Three Things HR Can Do to be Part of the Agile Revolution

When we hear the word “Agile” today in terms of how it is applied to an organization, we generally think of being more nimble and faster in delivering our work. It is one of the most popular management tools for organizations seeking to do things quickly and be more adaptable.

For many people, Agile just means working in teams to get work done. In this sense, it may already be happening in some parts of your organization. Having a few teams “working in an Agile way” may facilitate speed under the right conditions. Accomplishing this at scale is very different. Agile as a framework is much broader than just having teams speed projects through. In order to scale Agility, the underlying backbone of the organization must change. Leaders must adjust critical company practices like decision making, business planning and risk management across the entire organization and align them to a new way of working.

When I first start talking to people about Agile, I usually get comments like: “I hear people in IT are doing this, but that won’t work here,” or, “Agile as a principle sounds great, but I don’t see how I can apply it.” While just about any department in an organization might have this outlook, I would like to focus on human resources in particular. Agile can indeed work for HR, and HR can work for Agile. Let’s examine three ways HR can contribute to the Agile revolution.

1. Support other parts of the organization working in an Agile framework

Talk the talk: In order to support the organization, it is critical to first understand the language. To truly provide value for your internal customer, you must use their terminology. For example, if the following sentence sounds like a foreign language, you may need to brush up on your Agile vocabulary: “In next week’s scrum of scrum retrospective, we will focus on grooming the backlog to get ready for the program increment planning event.”

Understand implications of moving to an Agile environment: One of the most common concerns a department going down the Agile path has about HR is that “HR doesn’t understand Agile, and they are making it difficult to work in an Agile environment.” For Agile to work, leaders must make some fundamental changes to basic HR constructs. While not comprehensive, here are a few of the most common:

  • Allow for self-forming teams that change quickly
  • Change policies to enable teams to make faster decisions
  • Rework compensation plans to not rely on annual performance measures but instead focus on accomplishing short term goals

2. Change the HR operating model to work using an Agile approach 

Walk the walk: Agile teams are the backbone of an Agile framework. To join the Agile revolution, you must set up teams in HR that have end-to-end accountability. Next, empower the teams to get work done quickly. For example, what if you created an Agile team that had end-to-end accountability for hiring an employee? That team would have all the skills and authority needed to take a candidate from sourcing to hire. You could even go one step further by enabling the team to go from sourcing to hiring in a day. What would have to change in your company to make that happen? Would this be a strategic enabler for your organization? Would your internal customer think you were a rock star and that you really do understand their needs? There are companies who are doing this today.

Change the HR approach: Move to an Agile operating model that embraces the Agile ways of working. This could include changes to the HR organization structure, work processes, and job titles. Titles and roles like “talent management center of expertise leader” might change to “product owner” or “product manager”. The HR business partner role might move to a business role where they could manage the HR portfolio backlog and work with product management on various output-oriented HR tasks to accomplish HR-related work for the business.

Move away from annual cycles to a faster operating cadence: Make changes from annual cycles to be more responsive to how Agile teams operate. Instead of conducting annual performance reviews and making yearly individual development plans, do them on the same cycle as Agile team iterations.

3. Lead the organization as it moves to a company-wide implementation of Agile ideals and practices

Lead the effort: How could HR take the lead in changing the operating model and culture of the entire organization to drive the Agile revolution? Who better to do that than HR? Don’t wait until the grass roots organization gets disenfranchised with HR! Get on the Agile bandwagon early if you feel passionate that there’s a strategic reason to do so.

Prepare the organization: To change to an Agile framework, the DNA of the organization first needs to change. Start now by helping the organization explore the strategic imperative for Agile and put together the transformation plan.

Understand the implications for talent: As the company moves to push decision making and empowerment down to Agile teams, managers and team members must be ready for the consequences of that change.

As an example, early in my career I interviewed for a position as an integrated manufacturing team leader at one of my company’s new operations facilities. The plant manager was reluctant to hire me, saying, “You come from corporate and we have a different decision making style here in our team environment.” He knew that if I became a team leader, it would not be acceptable for me to make unilateral decisions. Instead, my role would be to ensure the team had everything they needed to get their job done. Even 30 years ago, they were implementing what amounted to Agile teams and were wary of an outsider who might be stuck in a more traditional mentality. I did end up getting the job, and it changed my entire career. I adopted new thinking about how effective teams can be at making autonomous decisions, and I have carried that with me ever since.

In conclusion, when your CEO comes to you and says we are preparing to implement Agile, will you be ready? The three tips given here will help as you start down the path of your own Agile revolution.


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