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  • Carl Blanz

Today’s biggest problem that might not be a problem

Those of you in hospitality are painfully aware of the biggest obstacle to bringing your business back; people. Specifically, a lack of them.


In response, operators are raising pay, providing hiring incentives, profit sharing, implementing a new service charge distribution for non-tipped employees, even building housing. These are all great solutions, but due to the fact that the open positions are still not being filled, I wonder; is this even a problem to be solved?


One way to know you are at the end of problem solving is when you can define the pain you’re in, but solutions are no longer effective. You can’t yet see from here just how you’ll get to the other side of it. Solutions don’t solve, and there’s no expert here to rely on to fix it.


When problem solving comes to an end (meaning there are no solutions), the only thing left to do is adapt; to become something new that doesn’t need the problem to be solved.


From talks with hospitality leaders, here are a few assumptions about this challenge:

  • Hospitality wages and compensation have been deteriorating for at least 40 years

  • Plenty of other professions have been created in that time that pay better

  • Many in the current workforce are not dedicated to a job, and are more interested in having experiences, including a job

  • People have had an opportunity to not work for a long time in where they have evaluated their life prospects after COVID, and the hospitality industry’s lifestyle and pay no longer look like a fair exchange for their commitment to it


I’m willing to be wrong about this. It is possible that come October, when the unemployment benefits go back to the pre-pandemic level, the workforce will come back to its senses and we’ll be right back where we were pre-COVID.


The question for operators is: would you even want that? If I remember right, there were the same struggles, just to a lesser degree.


Either way, now may be the time to begin adapting and becoming a different version of your business. And the labor shortage is a rich challenge, waiting for us to adapt to it.


From solutions to…?


Starting with the end in mind, let’s look at the end of a problem. Pretty simple- a solution. That’s how you know you’re dealing with a problem, because it can be solved, the thing that brings it to an end is a solution.


Looking at the end of an adaptive challenge, what we see is a new version of ourselves, one that doesn’t need the problem to be solved, because we’ve adapted to the situation. The action of adaptation is: Experiments + Time.


This should cause a little relief. Trying to come up with a technical solution to an adaptive challenge is like washing your hands in dirty water. It’s just not the right application to the challenge. At least now, in order to overcome the low employment challenge, we know that we will need to conduct experiments over time.


Converting the solutions above into experiments…


Solutions from then paragraph above:


  • Raising pay

  • Providing hiring incentives

  • Profit sharing

  • Service charge distribution to all employees

  • Building affordable housing


As solutions, either these fix the problem or not. If not, we’re left feeling disempowered, with the realization that we have to come up with something better and by then, precious time will have passed.


But when viewed as experiments, even if they don’t work, they are not a failure. They are just the things we tried that didn’t work as we had thought, and they provide us with learning.


In order for leaders to shift from problem solving to adapting, Robert Kegan (Developmental Psychologist who has contributed to and clarified this work) says, “We have to exchange our superman cape for a lab coat.”


To view your strategies for full employment as experiments, they (the experiments) need to be set up. Let’s do one here:


Setting up an experiment:

  1. What is the outcome we want?

  2. What is the experiment we’re going to try?

  3. How will we measure it?

Conduct Experiment

  1. What learning did it provide?

  2. What’s the next iteration?


For our experiment, let’s use “raising pay” from above. If you follow along, I’ll provide an outline of it. If your specifics don’t match mine, no worries, just use your own.


An experiment for reaching full employment:

  1. What is the outcome we want?


10 positions filled with qualified individuals who want to work.

  1. What is the experiment we’re going to try?


We’re going to raise pay from $14 to $18 per hour

  1. How will we measure it?


We assume it will drive 50 candidates to submit resumes or applications, of which 10 will fit our criteria and we’ll hire them.

  1. What learning did it provide?


We don’t know this yet. I use this space now to say: get as many people in your organization in this learning as you can. More people = more learning and better next iterations.

  1. What’s the next iteration?


The people who participated will be able to provide learning, you may want to facilitate a conversation with them to extract it. And from there…


Develop the next experiment.


More possibilities for your role:


As the inviter and leader of this learning, you can bring people together. Give them this challenge and this format to follow for Experiments + Time.


And, you can be curious about their progress. Ask often, what did you/we learn?


Here’s another role for the leader:


Try to imagine what the underlying assumptions and beliefs are that we might be trapped in.

  • What assumptions led us to believe this would work?

  • What is it we believe about the people who are not coming back to work?

  • Do we have some underlying assumptions about why someone would work here?

  • What assumptions are we making about who should work here?

  • What assumptions are we making about the number of employees it takes to operate this business?

More resources:


Kegan and co-author Lisa Laskow Lahey wrote Immunity to Change, I’ve provided a surface level view of the process in this article.


For a little lighter reading by the same authors that include the immunity to change process and provides great stories about how companies have overcome seemingly impossible challenges, try An Everyone Culture


Here is a short, inspiring story about how one company actually adapted to the challenge of employee retention, this company now has 400 applicants for every 1 position open.


We at Growing Edge had the great fortune to be trained by Kegan and Lacey, we’ve been successfully facilitating ITC work for three years. If you would like our support, let me know.


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