Agile HR: Bringing Humanity into Human Resources

Allison Flaten is an HR practitioner (and one of our favorite people) with over a decade of experience in working with and leading HR departments in variety of industries, five of which she has spent in an Agile organization. She walks us through the differences between traditional HR departments where the focus tends to be on risk mitigation, compliance, and policy-driven communication, and Agile HR that focuses on how to make the organization the best place for its employees.

Flaten’s advice includes:

  • Ensure HR can adapt and shift with the needs of the business, as well as with the employees.
  • Share your HR backlog
  • Get feedback from employees and leadership to get buy-in before releasing policies
  • Provide fast performance feedback which can result in immediate adjustment, rather than waiting for an annual performance review

Howard Sublett hosts.

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Howard Sublett: Thank you for joining me for another episode of Agile Amped. I’m your host, Howard Sublett. On today’s show we are going to talk about real world Agile HR, and my guest for this episode is the one and only Allison Flaten. Allison is a graduate of the University of Washington School of Business, and a past board member of The Puget Sound Chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management. She has over a decade of working with, and leading HR departments in a variety of industries. And almost five years responsible for an HR department entirely focused on Agile. Her mission is to make a difference one interaction at a time. Allison, thank you so much for joining me today.

Allison Flaten: Hi Howard, thank you so much for having me. You made me sound really amazing.

Howard Sublett: You know, well you are amazing. I don’t know if you know that, but you are amazing.

Allison Flaten: Oh, thank you.

Howard Sublett: And, thank you for taking the time for this one interaction at a time that we’re going to share today. So, I want to talk a little bit about Agile HR, and I mean, if we can even break the word Agile out of it. It’s about making a human HR department, and having an awesome HR department, which I think you’ve done a really good job at. So, can you tell me a little bit about what an Agile HR department means to you, maybe versus a traditional one from your history?

Allison Flaten: Yeah, absolutely. So like you said, I did work in traditional HR departments. And, while fabulous experiences, learned a ton, and I thought it was the best at the time, right? But then coming into an Agile environment, I really understood kind of what bringing humanity to the workplace really means, and that certainly is in the Agile spirit of really providing a real experience for employees, right? For me, my main focus, like you said, is making a difference one interaction at a time. And it’s not always that easy in a traditional HR department.

A lot of times you can feel a little bit detached from the employees, because in a traditional HR department, a lot of times the focus can be on risk mitigation, or focus on compliance, or sometimes you’re just bogged down, and really trying to get policy driven information out the door, or focusing on administration, and not really kind of lifting your head above the clouds and really looking and seeing what makes this organization special, right? And that’s its employees. So I think that’s where the shift really kind of comes into play when you’re looking at a traditional organization, versus an Agile HR department, is really shifting your focus to how can we make this the best place for our employees? And then that in turn actually is the most gratifying for the HR department.

Howard Sublett: Yeah, you found a knack, by the way, of creating an HR department that no employee fears. I don’t know if you know that. Because, you’re right. Most HR departments seem to have this, it’s about risk mitigation, compliance, forms, all of those things. And yes, there are things, compulsory things by state and federal government that all employers have to comply with.

Allison Flaten: Of course.

Howard Sublett: But, you’ve really added a very human side to an HR department, to where people actually want to come see the HR department. I think that’s unique.

Allison Flaten: Yeah, no. And really, a part of that too is the team that you create, right? I look at who I work with, and who I want to work with, who I have a great time with. And that’s how I hire. So when I’m hiring for my department, I really look for the right culture fit, individuals who also provide kind of that nurturing spirit, people who like to have a good time, and who are also, you know, while good at their job. But, I certainly look for individuals who bring that kind of energy, and who really, truly want to provide an excellent customer service experience.

You can educate anybody on how compliance should work, and how administration works, and how systems work. You can absolutely, that’s the easy part. But the more difficult part is finding people who can provide that great experience for employees, and so, when I’m hiring for my team, absolutely, that’s the number one thing. I usually focus on questions that are totally out of the norm in terms of, how do I get to know this person better, right? And, are they going to be a good fit for my team, as well as for the organization, right? And I think that makes a huge difference in shifting the way that the HR organization supports the ecosystem as a whole.

