John Sumser offers a deeper description of the Small Scenarios for Changing Times Project he launched recently with his collaborators Heather Bussing and Michael Kannisto, Ph.D.

Here’s a deeper description of the Small Scenarios Project. They can be challenging to write because we are not offering answers, things to do, benchmarks, or much in the way of predictions. The Small Scenarios cover systems that have been broken by the discontinuity we are experiencing. We’ve been so focused on the crisis that we haven’t noticed the stuff. No long term trends, just the things that are already broken if you just give it a bit of thought.

The small scenarios are things that no one else is thinking about. The basic format is a 350-word narrative and 350 words of questions and things to consider. We don’t provide answers in the short scenarios, just questions. No trip reports, no status reports, no ‘10 things you should know about X.’ The scenarios are food for thought and should produce thought. It’s way more important to help generate the right questions. The answers will be somewhere down the road and unique to each context.

The idea is to start to identify the systems that need our attention once we’ve normalized. Focusing on these things is what ensures a safe landing. Just attending to the crisis is not enough. We need to examine our HR/HRTech world to find unquestioned assumptions that no longer hold.

Like it is with the virus itself, our initial desires to come up with answers get in the way of figuring out where we are. Consultants and experts are nearly hardwired to produce answers. That’s not what we want.

Good problem solving is different than the firefighting we do in crisis times. For the longer term, we need clear problem definitions before we go about solving them.

Take a look at The Financial Times article, Global coronavirus death toll could be 60% higher than reported. What’s most interesting about these graphs is that they show the brute force impact that the pandemic is having on normal expectations. Death rates are a random distribution that produces a level output. The pandemic trounces these sorts of assumptions.

A lot of HR is built on random distributions that generate level demand. Bereavement leave is an example. The benefits budgets for self-insuring companies (80% of the big ones) are like this. Call volume to HR call centers is built on this idea.

We’ve built all sorts of systems and processes by estimating demand based on history and assuming that the level remains constant. Every place we’ve made an assumption like that is a topic for a small scenario.

Changing work from centralized to distributed also calls into question these same sorts of non-budgeted, used to be predictable random distributions. In a world where everything requires an appointment, serendipity gets marginalized. We never gave much thought to how much we depended on random interactions. Now, we have to budget for and replace them.

We’ve never had to really work to understand the complexities of our work-based networks and how much maintenance they require to function. Here are some of the kinds of questions that matter.

  • What is the new Management by Walking Around? Our work processes assume a whole bunch of things that come readily with colocation and disappear in a distributed setting.
  • What does self-reporting (in surveys) mean now that the power has abruptly shifted in the employer-employee relationship? What makes you think you can trust engagement scores today?
  • Does it make sense to relay on Job Descriptions for anything? Is the world changing to quickly to use them right now?
  • With benefit budgets exploding (due to heavily increased utilization), how do employers thank about next year’s benefits service levels?
  • Which matters more, ADA, and its freedom from discrimination or credentials proving that you’re healthy? You can’t have both.
  • Will the spike in HR Call Center volume become the new baseline? Is this an artifact of the pandemic or of WFH?
  • HR’s top priority will become the health of the worker and of the workforce. What does that change?
  • There are a lot of people on furlough who think they’re going back to work soon. They’re not. How do you deal with the fact that compassion will become betrayal?
  • People analytics depends on reliable historical data. We no longer have it. What do we want to be sure to think about as we reenvision our data flows.
  • Focusing on the crisis makes us feel busy and important. It also makes us neglect the important strategic realities. What should we be thinking about?
  • All bets are off on the future of work. We’ve been thrust into it. What’s breaking?
  • Should a supervisor make home visits to people who WFH?
  • Conflict is a super important part of organizational life. WFH makes it harder to have and work through conflict. Should we try to get more conflict into WFH relationships?
  • Work always ebbs and flows. Effective participation in organizational life means staying aware of this. It’s largely lost in distributed work. This probably means that the organization has to make things explicit that have historically been implicit.

And so on.

Look for our next edition of Small Scenarios about Modern Succession Planning for Operational Continuity for your MVP’s.

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John Sumser speaks with David Green, Executive Director & Member of the Board at Insight222. David is a globally respected...