8 More Things You Didn’t Know About Agile HR

Allison Flaten knows a thing or two about Agile and HR: she has been leading SolutionsIQ’s HR operations for the last five years. 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, Allison has over a decade of working with and leading HR departments in a variety of industries. In a recent Agile Amped podcast, she shared her perspective and insights for Agile HR, so here are 8 more things you didn’t know about Agile.

Read “10 Things You Didn’t Know About Agile HR.”

1. Traditional HR seems great… until you’ve seen how an Agile organization works.

I did work in traditional HR departments. And, while fabulous experiences -learned a ton and I thought it was the best at the time – but then coming into an Agile environment, I understood what bringing humanity to the workplace really means, and that certainly is in the Agile spirit of providing a real experience for employees.

My main focus… is making a difference one interaction at a time. And that’s not always easy in a traditional HR department. A lot of times you can feel a little bit detached from the employees, because … a lot of times the focus can be on risk mitigation or compliance, or sometimes you’re just bogged down and really trying to get policy-driven information out the door, or you’re focusing on administration and not really lifting your head above the clouds and looking and seeing what makes this organization special:… its employees.

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: [you’re] really shifting your focus to “How can we make this the best place for our employees?”

2. Agile HR is about being real with people.

When I’m having a conversation with a potential new hire, I’m very real [and informal]. 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 vice versa. Because it’s just not going to work in the long run; 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… Usually I can see it in somebody’s face when they’re like, “I don’t know if I can handle that much transparency,”

3. Feedback is key to effective HR and to building a strong Agile culture.

Once you move into a more Agile workspace, 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?” … People then buy into what’s being rolled out, or what’s being released, because they’ve been able to provide the feedback…

But it isn’t all roses.

We’ve definitely made some mistakes too… where we didn’t always get the feedback we needed. But then again, we adapted to that reaction, and made some adjustments – and I think that’s what makes this environment so great. People are providing respectful feedback, they truly want to make it the best place for everybody…

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. I remember when I first came into an Agile HR department, I was like, “Whoa, people are reading this stuff!” And at first, I was [like], “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.”

4. Annual performance management isn’t as helpful as providing employees continuous feedback that can be implemented quickly.

There’s a lot of debate on [the topic of performance management]. And, even in an Agile environment, there’s different views on how it should be handled… I can use my department as an example of how I’ve always handled performance management. 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 … understand how they’re doing. Whether it’s great, whether it’s not so great, people want to know.

In traditional performance management, when you get your 12-page write-up 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 lifelong learning, or your ability to make adjustments quickly.
Sometimes it’s a very simple thing… 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 quickly based on immediate feedback… [The way I see it] continuous feedback is the most important approach…

5. If you’re bringing on Agile people, your HR department needs to shift to be Agile as well.

In order to attract and retain people… 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 movement. And so, HR… 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 understand where the organization is going, so that means you [need to pull] 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 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.

Something that people think is irreconcilable between HR and Agile is transparency – because many aspects of HR cannot be shared broadly due to the legal implications. But, in fact, much of the hoarding and protection of information are deeply entrenched views about how information can and should be used. Agile doesn’t uphold these values: it encourages looking for ways to make transparent whatever is useful and not legally required to be kept confidential. Flaten provides the following example:

Providing visibility into your backlog… That was something completely new when I entered into the Agile space. 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.

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… really changed my world…

6. A good indicator of how HR is perceived? People trust them and aren’t terrified by a conversation.

[If] people want to come and visit you, they trust you. So many times I’ve heard [how] people 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 team’s reaching out to them. People are over here, they’re having a good time, and they know that our intent is to take care of them. And, of course, you take care of the business as well, but, again, it’s that transparency, it’s the trust, the collaboration that creates that successful HR department.
I think what it comes down to is whether the employees really feel that they can collaborate and work with the HR team and feel comfortable with them.

7. You can do lots of small things to get started.

Here are just a few suggestions that Flaten offered for bringing a little agility into your department, HR or otherwise.

  • Take a look at the Agile Manifesto, just so you understand exactly what Agile is about. I’m not going to lie: I remember when I first started in the Agile world, I was like, “What is Agile?”
  • Don’t make it huge. Start making some changes in tiny chunks.
  • Look at some of the tools that Agile teams use. Perhaps start utilizing a Kanban Board.
  • There’s lots of people in the Agile space who want to talk to you, trust me. So reach out.

8. If you are stuck with “Human Resources,” remember that it’s resources for humans, not humans as resources.

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. They’ve kicked it to the curb, and they’re looking at say, People Operations… 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. Let’s treat people as they should be treated, and talk to them like they’re real.

Our podcast host, Howard Sublett, offered up this gem: “Even if you were going to refer to yours as a Human Resources Department, it’s really resources for the humans in the company.”

Excerpts taken from this podcast:

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