Get Started with Agile HR

What’s Agile HR? Actually, what’s Agile?

Before getting into the context of HR, Culture & Change, it’s important to say a bit about Agile. Agile started in tech as a way to find answers to complex problems and is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

At the time, project teams were using a Waterfall methodology, creating produces that weren’t to be released for three months, six months or more and this was often simply too late. Projects needed a way to deliver functionality early and often to be certain they were developing features that were needed and that delivered value to the customer.

That’s the essence of Agile. It’s recognising that in complex environments, where everything’s rapidly changing, you need to run projects or design products in a different way, in short cycles. Agile development is a better way to mitigate risk because you’re getting something valuable to the customer quickly and then using the feedback from that customer to decide whether you are on the right track or need to pivot and go in a different direction.

Ok So That’s Agile, What’s Agile HR?

It’s easy to see why this can work for software development and products but why should HR embrace Agile, what are the benefits?

HR still mainly works in this traditional, Waterfall way developing and delivering projects in a big-bang, one-size-fits-all way. A lot of teams work on a product (a policy or piece of tech, for example) for months, based on best practice, to then roll it out across the whole organisation in one go. It’s not until it’s out there and people are using it that they start to get real feedback. For example, maybe the product doesn’t support the way people work, it’s missing functionality or just simply doesn’t solve the problem it was intended to.

Unfortunately, once you’ve delivered the project big-bang style, you can only tweak things and try to get people to use it in a better way.

Adopting an Agile mindset can help HR avoid these issues. It can help you discover and understand the problem you’re really trying to solve, the value you need to deliver and test and prototype solutions before you do a full release. For HR, Agile is about delivering value to the customer, who sits at the heart of what you do, through incremental development. It’s understanding how you can design and deliver things in slices of value and this is a very new way of working for HR.

Agile also means an end to working in silos. Handovers waste time and cause valuable information to be lost. To respond more quickly to situations and to understand what the customer needs, put the skills you need into multi-functional, multi-skilled, T-shaped teams. You can solve big problems for the business by having a multi-skilled team that responds and reacts directly to the customer whoever that internal customer is at that time. It’s also important to understand the value flow in a modern organisation, that if you solve a problem for an employee the value flows through the organisation to the end-customer and business bottom line.

Interestingly, HR faces various problems like wanting to modernise, wanting to move away from command and control processes, to prioritise better, to articulate our value and be seen as a value-adding function. Agile can help HR with all of these.

However, it’s important to remember that Agile it’s not the answer itself but instead provides a mindset and collection of tools and techniques we can use to find the answers. See Agile as a mindset first and foremost and then find what works for you.

How Do You Get Started with Agile HR?

Over the years Natal has worked with many HR teams to help them become more Agile. The starting point is, in a sense, the same and different for every organisation and team – be very mindful of your context. For example, what is your starting situation? Do you work in a very traditional way at the moment or in more of a start-up situation? Like Agile itself there’s no blueprint for finding your own flavour of Agile HR.

The next point is to see the adoption of Agile in HR as an experiment itself. So, start with the hypothesis that you would like to solve some problems, you have identified the problems want to solve and you’re going to try a new way of working in order to achieve that aim. You’re going to give it three months, for example, and you’re going to identify some metrics that will show if you really are working in a better way at the end of this experiment.

It’s got to mean something when you apply these new Agile ways of working, so find a small but juicy, complex, business problem to solve. The problem shouldn’t be too big but it should be something that’s been kicking around the organisation unsolved, for a while and that if a good solution is found will bring recognisable business value.

Another reason to treat this exercise as an experiment takes some of the pressure off by acknowledging that you don’t know everything up front, you don’t have all the answers. You give this new way of working a go and find out what works for you and what doesn’t.

In our experience, anyone who adopts Agile ways of working in HR never goes back. Working Agile generates lots of energy, it’s more fun, produces better results and means you’re designing things that people want. You get much better results and you get to your goal faster and that’s a big part of Agile.

Something we often encounter that holds HR teams back is this idea that deliverables to customer groups have to be complete and perfect. There is a strong tendency to keep working on a product or policy longer and longer before you release it. The approach of testing and prototyping can therefore be quite scary for HR because you’re showcasing things (Minimum Viable Products) that aren’t finished and polished. But what does perfect mean? Instead of thinking of perfect as something that is glossy and complete, consider it to be something that can people use and get value from. This is a very different mindset for HR.

Practical Tip: “Agile Isn’t the Answer If You Don’t Know What Problem Is” *

If you’re going to embrace Agile, you need to know the problem you’re trying to solve. This applies to HR teams or whole organisations. There’s no use just going “Agile” because that’s the latest trend. You need to know why and the problem you’re trying to solve. If you know that, you then know where to start and you’ll have a much better chance of actually tracking the improvement over time. Did we solve that problem and are we working in a better way?

Also, just like Agile itself, there’s no blueprint for how to do Agile HR. You need to use that experimental mindset to test and learn in order to find your own flavour pulling on a range of different tools and techniques including Scrum, Kanban, design thinking, experience mapping and various prioritisation techniques.

So see it as a journey, exploring together towards finding your own approach and what works for you, your organisation and your brand and culture. Most of all, have fun as you embark on your Agile HR adventure.

* Tracey Waters, Agile Coach and former Director of People Experience at Sky