How taught me Agile HR

Photo by Tim Goodwin

Photo by Tim Goodwin


I always considered myself agile. The HR change agent. I coached leaders to trust their people, teams to self-organise and organisations to embrace complexity. What I didn’t realise until recently was I didn't apply Agile to my own HR work. For too long I aimed to emulate HR best practice. What did the top companies do? What did the leaders of industry say? Little did I realise best practice was holding me back.

No blue printing, no best practice

HR turning Agile is hot. A quick skim of HR conferences for 2016 and it’s clear everyone is talking about it. Tom Haak from the HR Trend Institute cites Agile HR as a key trend for 2016. Though, I suspect many HR practitioners are wondering what working Agile really means. Most I spoke to recently thought I just meant hot desking.

“No blue printing, no best practice”. Words that will forever ring in my ear. I’d just met the CTO of, Brendan Bank. We were discussing the future of performance and reward for the company’s fast growing IT department. A team of young, dynamic, extremely diverse techies who live and breath Agile. Brendan saw the need for change and was answering employee calls for greater transparency and feedback on how performance was evaluated and rewarded. He also knew the solution had to be Agile. Now we were talking about how to get there. After reviewing internal feedback, industry trends and case studies I started to propose possible solutions, to which Brendan replies, “We won’t know unless we experiment. Let’s start tomorrow”. is a hugely successful start up based out of Amsterdam. Now the biggest entity in the US Priceline Group, they clock over 1,000,000 room nights every 24 hours, across 884,011 active properties worldwide. Despite the growing complexity that 10,000 employees across 174 offices globally brings, the business continues to follow the same simple formula initiated by the founders. The customer sits at the centre, everything must scale and innovation is to fail fast, learn fast. Written on corridor walls is the mantra “Get things done today. Tomorrow will bring fresh challenges.”

It’s not just IT that practices Agile at Scrums, sprints and product owners characterise most teams. The organisation is relatively flat, and many a manager prides themselves on leading super smart people, some paid more than them.

So what is Agile?

Ideologically, Steve Denning, a leading advocate, describes it as a “deliberate response to the problems of hierarchical bureaucracy”. It represents a horizontal organisational structure, where self-organising teams constantly iterate small step changes to continually add value to the customer.  The concepts essentially grew out of Japanese lean manufacturing in the late 1980s, where small ‘rugby’ teams were formed to gain speed and flexibility on the shop floor. The Agile Manifesto in 2001 saw the movement crystallise and it’s gained traction ever since.

Photo by Tim Goodwin

Photo by Tim Goodwin


The actual working practices of Agile, now emulated through a range of formations like Kanban, Scrum, Management 3.0, Holacracy and programmer anarchy, link back to software development and the world of start up tech. I think that’s why I was so apprehensive. The vision of Agile resonated with me, yet the real world application of back logs and sprints seemed reserved for IT work only. Surely when it came to people experimentation was too risky? Shouldn’t HR systematically move people through a controlled change plan?

Test an idea on just one team. Or try the idea on the whole company at once, but announce that it’s a test for just a month and then you’ll decide whether to make it permanent based on how people react.
— Laszlo Bock

Spurred on Laszlo Bock, who steers the Google people success story by applying the same amount of experimentation, analysis and rigour to people as the company does to technology, I dove in.

I discovered that when you clearly state it’s an experiment, invite people to participate and proactively learn with them as the experiment grows, people commit. Yes, the debates are intense and opinions diverse, but isn’t this what innovation is all about? At a range of performance practices were tested by small compact teams, including real-time peer feedback, an alternate rating scale and the formation of self-managing teams supported by a development coach.

Some techniques were not necessarily ground-breaking in themselves, though like all workplace tools, culture impacts how they are embraced. More importantly, rather than implement a new system already predetermined at tender stage, experimentation allows you to simply walk away if it fails, rather than spend the next few years forcing it to work. I also found many existing HR systems failed to support or adapt to what we were trying to achieve. So you just had to do it yourself and then build the supporting infrastructure later. Meanwhile you collect a bunch of data on what works and what doesn’t.

Working Agile also doesn’t mean implementing a big bang change once you’ve done a few experiments. Instead, take a first step based on your findings, then widen user adoption, improving through each iteration. At the end of my project with specific reward changes were introduced to delink performance and bonus discussions, and dedicate more time to feedback and career development. While still requiring a full communication roll-out, it was announced in an environment already developing and testing the new ways of working necessary to support the change. Since then has further evolved self-managing teams and real-time peer feedback has spread across the whole of IT.

So what is Agile HR?

A well-known guerrilla tactic is surprise. Instead of developing a plan on paper and discussing this in various meetings, and making no progress at all, you just develop your idea and implement it as quick as possible.
— Tom Haak

Tom Haak calls it “Guerrilla HR”, where Agile techniques are used to drive innovative change in the people agenda, particularly if your boss isn’t so sure. 

Agile HR is more than hot desking, though such work practices can help fuel a flexible environment. Instead Agile HR is a different way of doing your job and advocates:

  1. End long, regular meetings so you can get things done.
  2. Try using SCRUM (see for handy guides). For example, a 15 minute stand up each morning replaces the need for your fortnightly HR operations meeting.
  3. Keep the HR team small for agility and speed.
  4. Keep the HR team fresh with new, diverse input.
  5. Collaborate with innovative partners both internal and external - necessary with a small team and builds greater agility. At I tapped into their regular IT hackathon as a platform for creative design. The outcome was a fab homemade video promoting the value of peer feedback.
  6. Forget best practice or striving for the perfect blueprint. Just start experimenting and adapt as you go.

It’s scary at first and you, like me, will definitely make mistakes. Yet, the more you practice Agile HR the better equipped you’ll be and the bigger impact you’ll have.


Have you tried Agile HR yet? Share your thoughts by commenting below or sharing this blog.  


This blog is dedicated to the great people at, with special thanks to Brendan Bank, CTO, and Luke Sondelski, Global Head of Reward.