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Agile working: what HR teams can learn from the software industry

14th Mar 2019
istock/Lise Gagne
istock/Lise Gagne

Agile  has become a bit of a buzzword recently, but what’s the implication of agile practices for non-software teams, like those in HR?

Agile ways of working have revolutionised the software industry. Indeed, software companies represent the six largest companies in the world by market capitalisation. It’s not surprising, therefore, that others would take interest in their operating model.

Despite this, the growth of software companies relates to more than the agile model so how can we separate the myth from the reality when it comes to agile ways of working?

Why has the agile trend happened?

Individuals, teams and organisations are seeking new ways of working. It’s a cliché (albeit true) to say that all industries are facing disruption and there’s a growing need to manage uncertainty and complexity.

Many companies are responding to globalisation and the need for digital transformation and agile practices have developed as a direct result of this need.

We are seeing teams and organisations at different stages on the agile transformational journey.

Some technology companies and software teams have been practicing and learning the lessons of agile working for decades whilst other large, hierarchical organisations are just starting to make the shift to stay competitive.

Likewise, many executive teams and corporate functions are also often just starting out on the journey.

What is agile?

The original use of ‘agile’ was to describe a mindset for software development. The principles are summarised in the agile manifesto.

From that point, however, agile has also developed into an organisational model.

In his book, The Age of Agile, Stephen Denning describes three laws of the agile organisation.

The first is that small teams are the most effective unit for much work.

“The law of the small it is that big and difficult problems should be disaggregated into small batches and performed by small cross functional teams working iteratively in short cycles and in a state of flow, with fast feedback from customers and end users,” he noted.

In a world of complex and rapid change, a six-month project Excel spreadsheet or Gantt chart can become out of date.

Small-networked teams test, learn and adapt. Agile teams usually meet daily, for short stand up meetings and reflect on how the work with a retrospective at the end of each sprint.

They communicate transparently about what they’re working on and share successes and failures.

The second is a ruthless prioritisation on the customer that builds on the insight from Peter Drucker, the management theorist.

“There is only one valid definition of business purpose - to create a customer,” he said.

When you run a project or design a product you must validate that it’s the right approach with your customer.

The third is the recognition that teams need to work in an effective network. There’s a growing focus on the importance of a ‘team of teams’.

Organisations must create an environment where teams are working towards a shared purpose, but each team has the freedom to respond to situations they see on the ground.

Growing interest from other teams

In the software industry agile teams self-organise - they have more autonomy to manage their own agenda. They work in ‘sprints’ or short blocks of activity and teams then iterate based on testing and feedback.

This results in product development happening faster and output better meets the requirements of users as you've had a chance to course-correct.

This is different to the ‘waterfall’ way of implementing a project or designing a product.

In a world of complex and rapid change, a six-month project Excel spreadsheet or Gantt chart can become out of date.

The organisation design, performance reviews, job roles, and career paths need to support an agile culture.

Other departments are now looking to follow in their footsteps. There are two drivers for this.

Firstly, teams in other areas, like HR, are keen to see if they can improve their effectiveness.

Secondly, there's interest in seeing if a more coherent organisational model is achievable. Is there a more holistic approach to applying agile practices?

What does agile mean for teams like HR?

HR teams can use agile thinking in both tactical and strategic approaches.

For example, you can start to use agile frameworks like Scrum to run an HR or organisational change project.

Agile prioritisation techniques could also be used to focus on customer need, since prioritising the most valuable things for a customer is key to agile working.

Agile helps an organisation focus on purpose, values and behaviours not only on KPIs.

It's a great discipline for HR to develop. Listen to feedback, observe how customers engage with your product and then use this data and insight to drive your next iteration of work.

The second area is more profound. How can HR become an enabler for an agile organisation?

This means evolving practices in reward, performance, talent, learning and recruitment.

Support a culture of collaborative networks, continuous improvement and incremental development.

The organisation design, performance reviews, job roles, and career paths need to support an agile culture.

Benefits of agile (but it’s not a panacea for all problems)

Agile working can help you design and deliver at a faster rate and your customer validates the outcome at every stage.

Becoming agile also means having the ability to pivot and change direction at any time needed, allowing teams to be more responsive to the environment and market.

This type of collaboration has many benefits for employees too. It generates a positive energy and it can end silos within teams and organisations.

Agile helps an organisation focus on purpose, values and behaviours not only on KPIs.

If you are new to agile working, a good place to start is to create a safe space to experiment.

Teams become aware of their environment, make informed decisions and take more responsibility. This can help make the organisation a great place to work.

At the moment there’s a danger of a backlash against agile practices. It’s sometimes seen as an over simplistic panacea for all problems.

It’s important to recognise that agile is useful for dealing with chaos and ambiguity.

The biggest issue is dealing with ‘unknown unknowns’ (a phrase made famous by Donald Rumsfeld).

Some environmental conditions are not so volatile, however. It's possible to plan and not making any mistakes is important. Payroll, for example, may be best managed through a non-agile approach.

Applying agile working techniques

Agile practices have had a profound impact on the way we work and this is set to continue with most companies now grappling with how to apply agile methods.

Despite this, some seem to be missing the point. Being agile is not about working from home on a Friday! Above all, embracing agile is about your mindset, not a set of tools.

The potential to transform the organisation with agile working is significant and HR must take a key role to make this work.

It requires thought to understand where and how to apply agile principles.

Recognising when you need to manage volatile situations and understanding where it’s necessary to experiment is essential.

Teams still need to understand the situations where long term planning still makes more sense and adapt their approach.

If you are new to agile working, a good place to start is to create a safe space to experiment.

Test out these new ways of working. You’ll make some mistakes but you’ll understand further the potential. Then reflect on what you’ve learned.

Considering a change to your organisational structure? Read How to lead people through transitions for more tips. 

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