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Kicking off SWP in your organisation - Henley Business School Finland

Kicking off SWP in your organisation

How do you get started with SWP? 

My own view is that 80% of the success or failure of strategic workforce planning (SWP) is decided in the first 10% of implementation. In my experience, effective embedding of SWP features the following ingredients:

  1. Positioning it in a simple, business-focused and non-threatening way for your organisation
  2. Connecting it to other existing processes which have currency
  3. Starting small and with a light touch
  4. Piloting where there is both curiosity and a business imperative
  5. Developing insight and value quickly
  6. Maintaining momentum through both advocacy and capability


Regarding positioning, there are some approaches that work and some that don’t. The elements below are generally very helpful in positioning SWP well:

  • Third leg of strategic planning – avoid positioning SWP as a separate process. Instead, position it as PART OF the strategy and business planning process, simply the dimension that focuses on the people and organisational elements.
  • Nomenclature – you don’t have to call it ”SWP” or indeed anything. If you are positioning it as part of the strategic planning process, then why badge it as something different? Consider what works/doesn’t work in your culture. Learn from any historical experiences. For example, if you tried to implement SWP in the past, but it failed; don’t call it that again!
  • Risk positioning – SWP helps to identify and mitigate risks to strategy execution by looking at gaps in organisational capability – in time to do something about them. As such, this is what your CEO should be concerned with. This also helps to engage Finance.
  • A quick ’sense-check’ not a lengthy reinvention – there is a fear in business leaders that applying SWP principles means starting again on the strategy, and they often argue that there is not time to stop and reconsider what we are doing. In truth, SWP approaches can be applied at any point – it is simply the case that the earlier they are applied the better. Positioning as a ’validation’ of organisational and people strategy, or a ’sense-check’ that we are not missing any tricks, is often a very effective way to introduce the idea.


Ask yourself what has currency in your organisation. What kind of things have credibility and attract organisational and senior leadership focus and interest? Organisations typically have existing financial planning or strategic review processes which you should ensure that you connect into. Making Finance, Business Planning and Procurement key stakeholders can result in a very powerful coalition of support for SWP.

If you get it right, the SWP process will run as part of wider business planning processes and feed into the same things, adding richness and moving the organisation toward Integrated Business Planning. Once an initial SWP is created, it will evolve as strategy itself evolves, acting as ’middle-ware’ for the translation from business strategy to people and organisational activities, flagging and reviewing risks, identifying and reporting on key metrics.

Starting small and in the right place

A common issue is that we attempt to industrialise SWP. The result of this is that we alienate the wider business since they see it as onerous and time-consuming. By definition, SWP is about addressing key risks, so why would you need to apply it everywhere at the same time?

Start small, with a part of the organisation which will get you noticed, and a leader who is curious and keen to understand the risks to their strategic objectives. This should also be a part of the organisation that has strategic significance, not a quiet sidewater. If necessary, ask them to take a leap of faith by committing a single day to the cause with their senior team. Tempt them by saying that, at the very least, they will have a good discussion around what the strategy means and validate that they are doing the right things – but they may also identify a key risk that they have not considered, something which could otherwise derail.

Run a SWP strategic translation workshop to draw out key people and organisational capability risk areas via a one day facilitated discussion. By the end of the day, I can pretty much guarantee that the leadership team involved will have identified a number of key insights, as well as some important points relating to their common interpretation of the strategy and what it might mean in practice.

This will create momentum and curiosity to find out more. The leader will report positively on the experience and, like any good idea over time, others will either WANT to do it or be TOLD to do it!

Develop insight and value quickly

Do not get stuck in an analysis rut. Work at a macro level of detail. Identify the mountain tops poking through the clouds. The risks we need to focus on most will emerge at this level, but only if we ask the right questions. We probably don’t need to get into detailed data analysis at this stage because we are looking for the view of the assembled group as to whether or not something should be considered a risk worth following-up on. We may need to do some analysis subsequently, but better to first identify where we need it rather than analyse everything and then decide! (a common approach with all too many ’bought in’ solutions)

I often use the expression ”layers of paint”. What I mean by this is that a room is best painted not by starting in one corner with a thin sable brush and producing a beautiful finish a centimetre of wall at a time; but by applying a rough base coat quickly to all walls in order to assess what we have and where we need to focus most. We can then apply another thin coat to all walls, and another. By working across the whole piece at a steadily increasing level of detail we always maintain the big picture but are time efficient. Producing tangible results from each SWP intervention is key to building momentum. Avoid ’fire and forget’ approaches.

So, when you are running a workshop, don’t get lost in the weeds or in solutions. Keep the conversation up at the right level and focused on the implications of what you are trying to achieve and the questions that this implies. This way, by the end of a day, or shortly after if some post-workshop synthesis is applied, insight and value can be delivered quickly.

Over time, additional value can be developed through the aggregation of SWP session outputs to create organisation-wide insights.

Building advocacy and capability

By starting small, but in important places, we can build positive messages around SWP. By involving functions like Finance, we can connect into other processes and ’piggy-back’ their existing credibility. By developing insights quickly, we can publicise the successes and value of the approach.

But we must also be able to ’walk the talk’. To develop enough value and insight with a senior leadership team in just a single day, we must bring our A-Game to the party. These workshops involve top-drawer facilitation and the ability to think on the move, resolve conflict, ask the killer questions. We must field our best people in this regard.

If you feel that you are some way off having the requisite capability in this regard, then don’t be afraid to buy it in and develop your capability in parallel. Many of the organisations I work with do exactly this. I may start the ball rolling but use this initial work to upskill their own people so that they can develop self-sufficiency. Some may even want to informally ’accredit’ an internal cadre of people who can do this, and train others to do it.

Considering the elements above will, I hope, help you get off to a good start with your SWP efforts. Once off and running, focusing on building momentum, insight and advocacy helps to capitalise on this good start whilst internal capability and scale can be developed in parallel. These simple steps are, in themselves, both inexpensive and relatively low effort; yet deliver disproportionately significant business value. Once established with SWP, your business will not want to turn back.

Nick is a highly experienced HR practitioner, and has led organisational development, resourcing, talent & leadership, performance and L&D functions in a number of major businesses. He has leveraged his eclectic sector and functional career to build an industry reputation as someone who challenges both HR and the wider business to think differently and as a creator of innovative thinking in the organisational arena.

Nick was a Visiting Professor and Co-Director of Henley’s Centre for HR Excellence from 2010 – 2016. In recent years, he has worked with clients around the world both as a Senior Partner for Korn Ferry’s People Advisory business and as owner of his own consulting firm.

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