealous they have the guts to tell it like it is.

To top it all off, Generation X and Baby Boomers behaved in a similar manner similar when they were that age.  A project by a small team of statistics students identified that it’s a person’s age and not their generation that drives turnover behavior.  As Neil Young puts it, “old man take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you.”

Millennials: a Shiny Face on All Behaviour

Untitled Photo Courtesy of Bina. (=)
Untitled photo courtesy of Bina.

How much can we talk about people without talking about people data?  Not very much, it appears.  Those dealing with employees of all types must know more about their hearts and souls than ever before.  And if you make one false move with a data point, your most brilliant philosophical insights can be taken sideways.

In December 2016, author Simon Sinek was interviewed on Inside Quest on the topic of Millennials.  I am a big fan of Sinek, having changed my approach to work based on his influential TED talk on how to Start With Why. The Inside Quest interview (20 minutes long) is also great because it covers many key topics.

Sinek posted a follow-up video days later to clarify much of what he had to say.  There was a dramatic change in body language.  In the first video he seemed calm and knowledgeable.  However, in the follow-up video (from what appears to be his dining-room) he is a little sheepish, making clarifications, imploring people to keep the conversation alive with constructive criticism.  The first interview had gone a tad viral and he got a lot of feedback.

During the Inside Quest interview he made piercing social criticism and attributed a lot of what was happening in society to the experience and context of millennials.  In what should be described as “a good problem to have,” he understated the importance of his critique.  You see, the things he said were true for many of us regardless of generation.

His critique?  We must learn to wait.  We must put time and years into our greatest accomplishments.  We are lonely because we are embarrassed to talk about our disappointments and frustrations.  We need to talk through our difficulties.  We must aspire to engage in sincere conversations.  We must help others.  Look up from your phone and be human.

In my opinion these are all massive issues for workplace culture.  Managers are struggling to learn how to compel their staff to work hard without being coercive or demeaning.  Everyone who takes benefits costs seriously is now hyper-sensitive to whether employees can talk openly about mental health and wellbeing.  Executives worried about people quitting are stumbling onto growing evidence that people want to thrive and grow.  And still, the dream persists that we can all succeed.

I think that these topics entered the mainstream concurrent with the rise of the millennial workforce, not necessarily because of them.  The analytics that identify turnover trends happened largely because of emerging technology; the de-stigmatization of mental illness was popularized by baby-boomer medical professionals; smart phones have been improving for decades; and teachers have been pushing anti-bullying efforts for some time.  These things came sharply into focus when millennials first started to speak their minds in the workplace.

Based on his dining-room talk, it appears that Sinek’s feedback came from many non-millennials who want in on the broader discussion.  This is important from a social perspective.  But the social perspective is the flip-side of a data issue.  That is because he got tripped up by a data-labelling error.  You see, he casually referred to millennials has having been born approximately 1984 and after.  He didn’t specify a 20-year generational cohort.  He left it open-ended, like there was an unlimited supply of this generation being born every day.  This is problematic because we need good definitions to determine if there are clear differences between clear categories.  If the definition is muddy, then the identification of differences will be muddy as well.

I have had the pleasure of working with clearly defined data where I described millennials as those born from 1976 to 1995.  By getting specific about date of birth, you will find that each year you look at the data the findings can shift.  Age and generation are not the same things, and if you look at the two separately you might find, for example, that millennials as a generation do not have different quit rates.  Or you might find that concerns about career advancement are widespread (more on that in a future post).

For me this is an excellent example of how workplace analytics and workplace culture are never that far from one another.  To love humans is to wish the very best for them and their data.

Barbie Provokes Equality (By Accident)

Teen Talk Barbie 1991, Attributed to Freddycat1
Teen Talk Barbie 1991.  Courtesy of Freddycat1.

It’s important in the modern workplace to know that there used to be a pervasive stereotype that women were bad at math.  It’s relevant to all of us trying to advance math in human resources.  We have the dual obstacle of getting good math across to clients, while also getting past unfair judgments directed at women who have perfectly good numbers in their hands.

This is a brief inter-generational memo which will be perceived differently depending on when you were born.  In 1992, Mattel produced the toy Teen Talk Barbie.  Amongst the 270 possible phrases the dolls would utter, 1.5% of dolls would say the phrase “Math class is tough.”

The doll was decried by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics for discouraging women from studying math and science.  It was also referenced when the American Association of University Women criticized the relatively poor education that women were getting in math.  Mattel apologized for the mistake and announced that new dolls would not utter the phrase, and anyone who owned such a doll would be offered an exchange.

I don’t know the full history of women in math, but I do know enough to assert that Teen Talk Barbie was a critical incident.  Mattel did us all a favor by screwing up in exactly the right way, obliging many people to snap out of it, encouraging more women to become great at math, and doubling our talent pool of qualified applicants for math-intensive positions.

What fascinates me the most about this incident, is that people born after 1980 show no outward assumptions that women are bad at math.  For those of us who grew up with this assumption, we were repeatedly corrected that the stereotype was wrong, often by living-out an experience where women excelled.  The younger half of the workforce appears to be advancing their careers in blissful ignorance of this archaic stereotype.

