HR Needs To Go Agile - Here's Why

It’s been several years now since I first discovered the power of Agile and the potential this mindset has for innovating the Human Resources (HR) profession. In this time, I've shared the Agile HR journey with a wide variety of HR teams, ranging from traditional banks and multinational corporates to cutting edge tech innovators. Drawing on this experience, here's why I think HR needs to go Agile. Agile itself, there’s no blueprint for embracing Agile HR - the only way to learn is to begin

It's clear from these case studies that, like Agile itself, there’s no blueprint for embracing Agile HR - the only way to learn is to begin. Recently, I worked with a fantastic team at Sky Betting and Gaming. At the outset, this was a group of HR business partners who only knew Agile as something ‘their tech teams did’. Within a couple of weeks of self-organising and prioritising their work through the lens of their people, not only was their sense of purpose and identity stronger but leaders from the wider business now asked how they could help and work with the team, rather than viewing HR as a process foisted upon them.

These experiences demonstrate that depending on your organisation type, its industry and size, plus how far along you are on the Agile journey, you begin to blend your own distinct flavour of Agile HR. By remaining true to a core set of values and beliefs, Agile HR lets you pivot and flex to build an approach that best fits your culture, brand and, most importantly, your people.

Why does HR need to go Agile?

I haven’t encountered an HR team yet that isn’t struggling to get things done as they strive to create great places to work in an environment of rapid change, digitalisation and uncertainty. Our to-do lists seem never ending.


One reason is that much of modern HR stems from the legacy of Taylorist management theory. A top-down, hierarchical approach to managing people, who are generally viewed as a costly resource, rather than the complex, emotive human beings that they are. As Linda Holbeche explores in her book, Influencing Organizational Effectiveness: A Critical Take on the HR Contribution, this historical influence has led to HR have something of a ‘wolf in sheep's clothing’ element to it. Where process-heavy, compliance-driven, static systems are often shaped to manage the lowest performer rather than enable top people to flourish.

Of course, some of our HR processes were introduced with good intentions, like ensuring career development discussions sat within an annual performance review. However, as suggested in ‘A performance review revolution’, because many of these intentions were implemented as one-size-fits-all commands and linked to managerial targets, they quickly became a form to fill in rather than a great conversation to be had.

Now, as the world of work metamorphoses, these static systems and processes are starting to jar with the complex, textured challenges faced in our organisations today. Problems that can no longer be solved through traditional cause and effect, big bang, waterfall-style HR.

The business now demands an intimate customer relationship. Knowledge is becoming less tangible and organisational boundaries more fluid. Increasingly, we get work done through networks of collaboration rather than organisational hierarchy. Talent is multi-generational, diverse, perhaps even transient, and continuously demands open dialogue, individualised feedback, and a good values-fit.

“We need tools, HR practices, performance management practices, and reward systems that support this new organizational structure, and it has to be much, much more agile.” Josh Bersin, Podcast

What Agile HR provides is a method to co-create the answers directly with our people and leaders, by applying proven techniques to break these complex problems down into bite-size and achievable chunks, and prioritise our efforts on what delivers the most value right now to our employees.

What is Agile HR?

Agile HR transforms the fundamental principles of HR into People Operations leading agile, digital and networked organisations. The aim is to build shared value within organisations between the customer, business and people by embracing:

  • A mindset that applies the Agile values, generally associated with 'tech', to HR
  • A deliberate move away from HR ‘best practice’ and blueprinting one-size-fits-all solutions
  • User experimentation to validate what works and what doesn’t
  • Agile work practices, like Scrum and Kanban, to get things done in teams rather than silos
  • Design principles to develop human-centric people practices and solutions
  • Evidence-based decision making that uses data and insight to drive each iteration

Its core values are driven by Agile and advocate:

  • Humans and connections before processes and tools
  • Transparency before secrecy
  • Self-organising teams before hierarchy
  • And the goal to intrinsically inspire, rather than extrinsically reward, retain and control 

You can't experiment with people, can you?

This is the biggest push back I get when exploring Agile HR with new hopefuls.

‘It’s people not software’ I hear, and don’t worry, I understand the initial fear. Thinking like a scientist can be the biggest mindset shift when it comes to embracing Agile HR. But it’s also missing the point.

Surprisingly, by being transparent and inviting your people to co-create and experiment, what happens is that Agile is quickly appreciated as a structured, safe method of working as opposed to inflicting a bunch of random experiments on your organisation because HR can’t make up its mind!

Agile is a disciplined methodology that systematically reduces risk by breaking down complex issues into short cycles of work. It continually validates the decision-making process through immediate feedback and data.

It’s also not about turning your existing HR team or operations upside down, but instead getting stuff done by asking what’s the most important thing to work on now, and why? How do I get value to my customer (my people and leaders) now? How do I find out immediately if this works so I can find solutions to problems at a rapid pace?

Building Your Distinct Flavour of Agile HR

How you put this into action then shapes your distinct flavour of Agile HR.

Excitingly, what’s consistent across all examples are the results. People feel like their HR teams truly care, business leaders ask how they can collaborate and organisations rapidly respond to their market by fundamentally changing the game.

In my experience this can be anything from an L&D team using Scrum to build an on-demand, responsive learning culture through sprints, to a team of normally siloed HR specialists coming together, hackathon-style to accelerate organisational transformation and the reskilling of their workforce.

For another team, Agile HR may equate to running a problem backlog and prioritising work based on the biggest problem faced by the organisation (anything from diversity to being more innovative), crossed checked with data, capacity and their external market. Each problem is tackled using a cross functional Agile team, and progress is demonstrated through evidence that the problem is being solved.


For the team at Sky Betting and Gaming, it meant a group of former HR business partners now working as a unified People Operations scrum team. Together they transparently mapped out their people strategy and then individually worked within the different business areas (or tribes and squads) to evolve and iterate each initiative based on what their specific customers needed.

Excitingly, what’s consistent across all examples are the results. People feel like their HR teams truly care, business leaders ask how they can collaborate and organisations rapidly respond to their market by fundamentally changing the game.

Want to learn more about Agile HR? 

Natal Dank and Riina Hellström, from PeopleGeeks, are launching a global online and face to face training and certification in Agile HR for HR professionals and leaders in October 2017.

Heard about the Agile HR Meetup?

Come along one night soon to explore how Agile HR can work for you further.


Special thanks to my friend Joanne Edwards and her fab People Ops team at Sky Betting and Gaming, and wonderful collaborator Fabiola Eyholzer, from JLS-Just Leading Solutions.

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