Howard Sublett: So, I know you do that, ’cause I’ve met some of your team. So, why is it that this movement to Agile’s important now? We didn’t have this many, many years ago, and recently it seems like more and more companies seem to be looking at their HR departments to make some changes. Can you get a sense of why it’s becoming important?

Allison Flaten: Absolutely. Well one, I mean in order to attract and retain people, we need to … And when I say we, I say HR, really needs to help support the Agile environment. A lot of organizations are shifting to Agile in multiple different departments, not just in the IT world anymore, we’re looking at operations teams, and marketing departments who are shifting to support the Agile kind of movement. And so, HR, I would say I’m supporting, needs to get onboard too. We need to ensure we can adapt and shift with the needs of the business, as well as with the employees. It’s certainly important to really kind of understand where the organization is going, so that means you’re not just, again, you’re kind of pulling your head above the clouds to look at the different areas of the business, instead of just solely focusing on what the HR needs are. And, I just see a rapid movement and change towards the need to create efficiencies, and co-collaborate, and really start looking at how HR can support both employees and the organization that are moving into this Agile sphere.

Howard Sublett: Yeah. The world seems to be moving at such a rapid pace, and clients … Not clients, but companies, the things that they build, and their customers change on a rapid basis. I can picture way back at maybe … I can’t picture it, but I can imagine Ford Motor Company in its early days, building the Model T or the Model A. The HR department probably was pretty rigid, because things didn’t change over a long period of time. So, rigidity of HR policies and compliance’s and things could be pretty fixed on the type of people you’re looking for and why. Now the world is moving at such a freaking rapid pace. It seems like every time you turn around, there’s something new, there’s something else coming out. And companies need to be able to adapt to that, and it matters on who you hire, and how you retain them. So, I see Agile in HR helping to really step into that space, to help support the organization’s movement.

Allison Flaten: Yeah, it’s really having the flexibility too, right? I look at say, how traditionally I’d worked in the past, and I was focused on a long term project. And then, all of a sudden there was a change in business need, and I wasn’t able to adapt as quickly, or my team wasn’t able to adapt as quickly. Also, things like create, or providing visibility into your backlog. That was something completely new when I entered into the Agile space. My, I mean in the past, it always seemed to bother me when people would say, “You know, I know HR does stuff but I don’t know what you do.” Okay, well something very, very simple to remedy that is, to share your backlog.
You know, there’s always things, obviously of course in HR, there’s sensitivity to the individual, and the organization. So of course you don’t provide visibility into some of those things, but there’s a lot of projects, there’s a lot of movement, there’s a lot of activity going on in HR world, that absolutely can be made visible. I think that, that’s something that, I would … It really changed my world. And, it opened up that famous word called, “Collaboration,” right? Now people could provide feedback on certain things, we could co-collaborate on different projects. Where traditionally, I had worked in a bubble, or my team had worked in a bubble on, let’s say a policy, or a guideline.

And, once you move into a more Agile workspace, now you can get feedback from employees. You can get feedback from leadership. “Am I going in the right direction? Are we going in the right direction? Are we making the right decisions?” And so, there’s also then … And, you know, you just keep rolling the ball down the hill, and it’s, people then buy into what’s being rolled out, or what’s being released, because they’ve been able to provide the feedback.

