What is Agile HR? - Part Two

Heard about Agile HR yet unsure what it means or how to get started?
In this instalment, Part Two, I offer three easy ways to start Agile HR in your team or organisation. It also contains an invite to join the Agile HR community. Last month’s blog, Part One, covered Agile HR fundamentals and how it helps innovate your practice. 

Thank you

Wow! Great discussions following Part One of this blog. I learnt of HR teams in Australia working in cross-functional Agile ways, a Dutch bank embarking on an Agile HR operating model and from HR practitioners around the world ready to innovate. In all conversations the theme was ‘new frontier’. Working outside our HR comfort zone, to take exploratory steps towards a new way of thinking, doing and being HR. It’s a bit scary, though greatly rewarding for all involved.

To help everyone along I’m kick-starting an Agile HR community and will host a series of events to bring people together to share experiences and learn. Jump to the end of this blog to learn more.

Part Two – The How To

This blog would be a book if I covered everything within Agile HR! It’s also an evolving area of practice, as we explore new ways of thinking, doing and being HR.  

Agile HR is an overriding title I’m using to describe future HR and the different ways we can innovate our profession. The underlying premise is the need for HR to evolve if we are to build the resilient and Agile organisations demanded by our modern digitalised and rapidly changing world.   

First and foremost, Agile HR is a mindset. A mindset that advocates an intimate partnership with your people and leaders, to co-create flexible, lean, real time, people-centred solutions. It borrows the software development manifesto sitting behind numerous tech and start-up success stories, and translates it into a people and culture setting. 

To get to grips with the what and how, I’ve distilled Agile HR into ten main ingredients to help HR professionals innovate and learn.

Ten Ingredients of Agile HR 


10 Ingredients of Agile (click to enlarge)


To keep this blog simple I’ll discuss three of the ten Agile HR ingredients in more detail. Each is a vital component to the Agile HR mindset, is relatively easy to start and I believe (opinion alert!) hold the potential to revolutionise your results.

  1. Experimentation and adaptive learning
  2. Scrum – as an Agile work practice for HR
  3. Evidence-based HR

One thing to note before we begin is Agile HR will lead to different, more progressive people solutions. A great example is the current deconstruction of performance management. Many organisations are beginning to replace traditional methods of ratings and bell curves with real time continuous feedback and people centred experiences. A vital first step however, is to innovate HR itself. Only then can we be sure these changes are sustainable, unique to our organisation and co-created with our people.  

1. Experimentation and adaptive learning

Personally, this was my starting point and what kick-started a revolution in my own practice.

Experimentation is how we gather data to better understand our people and their workplace experience. It’s no surprise that science has used this for centuries to evolve our thinking and indeed the human race!

“The true method of knowledge is experiment.” - William Blake

It’s also central to moving beyond traditional ‘best practice’ or ‘waterfall’ project management so prevalent in HR. Rooted in feedback on what is working today, it offers instant feedback compared to surveys or research that tend to anticipate what might work tomorrow.

True experimentation follows a scientific method. It begins with a clear hypothesis, predicts what will happen and then empirically tests these predictions. In a HR setting this means using low risk and controlled people experiments to gather the evidence necessary to make a decision or implement a change. A welcome alternative to the big bang change program or implementing a new system already predetermined at tender stage, and subsequent years forcing it to work.

“Leadership requires creating conditions that enable employees to do the kinds of experimentation that entrepreneurship requires.” - Eric Ries, Lean Startup

For example, the use of 360º feedback can greatly enrich people development and for some organisations has become a core component of people and team performance. However, is the use of 360º feedback right for your organisation? Does it fit your culture? If so, how transparent do you make it? Can it be real time?

When you clearly state it’s an experiment, invite people to participate and proactively learn with them, people commit. Yes, debates are intense and opinions diverse, but isn’t this what innovation is all about?

