Effective Action Planning
The great polymath, Archimedes of Syracuse, is said to have remarked, 'give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.' This illustrates the mechanical advantage of a lever whereby a small force at one end can exert a far greater force at the other. It is in this way that we solve the problems of the workforce through the application of workforce levers, initiatives that deliver exponentially greater benefits to the organisation and the workforce than the cost to implement them.

The Seven Bs of Action Planning

how to action plan 

As shown in picture above, the levers are buy, build, borrow, bind, bounce, balance and bot.

  • Buy. To buy and acquire a permanent capability, such as recruitment or an acquisition.
  • Build. To build a capability out of existing capacity, such as through learning and development or progression
  • Borrow. To acquire a temporary capability from elsewhere, such as the use of contingent workers
  • Balance. To create alignment between all the aspects of the organisation to ensure demand is optimised and enable the most effective use of supply
  • Bind. To prevent the loss of a capability by binding it in place through the use of retention measures.
  • Bounce. To either move a capability around, or exit the capability from, the organisation.
  • Bot. To use automated technologies to augment or replace existing capacity or capability.

Lever-based planning

What is important to remember is to plan initially based on these levers and not at a lower level. We do this for three reasons:

  • Artificial restriction. Execution usually requires multiple levers to be pulled in sequence in order to deliver the right outcome. It can be tempting to look at one part of a capability gap and think that an initiative to recruit recent technology graduates is the solution. Such an outcome buys a specific and narrow workforce segment, which may restrict our ability to remedy the wider challenges of the organisation.
  • Multiplicity. Some initiatives cross multiple levers. Initiating a salary increase can help us improve our ability to recruit and is part of a buy lever. That same salary increase can also help us retain people and therefore bind them. An increase applied solely for new joiners and not applied elsewhere may have the opposite effect and drive up resignations due to perceived unfairness, this is part of a bounce lever. The impact of second order consequences arrives once we examine the specifics of the initiatives. Therefore, we aim to remain pure during the initial planning and establish what we require at the level of the lever.
  • Better ideation. The final reason is that to immediately focus on the initiative on the basis of our innate bias can rob us of potentially better solutions. In workforce planning neither we, nor senior stakeholders, have all the solutions to the challenges we face. Plan based on the levers and collaborate on the detail once we have an end-to-end plan in place.

Cost-Benefit Analysis

The final consideration as part of the action planning approach is that of the cost-benefit analysis (CBA). This is an activity we complete once we go beyond the level of the lever and into the initiative. The initiatives that we might propose to solve a workforce issue are ideas, the CBA is the application of science to ideas. It is too common for HR departments to launch an initiative that has no evidential basis and proves unsuccessful and either ends in failure or, worse, endures.

The equation we use in the CBA is as follows:

cost benefits


The first stage it to define clearly the costs and benefits of the initiative and understand the areas that benefit and the areas that bear the cost. A key component is to identify the occurrence of transfers. This is where a benefit or cost moves from one area to another. A classic example of this is the advent of the self-service checkout in stores: the organisation achieves the benefit of a demand reduction by not requiring checkout staff, which is transferred as a cost of new demand to the customer. This tends to be accompanied by having a greater density of checkouts than before, which reduces waiting times and is viewed as a greater net benefit by the customer.

Apply metrics

The second stage is to apply metrics to those costs and benefits, which is arguably more challenging. Benefits and costs are often differentiated as either tangible or intangible . Tangible benefits are those where the value is quantifiable, though there is a tendency to categorise benefits as either financial or non-financial. As a result, improvements in performance and productivity are often categorised as non-financial. In reality, performance and productivity create a financial impact and, therefore, benefits of this type can be articulated as financial. Tangible benefits are best divided in terms of definite, expected and anticipated 2.

  • Definite benefits are those where the quantifiable value of a benefit can be accurately forecast. Where the forecast of value is less certain but still have high confidence, potentially where assumptions are based on benchmarks, these may be described as expected benefits. Where the value of a benefit cannot be forecast with any degree of reliability, these may be described as anticipated.
  • Intangible benefits are those where we are unable to establish a physical aspect, where values are unquantifiable. Unfortunately, intangibility is often conflated with intractability, being complex to establish. Over many years the credibility of HR has been tarnished by the presentation of benefits that are claimed to be intangible and are therefore ridiculed as a fad: inclusion, employee engagement, employee experience and culture to cite some examples. These are complex to establish, but not impossible, and they become much clearer when precisely defined and viewed in terms of business outcomes and are more likely to move to become an anticipated tangible benefit.
  • Anticipated benefits are those where there is a clear causal link between the initiative and the benefit, but it is difficult to accurately forecast.


The third stage is to forecast costs and benefits over time, which needs to be done in two ways. The first is to understand the life of the initiative, the end of which is the point where the initiative ceases to provide any benefit or cost. This view is critical for gaining financial approval of the initiative. The second view, which is key from a comparative perspective, are the costs and benefits during the planning horizon. In the evolution of the gap between supply and demand, many great initiatives aim to close the gap by the end of the planning horizon . If initiative only delivers at the end of the planning horizon, it is only a partial solution; ‘a management decision is irresponsible if it risks disaster this year for the sake of a grandiose future’3. The initiative might be the best choice, but it must be accompanied by initiatives that close the gap within the planning horizon.


The final stage is to validate the assumptions. Once we have a range of initiatives to choose, revalidate the assumptions collectively. We may have decided to leverage the functional expertise in the team of teams to craft a range of solutions and provide the cost benefit analysis. Validate the assumptions across the range of proposals to ensure costs and benefits are being recorded and calculated in the same way. Test the assumptions in the plan against the analysis of the organisation and workforce that you have already completed.

Written by Adam Gibson

Chartered FCIPD FCMI, Strategic Workforce Planning Leader

Click here and use the discount code AHR20 to get 20% off the purchase of Adam Gibson's new book - ‘Agile Workforce Planning.’

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  1. Ward, J & Daniel, E (2005) Benefits Management: Delivering value from IS & IT investments, John Wiley & Sons, Chichester
  2. Bradley, G (2010) Benefit Realisation Management, Routledge, London
  3. Drucker, P F (1973) Management: Tasks, responsibilities, practices, Harper & Row, London

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