Resources for Agile Humans

Abstract

Every aspect of today’s businesses must evolve to reap the rewards of business agility. That includes the human resources department. HR needs a paradigm shift from viewing humans as resources to viewing themselves as facilitating, supporting, empowering and enhancing the experience of each and every employee. This article provides a new perspective of the typical employee lifecycle and real actions that a traditional HR department can take to begin their Agile journey. To thrive in the continuous change characterizing the world today, HR must be re-imagined, upgraded and refocused on the humans who make any of it possible and who make all of it matter.

Download PDF


Introduction

HR is undergoing a transformation. In fact, business as a whole has been transforming for the last few decades: how businesses sell, market, strategize and solution, recruit talent, enable learning and development and more is all being re-imagined, upgraded and refocused on the humans who make any of it possible and who make all of it matter. Today HR has taken center stage of this change, itself transforming to be more conducive to business agility.

In this article we aim to demonstrate that Agile HR provides resources for humans with Agile values. This means that, in the Agile organization, HR is empowered to and accountable for equipping people in the Agile organization with the relationships, mindsets, tools, and experiences to thrive in complex times.

Agile HR is a movement to infuse Agile values – collaboration, transparency, rapid feedback, iterative & incremental value delivery, empowerment, and more – into the process of employing and empowering the human systems that unlock business agility. How to do that is not always clear, so here we offer some insights based on experience, research and our deeply held value system. Drawing inspiration from Simon Sinek, this article aims to “Start With WHY,” then HOW, and finally WHAT:

  • WHY is it absolutely imperative for HR to focus on increasing its agility?
  • HOW can traditional HR shift mindsets to support business agility and thus precipitate change in other business units?
  • WHAT actionable steps can you take to start this journey?

Further, we will attempt to demonstrate three things:

  1. How an Agile HR department facilitates, supports, empowers and enhances each and every employee’s experience
  2. How other departments in the organization, including brand, marketing, and recruiting support the success of the Agile HR department
  3. How the entire system creates a ripple affect beyond the organization that can nonetheless benefit the organization in the long run To do so, we will follow the arc of the typical employee lifecycle in 6 stages: Attract, Recruit, Onboard, Develop, Retain, Transition.

Fake it ‘Til you Make It?

Perhaps it seems like too much work to become a truly Agile organization. Perhaps your strategy for attracting agilists is to simply sprinkle words like “Agile” and “Scrum” throughout your materials, in hopes that no one will ask you exactly what you mean. While that may serve in the short run, technology has shifted the power dynamic more in favor of prospective hires. “In the past you might have had companies that weren’t great to work for, but only a small circle of people knew about it,” says IBM Chief HR Officer Diane Gherson.1 “Now the whole world knows about it, because it’s on Glassdoor—and that’s turned companies into glass houses. People can look in and see what’s going on and make judgments about whether they want to work there in a way that they weren’t able to before.” Glassdoor, Facebook, Reddit and others are tools that radiate company values as well as compensation packages, employee frustrations and office scandal. What this means is: you can’t fake agility… for long.

Sites like Glassdoor and Reddit have turned companies into glass houses. People can look in and see what’s going on and make judgments about whether they want to work there in a way that they weren’t able to before.

1. Attract: The Siren Call

The job of the Agile HR department begins well before there is a new hire sitting in the hot seat. In many ways, HR is at the mercy of the organization’s brand presence: When the company brand and company vision are well aligned, as is the case with tech giants like Google, Apple and Amazon, then HR and recruiting should have no problem hiring good talent. In some ways, the same is true for all companies drawing from pools of highly talented candidates, who often decide to work for a company well before they put pen to paper. The proof is that people will work for a comparatively smaller salary for a brand that they align with well.2

Shared values motivate agilists to seek out Agile organizations

As Dan Pink pointed out in his seminal work “Drive,”money is only so good a motivator.3 One article puts a dollar amount to the threshold at which money ceases to bring people happiness: $75,000.4 “For people who earn that much or more,” the author writes, “individual temperament and life circumstances have much more sway over their lightness of heart than money.” Other factors are at play when it comes to happiness in life and work.

This brings us back to your brand. In our experience, shared values motivate agilists to seek out Agile organizations. Many high-profile companies are vying for the same pool of qualified and experienced Agile practitioners, so your brand needs to differentiate itself. If you are looking for capable agilists with more than just the perfunctory training experience and if you are looking for the best of the best in the Agile world, the pool is shallow indeed. Your differentiator is your ability to demonstrate authentic agility. By creating and maintaining an Agile working environment, you are also creating and maintaining an Agile brand. This serves as a siren call to agilists who refuse on principle to work any other way.

By creating and maintaining an Agile working environment, you are also creating an maintaining an Agile brand.

While it may seem like HR can’t do anything about improving their company’s Agile brand cred, we identify three impactful actions they can take:

  1. Give culture fit a higher priority over other hiring criteria.
  2. Work closely with leadership to elevate the priority of business agility related initiatives.
  3. Work with marketing and brand to radiate these initiatives and related successes to the employee market. Together these send a message both to your organization and to applicants that business agility is more than just a buzz word to your business.

