What is Agile HR? - Part One

Heard about Agile HR yet unsure what it means or how to get started?
In Part One of this blog, I cover all the basics to Agile HR and how it will help transform your practice. In my next instalment, Part Two, I'll detail how to get Agile HR started in your team or organisation. 

Why Do We Need Agile HR?

Human Resources (HR) is at an exciting crossroads. As technology drives an ever increasing need for speed and agility, the world of work is shifting. To remain relevant, HR needs to evolve. Employees and their leaders want flexible, lightweight, real time people solutions. They also want to be a part of the conversation and co-create. By embracing Agile and evolving our mindset, I’m confident HR can find the answers to many of the challenges we currently face.

As a profession HR has received a fair bit of flack lately. Some even claim we need to be ‘fixed’. While I’m keen for a little disruption, it’s time to move beyond the criticism and start exploring how to transform our practice.

As organisational boundaries become more fluid, the static frameworks of HR ‘best practice’, such as annual performance appraisals, managed career pathways and documented job descriptions, are failing to meet the needs of our rapidly changing workforce.

The business now needs to work intimately with their customer. Knowledge is intangible and multi-sourced. Jobs are fragmenting. Employees are multi-generational, diverse and demand constant communication, individualised feedback, and a good values-fit. An individual contributor may impact your bottom line more than all your managers put together.

“As the world becomes increasingly volatile and unpredictable, organisations that are agile will outpace their competitors. To become a critical driver of agility, HR must fundamentally reshape itself to enable a new type of organisation - one designed around highly nimble and responsive talent.”   Accenture, HR trends

If we then place this evolution of the workplace within the current socio-economic climate of uncertainty and fast-moving change, the need for adaptability, rapid response and crisis management is clear. The recent EU referendum in the UK is a case in point.

These modern challenges call for HR to embrace a different, more progressive way of working. One that can create a shared value for the business, customer and employee alike, by appreciating the nuances of building a brand and trust, not just a product. As so aptly put by Linda Holbeche at a recent CIPD conference, modern HR needs to “work with people, not ‘on’ people”.

However, despite needing to lead on massive topics like talent, leadership, analytics and organisational design, HR is often quickly dismissed as not being business savvy enough or hiding behind policy. Often making up for bad managers and forced to implement hard financial and legal decisions on people, HR has gained a bad name. When we then attempt to answer real-time problems with procedures and best practice, we lose even more credibility. So how can we start to get our credibility back and build people practices that are loved, not loathed?

I think one answer is Agile HR.

Getting Agile at home!

Getting Agile at home!

What is Agile HR?

Agile HR takes the software development mindset so prevalent in tech and start-up success stories and translates it into a HR setting. Agile is essentially a way of organising how your people work based on cross-functional, self-organising teams, solving complex problems through small step iteration and adaptive learning. This formation, which is face-to-face as much as possible, allows the teams to execute rapid and flexible responses to customer needs, and in HR’s case, our people and business.  

“We will say it over and over again…you have to meet your customer where they are, then find ways to make their lives easier.”  Agile HR team experiment report, Gap Inc

Agile is now expanding across industries and whole organisations. It particularly suits teams and departments faced with complex, multi-faceted problems, such as employee engagement or people performance in the HR space. Agile HR means ideas and action can work in parallel and because it drives collaboration across different topic owners or disciplines it’s great when tackling crisis situations, ethical dilemmas or large organisational and cultural change.

By its nature Agile builds resilience, such a vital ingredient of the modern organisation. For example, when discussing the benefits of Agile in PR, Matthew Kinsman, CEO of Base Creative, states “The essence of the Agile approach is forming one cross-disciplinary team with all the decision-makers ... working together in real time. Without this Agile approach, a PR crisis can instantly become a nightmare because while everyone on the team is trying to gain consensus from the CEO on what they should do, the company’s brand is taking hits right and left.”

Applying an Agile approach also means testing different prototypes or solutions before committing to full implementation. In HR this means testing different methods of working, organisational designs, learning techniques or workplace tools and systems through controlled, low risk people-based experiments. The feedback collected then becomes the data and evidence needed to make clear decisions on how and what to implement.

More importantly, your people become direct participants in the design and essentially co-create. As I discovered first hand, inviting people to experiment and listening to their feedback builds an environment of trust. As a direct result people become more open and willing to embrace future workplace change.

Another key benefit is if an experiment fails, and Agile assumes many will, you simply walk away without losing face. This ‘inspect, adapt, deliver’ continuum is a conscious shift away from the traditional Waterfall or blue printing style of project management that so often characterised HR ‘best practice’.

As urged by Laszlo Bock, Google's people leader, “You’ll trip up sometimes and need to take backward steps. Knowing that, tell people around you that you’ll be experimenting with ideas before you start. That will help transform them from critics to supporters, and they’ll extend you more benefit of the doubt if things go awry.” 

Agile HR Mindset

Ultimately, Agile HR is an evolution in mindset rather than just a method of working. Steve Denning, a key figure in Agile, describes the movement as a different mental model. A mindset with the power to transform traditional hierarchical and bureaucratic business structures into conversation led horizontal organisations focused on the customer. In this new workplace, managers still exist, yet their role fundamentally changes from command through authority, to enabler of networks and self-organising teams.

“There are still hierarchies in a network, but the hierarchies tend to be competence-based hierarchies, relying more on peer accountability than on authority-based accountability, that is, accountability to someone who knows something rather than to someone simply because they occupy a position, regardless of competence.” Steve Denning

Feeding off the now quite famous Agile manifesto key HR influencers, including Josh Bersin, Liz Ryan, Srinivasan Pillay, David Rock and Meghan M. Biro, put their names to an Agile HR manifesto to capture this intent and mindset shift:

We are uncovering better ways of developing an Agile culture by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:
Networked structure over vertical hierarchy
Transparency over secrecy
Adaptability over predictability
Projects and souls over jobs and roles
Intrinsic motivation over extrinsic rewards
Ambition over obligation
That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.
Agile HR manifesto
For an organisation to become truly Agile and begin to benefit from an acceleration in innovation of up to 80%, it’s vital existing operating models and organisational structures transform alongside the new methods of working. This is where HR becomes central to the wider adaption of Agile practices. If we want to build resilient Agile organisations, then we must become Agile ourselves.

So Let’s Get Agile HR

Agile HR represents an opportunity to truly transform the practice and position of HR by embracing a mindset already proven to work across a range of successful companies from Spotify to AutoTrader UK and Whole Foods Market.

Agile HR is to:

  • Simplify HR
  • Deliver agile and lightweight people operations
  • Reduce complexity and waste
  • Listen to employee voice and co-create
  • Make data driven, evidence-based decisions
  • Build a unique workplace culture through talent and leadership
  • Operate through small, empowered teams that give autonomy and purpose
  • Delight our people (our customer)

 Why not join me and lead the paradigm shift?

Watch out for What is Agile HR? – Part Two to learn how to get Agile HR started in your team or organisation, even if your business is more traditional or non-tech based.

Want to start working with Agile HR? Southern Blue can help you. Contact us today to find out how. 

About Natal Dank

I'm into the people side of business. Through Southern Blue Consulting I specialise in Agile HR consulting, people performance and organisational development.