Howard Sublett: I’ve watched that happen before with you, and it’s a wonderful way … Actually, to go back to an earlier topic about risk mitigation, for you to make sure that there is buy in for a thing, and it’s not this massive rollout of one large scale system that’s going to impact everybody on the same day. By the time that it is rolled out, you’ve actually got multiple rounds of feedback, and you’ve got multiple rounds of iterations of change on that particular policy. To where, everybody is aligned on that, at that time. I know you’ve done that on several things in the past. But yeah, it-

Allison Flaten: And hey, we’ve definitely made some mistakes too, right? Where we didn’t always get the feedback we needed. And, you know, the reaction wasn’t necessarily the best. But then again, we adapted to that reaction, and made some adjustments, and I think that’s what makes this environment so great, right? People are providing respectful feedback, they truly want to make it the best place for everybody. And so, intentions are always good. And that’s one thing that was also a big shift, once I came into the Agile world. I had worked in industries where people didn’t provide feedback. They just didn’t either feel comfortable, or they didn’t feel empowered, or they just didn’t think about it because it wasn’t a part of the culture. And so, you just kind of, everybody … Not everybody, but you roll stuff out, and it’s just kind of like, that’s the way it is.

I remember when I first came into an Agile HR department, I was like, “Whoa, people are reading this stuff.” And actually, it made me, at first I was, “I don’t know how to handle this,” just ’cause I wasn’t used to it. But, it made me feel really good, that people were reading the material, they were reading communications, they cared. And, it made me feel like, “Okay, their feedback, and this comment, and this and that, it’s all with good intention. They want to see me succeed, they want to see the department succeed, and they want to see the organization succeed.”

Howard Sublett: … Yeah, that is so well said. Can I ask you a little bit about performance management? Because any time we talk about HR, it’s somebody wants to know about the annual raise cycle, or the annual feedback cycle that’s done in a cloistered room, with somebody that you’ve only met once.

Allison Flaten: Of course.

Howard Sublett: How do you handle that, or how should an Agile HR department handle those kind of things?

Allison Flaten: Well I mean, I think there’s a lot of debate on this topic. And even in an Agile environment, there’s different views on how it should be handled. But certainly, I mean I guess I can use my department as an example, just in terms of how I’ve always provided, handled performance management. So, for me, I truly do believe in the Agile way of thinking in terms of providing continuous feedback. It is so important that the individuals who you’re working with, or … Either directly, or within the organization, understand kind of how they’re doing. And, whether it’s great, whether it’s not so great, people want to know.

And so, performance, traditional performance management, when you get your 12 page writeup once a year, it’s not helpful. You look at it over a one hour period of time, and you think about it, and maybe there’s a compensation adjustment associated, or a bonus associated with it, and then you move on. But that doesn’t help you with your life long learning, or your ability to make adjustments quickly, right? Sometimes it’s a very simple thing. Let’s just use for example, attention to detail. Letting someone know like right off the bat, “Hey, here’s some suggestions for improvement.” Or, “Did you even know this was happening?” People can make adjustments very, very quickly based on just immediate feedback.

And so, when it comes to the traditional performance management process, I certainly think, and I certainly see a shift in how a lot of organizations handle it. I think there’s a long ways to go. But, you know, I just see it as the continuous feedback is the most important approach.

Howard Sublett: And the feedback that you’re seeing in the environment that you’re talking about, is it one directional from manager to employee? Or, is it also a peer based?

Allison Flaten: Well, I mean in Agile environment, it’s definitely, it could be a combination of you do have some feedback from, let’s say a leader. But it’s very important to get that 360 feedback as well, right? At least, I mean I think about myself, and how I want to be the best leader I can be, and I want feedback from my colleagues, and, the individuals who are working on my team, and the individuals who maybe I have any impact on. Because their feedbacks the most meaningful, and it’s going to ensure that I’m making adjustments in the way that I work with them to make a difference.

Howard Sublett: Yeah, you talked about the annual feedback, and how it connects to things like career pathing, or professional development, if you will. In an Agile HR, how is that maybe different than a more traditional view?

Allison Flaten: Yeah. Well, I think a big part of it actually is really helping individuals recognize their strengths, right? So it’s not just saying … Say in a traditional environment, you may say, “Okay, I’m an HR Specialist. My next goal is to be an HR Generalist. Whereas, maybe it’s more of a shift in the Agile environment, it’s more of a shift to focus on where are my strengths, and how can I best approach what’s next for me? Maybe it is, you want to do, you’re an expert in employer relations, that’s your strong point. Maybe it’s shifting and focusing more on that, and looking at within your team to determine who can take on which area based on where their strengths lie.

