Agile HR - A Mindset Not Just a Trendy Tool in the Workplace

The adoption of Agile by the Human Resources (HR) profession has recently exploded as a topic.

As organisations across the globe strive to become more responsive, customer-centric, digitalised and collaborative, HR needs to not only redesign its processes and systems to support Agile but in many cases actively lead the associated organisational-wide transformation. The take-up of Agile by HR is also intrinsically linked to an intense focus on the employee experience, and a heightened awareness that to attract great people, it’s vital to create a great place to work or even contribute to the broader community in which they live.

In effect, one has to wonder whether HR ‘going agile lite’ is like a dancer ‘going flamenco lite’ by wearing flamenco costumes and talking about flamenco, without necessarily mastering flamenco dance steps or displaying a feel or flair for flamenco music. Steve Denning, Can HR Become Agile, Forbes

Agile HR

As an advocate of what I call Agile HR, I find aspects of this discussion exciting, yet at times, also slightly alarming. The excitement comes from HR finally realising that to make a positive contribution to the evolution of Agile organisations, we must become Agile ourselves. On the other hand, I’m alarmed that many articles seem to misunderstand, or even worse, misuse Agile by suggesting that HR processes and systems can be redesigned without embracing a corresponding psychological shift in Agile mindset and values.

But surely any redesign of HR processes to support Agile ways of working is a good thing, isn’t it? For example, the movement away from the annual performance appraisal towards real-time feedback and coaching can only be positive. And I agree…up to a point.

A Missed Agile HR Opportunity

The danger is that if HR fails to embody the Agile mindset and values, then any new solution is most likely implemented the old way – traditional, waterfall, and generally big bang style. In doing so, HR fails to capture the beauty and magic of Agile, which is to co-create and iterate directly with your people. A further concern is that because many organisations are somewhere in between a traditional hierarchical structure and the newly emerging Agile network, merely changing your HR systems won’t cut it. In all cases, time and effort are needed to strategically evolve and cultivate a change in culture that supports these new, Agile ways of working.

HR for Agile vs Agile Lite

The recent Harvard Business Review article, ‘The new rules of talent management’, by Professors Peter Cappelli and Anna Tavis, is a good example of this potential danger. The article discusses how HR is beginning to embrace Agile and offers a range of great case studies for what I term ‘HR for Agile’. New ways to recruit, develop and reward talent as organisations become more Agile, digital and networked. The authors coin the term ‘Agile Lite’ to describe this movement, which suggests that Agile outside of tech, is seen more like a pick and mix between different tooling rather than a full immersion of mindset.

HR for Agile Is Not Hotdesking

The danger, in my opinion, and one that was recently expressed by Steve Denning, is that the power of Agile to truly transform how teams and people collaborate is completely missed if these new talent solutions are not evolved in an Agile way. It also perpetuates a misunderstanding of Agile as workplace changes, like flexible working or hotdesking, leading to potential misuse of Agile. In turn, if the solution then fails, this adds to the view that Agile is just another trend that doesn’t really work. 

So how does HR ensure they embrace both the mindset and the methodology? By doing ‘Agile for HR’, as well as ‘HR for Agile’. Only by doing and experiencing Agile yourself, can you truly understand how, why and what HR needs to redesign to harness the evolution of Agile organisations.

BT Financial Group HR, Sydney February 2018

BT Financial Group HR, Sydney February 2018

“These observations make me even more cognisant of the mantra the Agile crowd keep repeating: it’s all about mindset. Not ceremonies. Not renaming old things in Agile words. Not cherry-picking techniques.” Tracy Waters, Sky

What is Agile for HR?

At the heart of Agile is the customer and understanding how business value is driven through customer value is central to any interpretation of Agile HR. Indeed, often the first realisation is how some HR processes can restrict or harm the customer value chain within an organisation as they can be driven by an internal, rather than an outside-in focus. When translated into HR, this customer-centricity then places the employee, our people, at the heart of what HR do. As a result, HR’s work becomes human-centric, with the aim of building user-friendly solutions that are driven through the needs and feedback of their people and teams.

Test Learn Adapt

To build customer value, Agile advocates small, networked teams that self-organise and get work done through iterations. While this incremental development process of test, learn and adapt seems logical once you work with it, the practice is often mind-blowing for the HR teams I work with. Breaking a project down into short iterations, each of which produces something of value that is tested and validated by the actual users (not just senior executives) before release or further development, revolutionise not only HR service design but the whole concept of change management in an organisation.