When you clearly state it’s an experiment, invite people to participate and proactively learn with them, people commit. Yes, debates are intense and opinions diverse, but isn’t this what innovation is all about?

In the past I’ve heard all these questions debated and unfortunately answered within the one project team. Often heavily influenced by the views of the CEO or HRD, it’s then planned into the implementation upfront. Worse still, a system is purchased to support the introduction of 360º feedback, which dictates the outcome by introducing a predetermined approach. 

Instead, why not invite a select group of people to test what works for your organisation? You can even ask the whole organisation to join. In each case clearly state it’s an experiment and run it for a specific period of time. At the end be transparent with the results.

Remember it’s ok to fail, and if it’s not right for your people, simply end it there. Or if successful and worth continuing plan your next iteration based on the data collected. This might be as simple as repeating the experiment with a few adjustments. Or perhaps you can now widen user adoption or even test a digitalised product to support it.

Agile HR also doesn’t mean implementing a big bang change once you’ve done a few experiments. For example, if 360º feedback gains momentum and people engage with it, you can begin to test other aspects of performance and career development. In time innovating your whole people strategy.

More importantly, and what I discovered first hand, is when you clearly state it’s an experiment, invite people to participate and proactively learn with them, people commit. Yes, debates are intense and opinions diverse, but isn’t this what innovation is all about? By directly involving and listening to your people you start to co-create, and the changes you ultimately introduce have a far greater chance of long term success.   

“It is only through failure and through experiment that we learn and grow.” - Isaac Stern

2. Scrum – as an Agile work practice for HR

Scrum is an easy to use framework that helps translate Agile ways of working into everyday practice. Essentially, a way to manage projects and build teams, Scrum fits nicely with experimentation work as it follows the same principles of small step iteration and adaptive learning. It’s also built on trust, transparency and self-organisation, which are central pillars to the Agile HR mindset.

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” — Mike Tyson

Jeff Sutherland, the co-founder of Scrum, based the framework on how people “actually work, rather than how the say they work”. Scrum is a conscious move away from control and predictability - because no matter how much upfront planning you do; reality always throws up unforeseen problems as well as great ideas. By restricting a project to Gantt charts any change in response to customer needs, or simply a better idea, becomes a big deal. With Scrum it’s already accounted for.  

“Scrum embraces uncertainty and creativity. It places a structure around the learning process, enabling teams to assess both what they’ve created and, just as important, how they created it. The Scrum framework harnesses how teams actually work and gives them the tools to self-organise and rapidly improve both speed and quality of work.” Jeff Sutherland, Scrum
Run small experiments and be transparent about the results - remember, it's ok to fail!

Run small experiments and be transparent about the results - remember, it's ok to fail!

Scrum uses tools like sprints, backlogs and daily stand-ups. It centres around a multi-skilled team that self-organise and engage with a Product Owner and Scrum Master. The team commits to a time-boxed amount of work (generally two weeks and never longer than a month), with the goal of producing something of value for the customer. At the end of the time-boxed iteration the team openly invites inspection and direct customer feedback to help plan the next round of work. Once the team work like this a couple of times, they can start to assess pace and collaboration, with the aim of removing impediments and work even faster.

So how do you start using Scrum for the first time? It’s best to start small and let it spread. Here are two easy ways:

a)     Scrum for HR projects

Scrum is great for solving problems or getting something done, so a project is a nice starting point. Topics like employee engagement or performance management are great examples, as they require analysis and investigation, followed by a multi-functional response, ideally co-created directly with your people.

You can simply use Scrum for that project alone and allow other teams and tasks to continue as usual. Of course Scrum works best when fully embraced but it’s important to start small, and then allow people to be inspired by the new way of working. I greatly encourage the use of a Scrum Master or coach, not only to help the team but proactively build a supportive and safe environment in which they can flourish.

