Maurice Conti argued all the way back in 2017 that the world of work is going to change more in the next 20 years than in the past 2,000. 5 years in, his prediction is bearing out. The future of work is fast on its way and HR can’t simply be passive bystanders in these processes, we have to adapt and build the future of work for ourselves.
In fact, long before anyone had heard of Covid, HR was already feeling intense pressure to change everything from performance management to recruiting. The pandemic largely accelerated that existing need for change.
It’s no wonder HR professionals are looking for new ways to improve how they work, with many following their colleagues in sales, marketing, procurement, and more by turning to Agile. Every aspect of business now has to improve its adaptability, responsiveness, and innovation. HR is no different.
But what exactly does Agile look like in an HR context, and what should HR professionals do to get ahead of these trends?
What Is Agile HR?
Agile HR describes a modern approach that enables organizations to be more responsive and innovative in the face of constant change. It often includes practices labeled Future of Work, HR 4.0, or Disruptive HR as well as concepts like Lean, Systems Thinking, and Design Thinking.
The Agile HR Manifesto also takes inspiration from the original Agile Manifesto in its focus on collaboration, transparency, adding value, and prioritizing sustainability. But on a deeper level, Agile HR involves a shift in mindset to embrace the new world of work.
How Agile HR Relates to Business Agility
In order for HR to fit into broader business agility, human resources team members need to become systems thinkers, leveraging organizational success through people.
HR must reflect the organizations it serves. In the past, this meant building career models around the hierarchical structures those organizations were built on.
However, applications of business agility break down and flatten those traditional structures, which translates to HR’s need to reflect those changes in their operations and what they are able to support. Organizations that aim to achieve business agility without reforming how they approach HR risk failing to provide the talent enablement and growth paths, etc. that those Agile practitioners need to thrive.
Bringing HR into the Agile fold requires broader collaboration between individuals and teams across functions. By getting more involved in cross-functional teams that include other functions, HR can both get a better understanding of the challenges people are facing across the organization and be better placed to provide value outside of their silo.
In practice, we are approaching this by training HR professionals to speak the language of agility. Then there are two aspects they need to be trained in: Agile for HR and HR for Agile. We instruct everyone on the values and principles of Agile from an HR perspective with a focus on how to translate them into the specific solutions they are creating.
The idea is to ensure the solutions they come up with actually serve the broader business agility goals of the organization.
How to Implement Agile HR
While many organizations choose to implement Agile in HR via smaller pilot teams, on the project, or initiative level, we encourage people to conduct Agile HR transformations at scale.
That said, there are four main phases in the process of achieving full-fledged HR agility.
Phase 1: Discover the new world of work and understand its language
First, HR professionals need to understand Agile ways of working and its terminology. For example, consider the term potential. Traditionally, potential refers to a candidate’s or an employee’s potential to follow a predefined career trajectory. However, in this new world of work, it is about the potential to thrive in an uncertain, fast-changing, Agile environment. Those are two very different definitions.
Without a common language and shared understanding, Agile teams and HR professionals simply can’t communicate or collaborate effectively.
This learning journey also involves Agile leaders (consultants, or whoever is leading Agile transformation in your organization) working with HR to understand their challenges, perspective, and language. You can’t simply implement Agile in HR the same way you would in another function like marketing, so this back and forth is critical in the customization of a tailored path towards agility for this function.
Phase 2: Evaluate
The next step is to take all of that mutual understanding and use it to evaluate what HR needs to accomplish and how this can be done through an Agile lens.
I like to use the Comparative HR Agility Assessment to get a holistic view of the potential of HR agility around culture, talent, engagement, and flow, as well as the organizational and HR foundation.
Phase 3: Launch
At this point, it’s time to dive into the Agile HR transformation itself. We tend to approach this by starting with exploration sessions to determine the why behind the transformation and how to best approach it.
Then launch the core transformation team over the course of a series of workshops aimed at laying the foundations for a successful Agile HR transformation in an engaging and impactful way. This crucial time combines training and team building for the new Agile HR team while also geared towards delivering their first results using this new way of working.
Phase 4: Sustaining and Improving
Once your Agile HR transformation is on the way, you’re not done! Continuous improvement is a core part of Agile and Agile HR is no exception to this vital Agile value. You’ll want to constantly look for ways to hone your processes, finding new ways to adapt and improve.
Common Agile HR Challenges
While there are many ways to approach Agile HR transformations, we’ve found some common challenges that everyone considering such a transformation needs to be aware of before they jump in.
Underestimating the complexity of HR
Don’t think that implementing Agile in HR simply means switching HR teams over to Scrum. Considering all the ways HR interacts with and drives a complex organization, it’s important to approach a transformation without any illusions about the complexity. This is also why there’s no one-size-fits-all model or approach to an Agile HR transformation.
Forgetting Who the “Customer” Is
For Agile HR, the ultimate customer is not senior leadership or the actual customers of the organization: it’s the employees. An Agile HR transformation needs to be anchored in the culture and identity of the organization, beginning with the employees themselves.
Working with Non-Agile Departments
While having Agile HR teams work with many different departments has its benefits, it can also be frustrating because many of those departments may not be Agile themselves. AgileSherpas’ latest State of Agile Marketing Report shows how Agile marketers vastly prefer to work with other Agile teams, and the same goes for Agile HR.
Pushing Changes Outside of Traditional Cycles
Then there’s the reality that everything in HR happens in cycles. Traditionally, you might acquire something like a new performance management system once every 10-15 years.
But with the current shift towards Agile, HR must push changes through at a much higher rate. And there is no question that we need to align HR to agile ways of working. We are not getting the best ROI on our Agile transformation if we don't.
The challenge is that the HR landscape is complex and highly interconnected. Changing one part of the system will immediately impact other parts. For example, removing hierarchical structures not only impacts grading systems and title structures but also career paths and compensation systems.
So, switching to HR processes and tools that enable agility across the organization is like doing an open-heart surgery while the patient is wide awake. It takes patience and careful thought. In many cases, we must put the different puzzle pieces in place before dismantling established practices.
Focusing on Mindset over Frameworks
HR professionals occasionally focus too much on the mindset of Agile. They may think they don’t need to do Scrum, Kanban, etc. but rather just apply an Agile mindset to whatever they’re doing. The problem arises from the fact that we’re generally not aware of all our underlying beliefs and assumptions, and how they impact how we think and approach problems. Therefore, focusing only on an Agile mindset will inhibit a successful execution.
A change in mindset and behavior requires a change in environment as well. We need the right supporting systems, processes, and tools in place to enable agility.
The Future of Agile HR
One thing is clear: the future of HR is Agile and the enabler of Agile is HR. Businesses need agility and if we don’t address the people side of that need we’re never going to achieve that ultimate business agility. HR is in a position to help organizations scale the changes required for Agile success through people.