2. Recruit: Meaningful Connections

Community and human connection are paramount in Agile. The process for making first contact with agilists tends to happen at the Recruit stage, when someone in the organization reaches out to a prospective candidate. This can be the make-or-break moment for agilists. Agilists have taken time and effort to re-train their speech and mental models. For some, it can feel cultish, and frankly some agilists can be overzealous and intolerant of other viewpoints. A lot of this is a result of being part of a small group of people who knew better ways of working, for more than a decade, but were relatively powerless in making necessary changes. With Agile entering the mainstream, the struggle has changed completely: from proving that Agile is valuable to business to reminding people that Agile isn’t any more a silver bullet to business woes than Microsoft Office or Six Sigma.

Community and human connection are paramount in Agile

Over time, agilists have developed ways of thinking and speaking that you can pick up on. If HR is to hire good agilists, recruiters have to be able to interface with them intelligently and with agility. While we could focus on what recruiters should not do, we will instead highlight what they can and should do in their interactions with new hires – and everyone really. Here are four BEs for Agile recruiters to keep in mind:

  1. Be articulate about the company mission, vision and values
  2. Be ready to provide examples of agility in everyday interactions
  3. Be curious and open-minded
  4. Be real – if you don’t see it working, say so and offer feedback

The main thing is to create and maintain real connection and professional integrity throughout the entire recruiting process, whether or not the candidate is moved to the next stage of the employee lifecycle, onboarding.

3. Onboard: First Impressions

Congratulations – you were able to successfully hire a passionate, qualified candidate! Now starts the beginning of the rest of their employee lifecycle. Here is where your HR department and your entire organization’s culture is put on full display. No amount of showmanship will hide or obscure what people can see with their own eyes.

Luckily agilists tend not to care about fronts, preferring “the real deal.” This is certainly part of SolutionsIQ’s hiring approach, or so says our own former HR Generalist Allison Flaten in a recent Agile Amped podcast: “When I’m having a conversation with a potential new hire, I’m very real. 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.”

For us, being real means transparency from the start. It means really connecting with the new hire, asking about their goals for joining the company, their hopes and fears, as well as what unique abilities may lie outside of their role that could be leveraged for the value of clients, customers or your company’s culture and community. And since change is difficult, new hires tend to need more “care and feeding.” Ask how they are doing and see if you can learn from their response, like IBM’s Gherson did. “Once we began asking new hires how their onboarding had gone, we heard things like ‘I didn’t get my laptop on time,’ or ‘I couldn’t get my credit card in time to get to my first meeting,’ or ‘I had problems accessing the internal network.’ All those things affect how someone feels about having joined the company.” These responses can populate user stories for improvements to the existing onboarding process.

But maybe your organization isn’t very clear on what the corporate environment is actually like and how it is perceived by employees.

How to start? For us, it takes the form of capturing feedback from the community, populating the backlogs of the various lifecycles that support SolutionsIQ as a business, and empowering the Lifecycle Owners to shepherd the implementation and progress of these community-centric user stories and epics.

In the case of IBM, they used sentiment analysis to scrub internal social media blogs and comments for the general feel of the employee workforce. Based on information from their sentiment analysis tool, they were able to turn a flop into a fix.

Gherson shares: “Some of my folks decided we wouldn’t reimburse for ridesharing. Employees became agitated, and I could quickly respond to a concern that had turned into a petition. “I read all your comments,” I told them, “and you made some great points we hadn’t thought of… Let’s return to our original policy.” All this happened within 24 hours. People felt listened to and were very appreciative.”

We can glean a lot about IBM from this:

  • Leadership has set up processes and tools for funneling sentiments and information into analysis hubs.
  • Leadership listens to feedback and is able to act quickly.
  • IT is capable of quickly enacting a request from leadership.
  • Compliance is highly important to IBM, but so is employee happiness.

In the context of onboarding, it is admissible that IBM communicates these value-laden statements to their employees, both explicitly and implicitly. It has entered into the organization’s culture and everyone can therefore comment on it. All of it contributes to the employee experience. (For more on this, see “Retain” below.) The best brands know that some of their biggest fans are their employees. Nothing deteriorates brand cred like detractor employees, so HR can actually be a strong proponent for improving corporate culture and supporting business agility.

First Day Jitters to Consider

Think back to your first day at a new job or on a new engagement and answer these questions:

• What did you see the first time you physically interacted with a human representative of your new company’s brand?
• What was your first impression talking with an HR representative?
• What did you love about your onboarding experience?
• What did you hate?
• Did you ask questions and, if so, how were they answered?

First impressions are powerful and can negatively affect internal brand promise, and how new hires feel in the first interactions can reveal powerful insights into improvements you can make. The attentive new Agile hire will be looking out for telltale signs of business agility, and so should you, including:

• Evidence of organizational agility as well as areas for improvement
• How people interact with each other and the general atmosphere
• How people interact with new hires specifically – are they welcomed? Are they treated as a nuisance or ignored?
• How is technology an enabler or detractor of employee effectiveness, success and happiness?