So it’s not as, I would say linear.

Howard Sublett: Right.

Allison Flaten: You know? It’s not as like, “Here is your career path, and those are your only options.” It’s really looking at it a little bit more broadly, and seeing what’s best for the individual.

Howard Sublett: Yeah. You’ve done a really good job by the way, of not building a narrow road that only has certain stops on the way. But, a fork that goes in many paths in a way. So, an employee has the ability to kind of chart their own course into what they’re passionate about at that time, and HR and professional development helps come along in a way to help them grow to achieve what their goals are within the company. Of course, those things do need to align. I can’t want to be a basket weaver and expect HR to fund me to go to basket weaving university. But as long as it’s within the passions of the field in which we’re working, it’s something that you as an Agile HR person seems to not just say okay to, but cheer them on. You become their advocate for their own growth.

Allison Flaten: Absolutely. And so, I mean just to kind of build on that a little bit more. You certainly … Where I have seen a major, major difference and why I love working in an Agile HR environment, is I am really … The Agile organization truly empowers the individual to make decisions, to think more broadly. And so, that kind of aligns with what you’re saying in terms of providing some flexibility to employees, to really kind of find where is their passion, and how can they make that work both for themselves, and the organization, right? And that’s where great things come from.

Howard Sublett: Mm, yeah. So, when somebody’s going to come into a company recruiting and onboarding have to do this, so kind of your first meeting of somebody is kind of the recruiting aspect of it. And I know that you get involved in that in a way too, and help to make the recruiting process a little bit more agile, and the onboarding as well. Can you speak to us a little bit about that?

Allison Flaten: Of course. I come back to the word, which probably a lot of HR leaders cringe at, is maybe the informality of it. I really, when I’m having a conversation with a potential new hire, I’m very real, and I want them to feel comfortable and be their true self. There’s no point in painting a picture that’s not reality for someone, and vise versa. Because, it’s just not going to work in the long run, right? It’s about finding the right individuals for the culture. And not everybody wants to work in an Agile environment, and that’s totally fine. But I always try and be very transparent in how the organization operates, how the HR team operates, and that truly we will find … Usually I can see it in somebody’s face when they’re like, “What? I don’t know if I can handle that much transparency,” or whatever it is. That’s just an example.

But, it’s really important to paint the picture of, I keep saying, coming back to this word. But, what is realistic. And, so that people will join the team based on really what they want, and that they want to contribute. They want to contribute to this amazing environment as well, right?

Howard Sublett: Yeah, that’s true. And along with the transparency on that, so one of the things that I’ve noticed is that you’re not looking for, quite often, square pegs in square holes. There’s not always a one to one fit. There’s an openness in a way, to find talented people, and then find ways that we can work well with them. Instead of, we have job X, we need new employee X to fit that.

Allison Flaten: Yeah, absolutely. ‘Cause sometimes your X is, meaning the organizations X is not really what you needed.

Howard Sublett: Right.

Allison Flaten: And so, a part of that comes with having a really open mind too, and really finding people who want to contribute, right? It’s having that energy. And again, it may not be, “I have the … My 10 talents align with your 10 job requirements.” That’s not always the case. Actually, it’s usually not the case. But, it’s really to get a good understanding of the individual, and how they’ll fit with the team, and how they align with the organizations core values.

Howard Sublett: How would you say … And, I haven’t asked you this question ahead of time, so … Well, a matter of fact, I haven’t asked you any of these questions. So, this is just kind of, we’re making this up as we go along people. How would you measure success as an HR department?

Allison Flaten: Ooh. I like to, I mean I would say the fact … You, I think you kicked off with this, right? People want to come and visit you, they trust you. So many times I’ve heard where people, they don’t trust their HR department. Or, “Oh, the HR department contacted me.” You know, I certainly don’t think people feel that way when my teams reaching out to them, right? People are over here, they’re having a good time, and they know that our intent is to take care of them. And also, I mean of course you take care of the business as well, but we’re, again, it’s that transparency, it’s the trust, the collaboration that creates that successful HR department.