“Whenever you start a project, why not regularly check in, see if what you’re doing is heading in the right direction, and if it’s actually what people want”. - Jeff Sutherland, Scrum

b)     Scrum within your own team

Another easy way to start using Scrum is to hold a daily team stand-up and make your work visible and transparent by using a Scrum board. A Scrum board simply covers the three columns of Do, Doing and Done, and is a great, simple way to communicate and collaborate.

Then each day, at the same time (chosen by the team) take 15 minutes to share what each person did yesterday to help the team achieve their goal; what you will do today and; any obstacles blocking your way. Remember only allow 15 minutes, take important issues off line to discuss separately, and add interactive activities to keep it alive.

I know it all sounds pretty simple, and it’s meant to be. It really does work and quickly replaces the need for a long-drawn out weekly team meeting.    

3. Evidence-Based HR

Evidence-based HR is a movement in its own right. Stemming from evidence-based practice seen in disciplines like medicine and of course, organisational psychology, it directly challenges the latest fad or quick fix behaviour often characterising HR (and yes, I hear you, a reason why we need collect more evidence on the benefits of Agile HR itself!).

“Evidence-based practice is fighting against fallacy and fads.” - Eric Barends, Center for Evidence-Based Management

Rob Briner, a thought leader in evidence-based HR, describes the approach as being “conscientious, explicit and judicious” in how we analyse problems using relevant and trustworthy information. So it’s less about the amount of evidence used at any point in time, and more about the quality of our sources and the way we assess the evidence presented.

To gather evidence a HR practitioner may draw on their own professional experience, alongside organisational data, stakeholder feedback, as well as scientific and academic sources. What’s important however, is the use of critical thought to weigh up the validity and trustworthiness of the data presented. It’s vital to separate opinion from fact and identify any personal or commercial interests at play.

“The modern HR professional needs to be able to separate the fact from fiction, signal from noise and commercial opportunity from fad.” - David D’Souza, CIPD
Being Agile is about working in small, collaborative, creative teams.

Being Agile is about working in small, collaborative, creative teams.

For example, employee engagement is a multi-faceted and complex topic. When a statistic or study is presented by a vendor holding a direct commercial interest in your organisation purchasing their survey, the information needs to be carefully weighed up and assessed. You may still purchase their survey, yet your reasons need to be backed by your own study into why and how it will be used. As many HR professionals know, simply running a survey does little for employee engagement, it’s the analysing, communicating and acting on the data collected that really matters.

Why have I included evidence-based HR as part of Agile HR? The answer is credibility. To evolve as a practice, we need to be credible, commercially aware practitioners able to make important ethical and political decisions in real time. It means the end of ‘best practice’ HR, because there is no direct evidence that what everyone else is doing suits your unique organisation. Being evidence-based is also intimately related to data analytics, a core aspect of future HR.

"The days of basing people decisions on the whims or personal motives of one person at the helm are about to end. Organisations that acknowledge that inevitability already have a substantial head start." - KPMG, Evidence-Based HR Report

Join the paradigm shift

HR is at a crossroads. The world of work is shifting and we need to evolve to meet the needs of our people, organisation and customer. AgleHR can help us get there.

Want to join the Agile HR Community or explore the ingredients of Agile HR?

Become a member of the Agile HR community and join the upcoming events:

Agile HR Community Meetup Group - Join now (Free)

Inaugural Agile HR Community Meetup - London - 6th October 2016, 6-8pm - Register now (Free)

Agile HR Webinar - An Introduction (Free)

21st September 2016 @ 8.30-9.30am BST (9.30-10.30am CEST; 10.30-11.30am EEST; 3.30-4.30pm SGT; 5.30-6.30pm AEST) - Register now

22nd September 2016 @ 4-5pm BST (5-6pm CEST; 6-7pm EEST; 11am-12pm EDT; 8-9am PDT) - Register now

Agile HR Fundamentals - One Day Learning Workshop (£550 + VAT) - London  - 2nd November 2016, 9am - 4.30pm - Register interest now 

About Natal Dank

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