Agile HR - A Journey

Author: Pavithra Urs
Date: Nov 19, 2020

With the organizations embracing Agile globally, if HR is not at par it may lead to two issues; the first is that HR is not taking advantage of the opportunities Agile offers and second, HR may find it difficult to support the organisation and can become increasingly out of touch with the needs of the business and its ability to respond to fluid and complex requirements. A good way to understand Agile HR is first to examine the two areas in which it applies to what we do.

Agile for HR

First Area : Embracing an Agile mindset and using the tools and techniques in our own work; that's Agile for HR. For example, this could involve using Agile frameworks like Scrum to co-create a HR or organisational change project, as well as experiment and test directly with end users what works and what does not. An Agile approach also helps HR and People teams to systematically manage risk by breaking down complex issues and validating decisions through immediate feedback and data. Another example is, using Agile prioritisation techniques to understand what the most important thing is to work on which allows you to manage your HR portfolio of work in line with stakeholder and customer feedback, and clearly demonstrate the value you bring to the business. Agile for HR also challenges HR to move beyond the traditional division of the generalist versus the specialist, and truly collaborate to solve complex problems cross-functionally and directly with the business.

HR for Agile

The second area is the need to innovate our own people processes and services to support Agile teams and organisations. I call this second area, HR for Agile. This is big. It means evolving practices in topics like reward, performance, talent, learning and recruitment, to promote a culture of collaborative networks, continuous improvement, and incremental development. In an Agile organisation, everything from job roles, career paths and bonus structures require a rethink. Alongside this is the organisational design aspect of guiding Agile transformation and helping leaders understand their new role. This is HR’s unique position in Agile that is different from other parts of the business. Generally, other departments focus only on the first area and apply Agile techniques to their work. It’s due to our profession and our focus on people, that we need to consider the bigger picture of what Agile means at every level, be that individual, team or organisational wide. The layered principles apply equally to both Agile for HR and HR for Agile.

1. Changing Mindset

To some degree, all the principles are essential to adopt an Agile approach successfully, but if there is one aspect that typifies Agile, it's the mindset. Adopting the Agile mindset is as much about letting go and unlearning old habits, just as much as learning new ones. For example, learning that it’s ok to fail within a controlled time-boxed period, you'll use the outcome to discover what to do next. This epiphany can have a massive impact on both your personal life and your work. Mindset is also about moving away from individual ownership and towards team accountability. Mindset means that in Agile HR we're continually seeking to create a virtuous cycle between our customer, people and business.

2. Being Human-centric

Making HR all about the human again, rather than managing people as resources, has been a frequent discussion within our profession for some time. Despite some good intentions, we’re bogged down in heavy, often compliance-driven, process. Another significant factor is, much of our existing HR processes and systems stem from the management view of the organisation - where a top-down hierarchical chart forms the basis of how we govern people’s work. Instead of treating employees as adults, who part-own the direction of the company, employees are treated as another input to be controlled. Workplace performance or career growth, for example, become processes that need to be managed for people. The great thing is that by applying the customer focus mindset of Agile, where your customer ultimately determines your work, HR naturally becomes human-centric.

3. Co-Creation

This is where you apply Agile techniques, like Scrum, Kanban or user experimentation, directly to your HR work and by doing so co-create the solutions with your people. What’s beautiful is the co-creation begins to happen on several levels. First, you co-create by collaborating with the team of people you are working with to deliver the project or service. This team should be at least a multi-skilled HR team, or even better, a mix of people from across the organisation, so you have all the skills needed to get the work done. Dependencies to other parts of the organisation can seriously hold you back and are considered impediments in Agile terminology.
Secondly, the co-creation happens with your people & it’s so easy to help people through change, when they are in it with you, revolutionising change management. By inviting people to experiment and test incremental stages of your project, be that new feedback and performance tools, rewards or learning initiatives, not only will people tell you very quickly what they don’t like, but they will champion the things they do. Subsequently, your people have already validated any organisational changes that you make.