And again, I think what it comes down to is whether the employees really feel that they can co-collaborate, and work with the HR team, and they want, they feel comfortable with them.

Howard Sublett: Yeah. You hit that one too. Even if I just threw that one out of left field at you. So, I can hear that there’s some company out there that’s listening to this and they go, “Oh my gosh, my HR department is in the stone age. They’re doing things very, very traditional, very, very waterfall, rolling out massive programs.” How can they start, what advice would you have, or what are some obstacles that an HR leader is going to have to overcome to begin this kind of a thing that you’re talking about?

Allison Flaten: Well, I mean the easiest approach is really if your organization already has areas that are adopting Agile, or considering adopting Agile, that may be where you start. Maybe it’s going to a team that’s started adopting some of the Agile values. Maybe it’s even doing some self research. There are some great articles that can kind of give you some good ideas. Take a look at the Agile Manifesto, just so you understand exactly what Agile is about. I mean, I’m not going to lie, I remember when I first started in the Agile world I was like, “What is Agile?” Right?

And it’s simpler than you would think, right? Don’t make it huge. Start making some changes in tiny chunks. Look at some of the tools that Agile teams use. Some examples might just be, utilizing a Kanban Board for an onboarding, maybe you want to improve your onboarding, start there. Look at making tiny iterative changes. Look at meeting with your team for a standup, 15 minutes a day, 10 minutes a day. There’s lots of little things that you can do.

And there’s also, there’s lots of people in the Agile space who want to talk to you, trust me. They’ll have some great ideas as well, so that might be a few places just to start.

Howard Sublett: Okay, the last thing I want you to solve. Tell me about this word resources. When can we get rid of it? Why resources?

Allison Flaten: Yeah, yeah. As you have probably already noticed, both Howard and I have been saying HR. It’s been a long time since I’ve called my department a Human Resources Department. And a lot of organizations have already changed that word, right? They’ve kicked it to the curb, and they’re looking at say, People Operations, or, there’s all sorts of creative names. It really comes down to, people are people, and people are friends, they’re colleagues, they’re not resources. Resources are paper, and tools, and pencils. And it’s just, let’s just treat people as they should be treated, and talk to them like they’re real.

Howard Sublett: Somehow I always thought you had the ability to magically make everybody stop saying that word when they referred to humans. But, even if you were going to refer to yours as a Human Resources Department, it’s really resources for the humans in the company.

Allison Flaten: Yeah, absolutely.

Howard Sublett: Is what you’re providing. You provide access to 401K information, and healthcare insurance, and benefits, and all of those other things. So, for the humans within the system, I guess if you’re mandated to still call something an HR department, refer to yourself as resources for humans, and just flip that around maybe. But it is one of my pet peeves. I remember standing up at a client and they kept talking about that, one of the reasons that their project didn’t make was a shortage of resources. And I said, “So, you’re talking about desks and computers right?” “Oh no, no, we’re talking about people.” “Well then, let’s call them people. A shortage of talent and people. Let’s don’t call them desks and computers.”

So, if anybody out there’s listening, if they can do one thing and just stop referring to human beings as resources, I think the world would be a much better place.

Allison Flaten: It’s a very easy change.

Howard Sublett: It is a very easy change. Allison, I really, really appreciate you spending some time with me. If somebody wants to reach out to you and ask you some more questions about this particular thing, how can they reach you?

Allison Flaten: Oh, absolutely. And I welcome any questions. You can reach me via email, at So it’s A-L-L-I-S-O-N, dot Flaten, F as in Frank, L-A-T as in Tom, E-N

Howard Sublett: As always, I love getting a chance to talk to you.

Allison Flaten: Thank you Howard, me too.

Howard Sublett: All right, thank you again for joining me for another episode of Agile Amped. Make sure and subscribe, because you don’t know what might be next.

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