The historic stereotype is important within human resources.  Human resources has historically been bad at math and is also a field with a large representation of women.  Quantitative work is becoming increasingly important within human resources, and human resources is obliged to influence business peers who take math very seriously.  As human resources becomes more sophisticated and makes its way to the big-kids table of decision makers, women who are good at math will speak their minds… as did Teen Talk Barbie.  Shortly after the debacle, the Barbie Liberation Organization swapped voice boxes between the Barbies and talking G.I. Joe action figures.  The liberated Barbies had access to the phrases “Eat lead, Cobra!” and “Vengeance is mine!”

Buckets of Badly Stereotyped Millennials

Buckets.  By Randy Heinitz.

There has been a lot of discussion about the increased importance of Millennials, and their impact on the multi-generational workplace. One of the more influential sources is a book called The 2020 Workplace by Jeanne Meister and Karie Willyerd, published in 2010.  There’s a generous “look inside” option on their page right here.  It’s a good book, and it’s true that there are a lot of generations in the workforce right now, expressing their perspectives in different ways.

However, I need to express some respectful disagreement.  I think the notion of a multi-generational workforce in 2020 is an anomaly in terms of how labels have an outsized impact on how we treat people.  This is important because labels such as “millennial” could be nonsense to begin with.  Also, we need a sober sense of what current topics are only temporary.  Predicting the future often involves the reading of known short-term trends and envisioning a future where the trend goes to extremes.  I think this will not be the case with the multi-generational workplace.  So, don’t worry about it.

To put things in perspective, I need to provide a clear definition of Millennial.  In my opinion, Baby Boomers are those born from 1946-1964, Generation X (Gen X) are those born from 1965-1974, and Millennials are those born from 1976-1995.  There’s some disagreement about the definitions and that’s your first clue that externally-imposed labels might be a problem.  I’ll get to that in a minute.

A key detail is that Gen X is a 10-year cohort, whereas Baby Boomers and Millennials are 20-year cohorts.  Gen X was born at a time when Baby Boomers were in their child-bearing years but chose to postpone having kids, for about one decade.  Then beginning in 1976 Millennials, who were the children of Baby Boomers, started to arrive.  In all discussions of what matters on a generational basis, the math suggests that Gen X would always be halved in their importance, because of their 10-year cohort.  Also, Gen X is a generation Baby Boomers don’t think about as much because there’s no parent-child dynamic.

A key detail about the labour force is that overwhelmingly it is made up of people age 25-65.  Yes, there are people working before the age of 25.  However, many of them are busy with postsecondary education, travelling, struggling to get their first job, and, in some cases, raising children.  By age 25 people are largely working, with the occasional maternity leave or brief spell of unemployment.  Those over 65 may work as well, however, it’s not a universal experience.

Whenever we talk about humanity as “the workforce” we’re actually choosing a 40-year age bracket (aged 25-65) of people who would normally live for 80 years.  The workforce is about half the population.

When we drop a generational definition into the middle of this 40-year age range of “the workforce”, it can be hit-and-miss.  It is possible to fit an entire 20-year cohort into the workforce, such as in 1995, when Baby Boomers were aged 30-50.  Indeed, Baby Boomers were very important at that time.  Today Baby Boomers today are age 51-71.  A lot have retired already, and a few more retire every year.  They contribute strongly as individuals but their club isn’t so impactful.  Gen X would feel their pain, if they had it in them.

The reverse dynamic is happening with Millennials.  In 2005, Millennials were age 10-30, fewer than half of them truly in the labour force.  They were not a small population, it’s just that the 40-year age bracket called “the workforce” ignored the youngest half of this crowd.  Fast forward to today and they’re age 22-42, largely working, making up the largest fraction of the workforce.  They are ambitious and they say what they want.  They are the second-most-entitled population to ever walk the face of the earth.  Gen X is strangely calm working with Millennials.  It’s hard to explain.

The fuss about the multi-generational workforce is just an experimental perspective in which we have split categories in half and caused some numbers to pop more than others.   In a few years the population born after 1995, Generation Z, will start finishing their master’s degrees or get their full credentials in the trades.  For a brief moment, in 2020, there will be four generations in the workforce.  Then the Baby Boomers will fully retire, leaving us with three generations in the workforce.  Then, ten years after that, Generation X will retire.  In 2040 there will be two generations in the workforce because we’re back to two, twenty-year cohorts straddling the 25-65 age range.

It is not how big these generations are that makes them important.  It is whether they are in a 10-year or 20-year cohort, and whether the generation is fully or partially in the labour force.

Is it just me, or does this sound like we’re figuring out what colour of metal ear-tags to put onto our cattle?  I think it would be far easier to talk to everyone as individual people, with their own perspectives and unique hopes and dreams.  Isn’t that what the human rights legislation tells us?  Isn’t that what compassionate leadership is all about?

Isn’t that what we have all learned from one another as colleagues and friends?