As a result, co-creation starts to happen on multiple levels. Firstly, the Agile team that is running the project co-create through a collaborative model of self-organisation and joint team accountability. Secondly, this team then co-creates with people from the broader organisation by treating them as their customer, partnering with them to user test and experiment, determining what works, what doesn’t, and how the solution should be released and utilised within the business.

Pick a Framework

Of course, the form ‘Agile for HR’ will vary across HR teams, and each organisation needs to formulate their distinct flavour. For some, this means the formation of groups using the Scrum framework, which plan and deliver work through short iterations, known as sprints, on crucial topics like leadership development, talent acquisition, recognition or engagement.

Scrum might be used by a specific team, such as Learning and Development, HR Business Partners, or a mix across HR and the business depending upon the project or need. Quite a few teams I’ve worked with find they are not necessarily able to sprint back to back, week on week, as team members often manage a range of HR topics or operations simultaneously. Generally, in these situations the teams commit to one or two weeks each month to sprint on key projects or complex problems.

However, no matter what the approach, Agile values and practices flow through all aspects of their work.

IKEA Poland HR, May 2018

IKEA Poland HR, May 2018


An Example

The overall people strategy and backlog of work are prioritised by customer and business needs. The portfolio of work is then managed using Agile methods, such as iterative cycles, progress is reported using tools like Kanban boards, reviewed and lessons learned through ceremonies like retrospectives and activities are time-boxed such as 15-minute stand-ups. Most teams also use techniques like customer personas, experience mapping or design thinking to help them connect to the true people experience and ensure their work is validated by data and evidence rather than the latest HR trend.

If you want to learn more on what this can look like in practice a great blog to follow is by friends at Sky, led by Tracy Waters

Mindset is the Key

What is central to all these variations is the full embrace of Agile mindset by HR, not just a few methods or tools. Also, because there is no set blueprint for how you do Agile HR, all the teams I work with go through their own development iterations as they test and learn what are the right ways of working for their own HR team, function or organisational culture. More importantly, it means that any service, process or organisational change designed by HR evolves in an Agile way, and instead of implementing solutions ‘onto’ people, HR work ‘with’ people to make it happen.

What is HR for Agile?

By embracing both the mindset and methodology of Agile within HR, the redesign of HR to support an Agile organisation follows almost naturally. This is the fun stuff, where we start to transform the workplace to enrich the people experience. It also becomes clear for HR teams who embrace Agile, that many existing HR practices contradict or harm Agile ways of working.


If you operate a system of individual performance ratings and link this to individual bonuses, then how you incentivise, and reward people may contradict any effort or structural change designed to harness cross-functional or team collaboration. Similarly, if you want to develop leaders who can trust and coach their people, yet insist they attend mandatory training, determine their careers through talent matrix boxes or not allow them to manage their own budgets, then again conflicting messages are felt by your people.

Another vital area is how HR can help senior leaders and organisations make decisions on how they scale Agile as it moves beyond just one or two teams. Again, it’s dangerous to simply follow a set, perhaps licensed framework and process, without being able to truly assess or test what is right for your culture and business aims.

RiverIsland HR Leadership Team, December 2017

RiverIsland HR Leadership Team, December 2017


Agile HR all the way

It’s this innovation and true redesign of HR, which Agile offers our profession, that makes me such an advocate. However, it’s important to understand that this implies an all or nothing approach to adopting Agile in HR.

Firstly, it’s mindset before method, and truly embracing what I term ‘Agile for HR’. For the teams I work with this often means unlearning old working habits and appreciating that only by experiencing and doing Agile, can you then explore how, why and what you need to redesign or co-create to enable an Agile organisation.  Personally, I find this the hard stuff, because it asks HR professionals to step outside their comfort zone and truly challenge their thinking.

Secondly, it’s proactively redesigning HR to support Agile and what I term ‘HR for Agile’. As suggested before, this is the fun stuff, where HR co-creates awesome, user friendly, human-centric workplace practices and people development solutions. These add to business value, rather than detract and can address all our usual topic areas like talent acquisition, learning and development, performance, engagement and reward.

Thirdly, and closely linked to the above, it’s coaching and steering senior leaders and teams through Agile organisational transformation. Again, this starts with evolving a mindset, and follows with building the necessary skills and networks to scale Agile ways of working and ensure the customer drives business value.

Lastly, it’s being an active participant in the digitalisation and response to the market that your business is going through. It’s about understanding how Agile helps drive this process, enabling feedback loops across the organisation to test, learn and adapt. Personally, I think it’s also being the voice of the people in this environment and taking care of the human as the workplace becomes increasingly automated and driven by technology.


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