The 8 Core Elements of Agile HR
Agile HR is a broad topic and can be a bit overwhelming at first. So, can it be broken down into a series of more manageable elements? The answer is yes. It's handy to think of Agile HR as having eight fundamental principles; changing mindset, being human-centric, co-creating a great employee experience by focusing on the user, taking an evidence-based approach to decision making, ending 'one-size-fits-all', big bang implementations and finally, Agile leadership and organisational transformation. Let’s explore each element further to understand what they mean and how they can help your HR team and the broader organisation.
The Starting Point
Increasingly, HR finds itself in a situation where it is part of an organisation that has embraced Agile while HR has not, creating two issues. The first is that HR is not taking advantage of the opportunities Agile offers. Secondly, 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
In the first instance, Agile HR means embracing an Agile mindset and using the tools and techniques in our own work. I call this first area of application, Agile for HR. For example. this could involve using Agile frameworks like Scrum to co-create an HR or organisational change project, as well as experiment and test directly with your users what works and what doesn’t. An Agile approach also helps HR and People teams 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. This 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 generalist v 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.
8 Core Elements of Agile HR
The 8 core elements apply equally to both Agile for HR and HR for Agile.
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, it’s about adjusting your mindset. Then, it's taking a more human-centric view of HR's work. Next, it’s co-creating a great employee experience, through user testing and in turn taking an evidence-based approach to decision making. All of which means you don't arrive at a 'one-size-fits-all' environment, representing a big shift away from traditional, standardised for everyone Human Resources (HR). The final element is what I call Agile leadership and organisational transformation. There's a lot that sits within this theme, but ultimately, it asks what role HR plays in building Agile teams, guiding organisational-wide Agile transformation and coaching leaders.
What’s also great, is each element feeds into each other. For example, there is no use redesigning performance as a move away from an individual, bonus-based process, to a more collective, Agile-based process, if you don’t know what it’s like to work in an Agile team yourself. Only by experiencing Agile ways of working can you begin to appreciate what your people need.
Element 1: Changing Mindset
To some degree, all 8 parts are essential to adopt an Agile approach successfully, but if there is one aspect that typifies Agile, it's mindset. For me, adopting the Agile mindset was 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 because if you do, it'll be within a controlled time-boxed period, and you'll use the outcome to discover what to do next. This epiphany had a massive impact on both my personal life and my work. Mindset is also about moving away from individual ownership and towards team accountability. Yes, you are still responsible and have just as much pride in what you do, but you’re closely collaborating with others to get a more significant piece of work done. Most importantly, however, the mindset is all about your customer. Stakeholders and highly-paid leaders have lots of opinions (often HiPPOs), not to mention influence, but ultimately, it’s about what your customer thinks. In Agile, customer value drives business value. The value they perceive in what you deliver, and their feedback is what you should use to shape your next iteration of work. Mindset means that in Agile HR we're continually seeking to create a virtuous cycle between our customer, people and business.
Element 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’ve got bogged down in heavy, often compliance-driven, process.
For example, having a career development plan is a great idea that can support a person’s learning and on-the-job development. However, making it mandatory for everyone means it just becomes another box-ticking exercise.
Another significant factor is HR’s Taylorist legacy. Much of our existing HR processes and systems stem from Fredrick Taylor’s scientific 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 yet another input to be controlled. Workplace performance or career growth, for example, become processes that need to be managed for people, rather than being viewed as intrinsic drivers, that need support to grow and develop. The great thing is that by applying the customer focus mindset of Agile, where your customer ultimately determines your work, HR becomes naturally human-centric.
Element 3: Co-creation
I love this element of Agile HR, and it's 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 customers. In the case of HR, the customers are our people. Essentially, it’s so much easier 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.
But you can’t experiment on people I hear you say! Why not? We experiment with our products and services commercially every day. If you follow a controlled, disciplined approach, and ensure people’s safety, there is no reason why you can’t experiment in a short time-boxed period. It’s much better than implementing a significant change, without any evidence that it works, and then spending the next couple of years trying to improve it for your people!
Element 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. This focus on the employee or people experience is now so crucial in HR that many teams or HR Directors have renamed titles under this banner. The positions of Head of Employee Experience or the People Experience Team are quickly filling up LinkedIn profiles.
The origins of employee experience are, of course, linked to the next element, User Experience, but I’ll come to that shortly. 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.
To achieve this, we first put our people at the centre of what we do, as the customer. Making your people the focus, they validate what we do by telling us that a solution or service does indeed enrich their workplace experience. Next, we use techniques that come mainly from design thinking, like personas, experience mapping and prototyping, to redesign HR through the eyes of our users. These methods allow us to quickly test ideas and solutions before we even consider investing resources and time. 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.
Element 5: User Experience
What is often labelled #UX might seem evident in Agile HR by now. Leading on from Employee Experience, 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 I’ve seen a performance management system 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. I recall a project where I introduced an app to help teams give and receive feedback, which they hated. For them, they didn’t want an app, the teams wanted the right environment where they could talk about feedback freely. Luckily, this idea to use an app was introduced within an Agile HR experiment, so we simply ended it there, minimising cost and any further negative impact.
Element 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.
For example, one organisation I know started to redesign their approach to performance to support Agile teams. They began in Tech, who loved the idea of real-time feedback, the removal of ratings and rewards linked to collective team outcomes. The HR team then went and applied this to customer service who didn’t like it. For them, what they had already wasn’t so broken in the first place and suited the target-based environment in which they worked. They then questioned whether every other part of the business needed to be on the same performance and rewards system. In any case, if there were benefits to evolving the target-based system in customer service, you wouldn’t want to do it big bang style, instead incrementally evolving how they worked.
Element 7: Evidence-based Decision Making
Again, this is not a new concept within the HR profession and is forming an independent movement. 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. It’s also questioning good old gut instinct and challenging algorithm aversion.
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.
Element 8: Agile Leadership and Organisational Transformation
‘Going Agile’ seems to be the new norm, but what does this really mean for an organisation? Should you even use the word? What organisational design might this require? What does this mean for your current operating model? What role should your leaders play?
These are all common questions when an organisation embarks on an Agile transformation. As business strives to become more responsive and customer-centric, often closely linked to digitalisation or market disruption, Agile is viewed increasingly as the best way to redesign how we work.
However, saying you’re going Agile is very 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's 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. If not, there isn’t a reason to scale, even if squads and tribes seem like cool names to use instead of departments and functions. 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.
All of this presents a very different role for a manager or leader. Indeed, in most Agile frameworks, or scaling models, often the traditional role of the manager doesn’t 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.
Apart from making the huge topic of Agile HR easier to size up, breaking it down into these elements may help you relate to it more easily. You may also find that some aspects appeal to you or have more impact on you personally than others. For example, you may have no difficulty adopting the general mindset, but it may not have occurred to you that you shouldn't simply use Agile to develop a 'one-size-fits-all-big-bang-solution'.
Central to adoption, is appreciating that Agile HR is more than a collection of tools and techniques, but a fundamental change in thinking. How you evolve your own practice will reflect your own context and people.
The key is to start small, and discover what each element means to you and your organisation.