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Why Agile HR and Why Now?

Laptop, mug, notepad and phone on desk

In a disruptive world, all eyes are on HR to help organizations rapidly respond. Not only does HR work to keep people safe and focus on wellbeing, it also plays a critical role in helping business navigate complexity and adapt at speed to changing customer and market needs.

Unfortunately, existing HR and people practices are proving to be increasingly out of touch as the world of work transforms.

Agile offers HR a way to evolve our mindset to innovate, deliver value and help build the resilient and innovative organizations demanded by our modern disrupted world.

Originating in IT software development, Agile mindset and methods of working are now influencing all types of industries and sectors, as business strives to be more responsive, customer-centric and digitalized.

A (Very) Brief History of Agile

Agile began in software development over 20 years ago to manage risk and development in the context of uncertainty.

Customer choice was exploding in line with the rise of the internet, and consumer preferences quickly evolved. It was becoming too risky to plan everything upfront, ‘waterfall’ style with customers only exposed to finished products at the end of the traditional project sequence of budget, plan, design, test and implement. This approach was too slow and unable to respond quickly enough.

In Agile, the vision is set, and a list compiled of everything that might be needed to deliver the project - known as a backlog of work.

This backlog is ruthlessly prioritized to identify the most important things to work on (in short, timeboxed periods of generally 1-2 weeks, never longer than a month) to produce something of value for the customer to evaluate.

The data and insights based on feedback and how the customer engages with this prototype drives the next iteration of work.

If it’s no good, you quickly learn why and use the insights of failure to inform the next increment of work. The outcome is not only a project or product designed and delivered at a faster rate, but a result that is validated and shaped directly by your customer at every stage.

This is an essential way to manage risk in our complex, rapidly changing world.

Agile in HR

By drawing on the customer-centricity of Agile it places employees at the heart of what HR does, aiming to deliver value to our customer incrementally, slice by slice, validating as we go through a test and learn approach.

HR’s work becomes human-centric, building user-friendly solutions, driven by the needs and feedback of the business. We co-create solutions directly with our people and validating each stage of development with their feedback and experience of work.

Embracing Agile HR means thinking more like a scientist, using experimentation and prototyping to continuously test what works and what doesn’t. The outcome is a data-driven and evidence-based method of working that clearly demonstrates why and how an organizational change should be made or a new people process introduced.

HR teams ruthlessly prioritize to focus on the most critical problems faced by their people and organization at the time. Most HR strategies contain big complex topics, such as designing a personalized employee experience for a diverse workforce or developing future leaders for roles that don’t even exist yet.

These complex goals are worthy aims but the value delivered at each point is often left undefined or linked directly to big bang, one-size-fits-all releases, such as a new employee benefits package or leadership development program.

A challenging scenario to consider is if HR needed to stop 50% of work immediately. Could you quickly pinpoint which initiatives should be kept and which should be removed, based on their value and direct impact on the end-customer?

As a remedy, Agile helps HR break down big, complex problems into achievable slices of value, which helps to prioritize work based on value, and to articulate what’s being delivered to the organization and why.

Embracing Agile HR makes us ask how we help our people succeed in their work and help create value for the end-customer.

Why Embrace Agile?

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, working world.

Increasingly, work is achieved through networks of collaboration rather than a strict hierarchy.

As technology and digitalization transform the workplace, knowledge has become less tangible and multi-sourced and organizational boundaries more fluid. Talent is multi-generational, diverse and continuously demands open dialogue, individualized feedback, and a good values-fit.

Jobs have fragmented, and even whole careers have disappeared (and new ones appeared) as industries quickly evolve. Digitalization creates a personalized and enriched customer journey within the marketplace (e.g. Netflix, Amazon), so employees now demand the same personalized experience at work, full of moments that matter for people and brand.

In this new working paradigm, the traditional career ladder of job status and pay increases no longer reflects the realities of the workplace. An individual contributor or high performing team can impact the business bottom line more than the whole management team.

With this evolution of the workplace comes increasing demands for more dynamic, meaningful ways to reward and recognize people’s contribution, and frameworks that move beyond the traditional system of performance ratings and individual bonuses.

For example, performance management systems are often introduced as full end-to-end solutions in one go across whole organizations. This top-down, often hierarchical approach to process design means these systems are perceived as tick-box exercises by the users and just feel like yet another add-on to their everyday work.

If a system isn’t adding the intended value, it can take years for HR teams to get buy-in and acceptance from employees and managers. This has left a legacy of HR as a compliance function, rather than enablers of great performance and people’s careers.

Agile HR is a New Operating Model

Agile HR promises a whole new operating model for HR and the end of our traditional siloed ways of working.

The handovers and deferred decisions, common in traditional project management methods or product design, slow us down. Agile HR brings different HR specialisms and topic owners together in the form of multi-skilled and multi-functional teams, making quick decisions in response to evolving customer needs.

Now, HR roles like reward, recruitment, L&D, and talent collaborate as a collective tackling business problems in a holistic way, rather than through project groups comprising single point topic owners. Work is pulled (off a backlog) by the team themselves, based on the definition of value and people’s capability, instead of being pushed down onto people as a result of predetermined roles or as dictated by a centre of expertise.

Agile HR also represents a new method of partnering and collaborating with the business. To validate the user experience of what is being delivered, different business roles and skills are invited into the Agile HR team to co-design the solution, rather than in isolation.

Similar to how brands are expressing the customer journey and mapping out end-to-end value chains for their products or services within the business, Agile HR looks at how to deliver a coordinated and interlinked service based on the employee journey.

For example, how do we link up with other teams like IT, finance and communications to create a seamless experience for our people that not only enriches the experience of work but also helps people get the work done?

This trend has led to many HR teams beginning to use the title of People Experience as opposed to HR, with some social media posts now even expressing the term as #PX, as a nod to its user experience (#UX) roots.

Some Agile HR teams are now viewing People Experience as their overall product, linking it to the goal of achieving competitive advantage through the culture and employee brand of the organization. They continuously improve this for their internal customers by releasing features and updates across the whole people strategy, from onboarding and talent development through to topics like rewards, employee benefits and corporate social responsibility.

Find Your own Flavour of Agile HR

In summary, Agile HR is about building a great place to work, where awesome people want to be. It aims to be a shared value across the organization between the business, the customer and its employees.

This virtuous cycle attracts amazing talent who are inspired by the opportunity to see the impact of their work on the customer, resulting in a business that benefits from highly motivated people constantly improving their performance and results. All of which leads to a delighted customer who craves to be part of the experience their product creates.

Agile HR, therefore, not only helps HR truly transform their own results, but it helps enable high performing teams and hugely successful businesses. It equips us with the capability to help our organisations transform and meet the challenges of a volatile, uncertain and complex business world. It also holds the potential to revolutionize our profession and guide us in how to co-create the future of work.

We’ve learnt that the starting point is mindset and HR’s ability to define and articulate the value they deliver to their people. By embracing a test and learn approach, and incrementally develop solutions in partnership with our people, we can enrich their employee experience.

And remember…be Agile in your own approach when learning how to do Agile HR. Start small. Treat it as an experiment. In which you might fail at times but will most definitely learn from and allow the energy Agile ignites to move you forward.