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Executive Coaching | They Don't Give Out Medals at the Layoff Olympics


Empty medal podium at a sports arena
photo by Florian Schmetz at Unsplash

News cycles these days bring a constant report of job layoffs. It often feel like the “Layoff Olympics.” As an executive coach that specializes in creativity and growth, I often hear that layoffs aren’t really solving a problem. They serve as a signal to the markets, to boards, or to investors that the leader at the top is paying attention to a certain level of anxiety. Anxiety about inflation, profitability, seasonality, or speculation on things that haven’t happened yet, or (fill in the blank). And I hear from those who have been laid off that they are circumspect and feel like a pawn in a unspoken strategy. This is especially true for those who are asked back to work several months later. The reason they were given for losing their employment in the first place has magically disappeared or has been imaginatively reframed. The problem is rarely about having too large a workforce. When I ask the question “Are we framing the right problem?” or “Is that the most creative solution?” the answer is almost always, “No.”


Layoffs have become a shortcut to solving problems that aren’t really about labor force, but more about systemic issues or managing a public company's share price. What layoffs often signal is that an organization is going to make a short-term cost reduction because they may not have the resources or courage to tackle a bigger issue. When I do have a chance to explore alternative approaches with a leader, the options are plentiful, and they bring an energy when aligned with organizational values and often bring long-term profitability and new channels of growth.


How to Re-frame the Problem

I often use Alex Osborn’s model of SCAMPER for ideation with executives. It’s simple, it’s inquiry minded, and it’s actionable. Plus, it has stood the test of time. SCAMPER was introduced in 1953 by an advertising executive and stands for Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Magnify/Modify, Put to Other Uses, Eliminate, Rearrange/Reverse. It requires that executives or groups force an answer to each of the prompts, even if doing so sounds at first ridiculous, unachievable, or unrealistic. The power of the SCAMPER approach is it relies on new ideas or solutions rather than regurgitating the tried and tired. If you’re feeling the pressure of layoffs as a decision-maker or you’re a potential casualty to the short-term lay-off pandemic, here are some SCAMPER re-framing prompts that may lead you to consider different potential outcomes.


Substitute

What else could you substitute that gives you equal or more cost-savings? Often clients uncover processes, materials, products, or alternative power structures. If cost-savings is the goal, over what period of time? Often the short-term layoff has large costs down the road as the cost of talent acquisition continues to escalate and if key institutional memory is lost.


Combine for More Impact

How could you combine workforces? What value would cross-training bring? What partnerships or outsourcing of talent could you do while retaining the relationship with your workforce? Who could use the skills you are laying off temporarily? What synergies are you gaining in a layoff? What synergies are you losing? How do you value what you gain vs. what you lose? What would you do if you had to balance more than cost in your solution?


Adapt the Solution

Where can you find a parallel strategy? What were the results of layoffs in the past? Did it help reach long-term goals? What would you do differently? Who did it differently that you can emulate? How would your organizational core values help you adapt to a new solution?


Magnify/Modify

Where have you added talent that resulted in a big payoff? How could you magnify that approach to the current situation? How could you modify that approach? What would it require? What if there was a press announcement on talent retention? What would that look like?


Put to Other Uses

How could you put the workforce to other uses? What are your ESG (environmental, social, governance goals) commitments? How could the workforce be employed to fulfill those goals rather than a layoff? What processes are highly profitable and how could they create a new channel of service, product, deliverable? What hidden talents does your workforce have that could be redirected? If you don’t know, how could you find out?


Eliminate

This is usually the only option on the table when layoffs are proposed. In this case, the question that is helpful and powerful is what if this wasn’t the only option on the table? What else could we eliminate that isn’t labor? What if our workforce could self-perform work that vendors do at a lower cost? What advantages would that give us? What resources would it require? If we as a company need to be smaller, lighter, lower, more streamlined – are we committed to staying that way?


Rearrange/Reverse

What if we did just the opposite? What if we invested in our people? What if we added people? What would we be willing to give up to do the reverse? What if we did this at a different pace, what would that look like? How could we have a pattern with our workforce that is more predictable? What if we asked for layoff volunteers? Would that eliminate the non-committed? What advantages would that create?


There is not a question in the list above that is novel or earth shattering. But if we can re-engineer profitability measures by changing a single variable (head count), we can certainly ideate profitability using more than one matrix. And yes, there are times when the best option for an organization is to rescale. That requires making hard choices that include but are not limited to the size of the workforce and the skills needed. SCAMPER helps us explore that reduction in workforce may not be the only choice.


The best Olympic sports are ones where we celebrate the achievements of human endeavors. Let’s re-think the Layoff Olympics and start handing out medals for exploring creative, imaginative alternatives.


Break the Tape Leadership helps leaders unleash creativity and potential in themselves and the organizations they lead to generate meaningful momentum. (And we find creative ways to celebrate the human potential in business, leadership, and profitability.)

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