4. Employee Experience

Competition for talent in the marketplace has increased. Not only do HR departments need to respond quickly to this changing landscape, but they also need to play their part in creating an environment where highly skilled and desirable people want to work. In the end, people’s creativity and innovation are what give us a competitive advantage. The origins of employee experience are, of course, linked to User Experience. What’s important here is that HR has finally moved beyond the annual employment engagement survey and is tapping into their people’s real experience of work. How they think, feel and act each day. The final step is to get comfortable with data and people analytics to the point that we ‘continuously listen’ to what our people think and need. The learning gained allows us to tailor our people practices as much as possible to personalise the employee experience.

5. User Experience

What is often labelled #UX might seem evident in Agile HR by now. This is about designing our HR services and processes for our users, not our needs in HR. The outcome of this should be user-friendly and lovable workplace practices. Improving UX could be as simple as asking whether a particular step or button should be included in a process contained within your HRIS (HR Information System, such as Workday). That we in HR want to collect certain data or automate something, shouldn’t be the sole reason to shape a process. The number of times a performance management system is set up to capture information on low performers, rather than enable high performance, is alarming. User experience can even be the question of whether we need a process or tool in the first place.

6. A 'one-size-doesn't-fit-all' Approach

In our everyday, increasingly digitalised lives, our experience of television, music, and sometimes even how we prepare our food, is personalised for our satisfaction. We need to start thinking this way for our employees. Best practice can be useful, but in an increasingly complex world, where the answers are not clear, customised solutions are needed. This is to say that what worked for one company, might not necessarily work in another. Culture, values and people, not to mention the market or products may be different. Similarly, a solution created through an experiment in one part of the business might not automatically fit another.

7. Evidence-based Decision Making

Again, this is not a new concept within the HR profession. It's about thinking like a scientist, testing a hypothesis and gathering the data to validate your assumption to see if it's correct before you embark on a project or workplace change. Many of us in HR have worked in the profession for a long time and gained immense knowledge about what we think can work. However, unless we test these assumptions, they just remain assumptions, and that can be dangerous. If you have problems with diversity in your organisation, you might assume mandatory diversity and inclusion training is the solution. There are now studies suggesting this approach can even have the reverse effect. Agile is ultimately a data-driven framework, where everything from how you prioritise your backlog, through to the product or solution you produce, is validated by the evidence you collect along the way.

8. Agile Leadership and Organisational Transformation

As business strives to become more responsive and customer-centric, often intricately linked to digitalisation or market disruption, Agile is viewed increasingly as the best way to redesign how we work. However, saying you are going Agile is quite different to fundamentally changing your mindset and ways of working. Also, does this imply everyone and every team must go Agile? Agile working methods and collaboration can deliver great market results, but it is best suited to complex problems where rapid, innovative responses are required. It’s also first and foremost a team model. This model should only then be scaled if more people and teams are needed to bring the product or solution to the customer. Exploring how to ensure effective coordination, collaboration and governance between teams are key, particularly if some teams are Agile and others are not. Our aim in Agile is to achieve alignment in purpose and vision, while still allowing autonomy in how to flourish.

The Final Lap…

ll of the above presents a quite different role for a manager or leader. Indeed, in most Agile frameworks, or scaling models, often the traditional role of the manager does not exist. A central aim of Agile is to replace hierarchy with collaborative networks and self-organisation. Coaching your leaders to trust their people and allow those closest to the customer to make important decisions, is vital to the success of any Agile transformation. This often involves getting your leaders to embrace the mindset and ways of working just as much as your people. It also means that existing HR processes like job descriptions, role, profiles, and career development pathways must be reassessed as soon as you start to embrace Agile ways of working.
About Author: Pavithra Urs is an Enterprise HR Strategic Leader. A Human capital investor. She works as an Associate Director for People Operations and heads L&D function for a prestigious Media & Entertainment company. Bringing along rich global experience in her field for 13+ yrs., she acts as first-level counsel to CXOs and Senior Leadership. In her wider role that extends beyond work, she is an HR columnist and writer, Coach and Mentor, Successful Women Leader uplifting and protecting the interests of women @workplace. She is an avid blogger, influencer, speaker, and a professional member of many HR professional organizations.
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