4. Develop: Growing Great Agilists

Performance and Compensation

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Agile has rapid feedback as a fundamental tenet. Annual performance reports are the antithesis of Agile in that it forces you to wait a year to tell or be told what you could have told or been told immediately or shortly after the event. It introduces too much time and space between an event and the feedback. Further, feedback isn’t inherently unidirectional: employees should be encouraged and empowered to provide feedback to their employers. This is much easier, less anxiety-causing and less messy when feedback doesn’t come in the form of an officious once-yearly 360 review, but instead more frequently and in a more conversational way.

A natural result of giving feedback continually is that the need for an annual performance review goes away. Instead, it can be a conversation, a check-in with HR, and not restricted to any particular time frame or cadence (e.g., once annually).

That leaves the matter of compensation reviews. Agile organizations strive to decouple the very important conversations about improvement and praise from the very important conversations about money and compensation. Nothing says, “Money is the only motivator this company cares about” like pairing annual performance reviews with compensation package reviews. But also, according to Steffen Maier of Impraise in the Forbes article “Separating Performance Management From Compensation: New Trend For Thriving Organizations”:5

“The reason so many [businesses] have decided to move away from traditional annual performance reviews is because they don’t provide employees with the growth and learning opportunities they need in order to keep up with constantly changing industry trends.

Neither of these conversation types cease to happen, they just change in character. How much and in what ways depends on your organizational culture. Here are a couple examples mentioned in the HBR article on “The New Rules of Talent Management”:

  • Macy’s uses “spot bonuses to recognize contributions when they happen rather than rely solely on end-of-year salary increases.
  • Patagonia “adjusts wages for each job much more frequently, according to research on where market rates are going.
  • The online clothing-rental company Rent the Runway dropped separate bonuses, rolling the money into base pay.

And compensation should reflect the company’s actual values, vision and goals. If your Agile organization pits team members against each other in performance reviews and compensation considerations – bonuses and raises, for example – then that will need to be re-engineered to enable business agility. Rather than implementing hand-me-down solutions overburdened with industrial-age assumptions about human motivations, let Agile values – transparency, empowerment, rapid feedback, etc. – guide you. Write your own rules, and compare your notes with other like-minded organizations. Iterate.

Career Pathing

Everyone is at a different stage in their career journey. A key component of developing good people is helping them identify a path that focuses on career growth as well as personal growth. Agile HR works with employees to co-create a career path that works for the employee, sometimes at the expense of the business’ own short-term interests. HR can help employees create a personal career vision where aspirations and wishes act as longer-term targets, with nearer-term milestones more clearly defined. Employees need to be more actively engaged in their own career development and have the power to do so more than ever before.

As individuals develop, their career aspirations are likely to change, so rather than reacting to this likelihood, the Agile HR department assumes that this is a natural part of continuous change and prepare for the eventuality that:

  • People will want to advance forward, even if not every position has a clear growth trajectory.
  • People will leave the company, especially considering “the median number of years that wage and salary workers have worked for their current employer is currently 4.6 years.”7
  • People will have a personal career vision that is at odds with the business vision.

In all of these cases, it is within HR grasp to be proactive. One two-pronged approach that can alleviate likely strain is:

  1. First, be transparent about the business mission, vision and values and continually invite employees to align to that vision
  2. Second, treat the available pool of agilists as finite and global – meaning that there is always the chance that someone who leaves for whatever reason may one day want to come back.

The Agile organization recognizes that some experiences cannot be had all in one place. A revolving door approach to hiring means that no employee is ever fully done with any particular employer. By keeping employees happy, in this case by helping them co-create Agile career growth paths, employers stand to gain the most out of them in the long term.

Case Study in Extreme Rehiring

How far will some organizations go to ensure that employees fit where they are? Pretty far, if the Dutch banking group ING Bank is any indication. In the McKinsey article6 on “ING’s Agile Transformation,” one of ING Netherlands’ CIOs Bart Schlatmann recalls when every single person in the company was obligated to re-apply for their job:

“I still remember January of 2015 when we announced that all employees at headquarters were put on “mobility,” effectively meaning they were without a job. We requested everyone to reapply for a position in the new organization. This selection process was intense, with a higher weighting for culture and mind-sets than knowledge or experience. We chose each of the 2,500 employees in our organization as it is today—and nearly 40 percent are in a different position to the job they were in previously. Of course, we lost a lot of people who had good knowledge but lacked the right mind-set; but knowledge can be easily regained if people have the intrinsic capability.”

5. Retain: Balancing Employee Happiness & Productivity

Why is it so important for employees to be happy? Research shows that happy people are more productive.8 In the Boston Consulting Group article “Decoding Global Talent,” being appreciated for one’s contribution was the number one indicator of job happiness, followed by good relationships with colleagues and good work-life balance.9 Striving for personal happiness and work-life balance should be automatic and yet Americans continually overwork themselves,10 which leads to less fulfillment and is ultimately not sustainable.

Happy people are more productive.

Agile organizations recognize that the expectation of overworking yourself, being miserable at work, and accepting it as normal is pervasive and real for most employees. Rather than ignoring this, these organizations strive to build sustainability into everything they do. They also invest in supporting employee well-being through competitive benefits and compensation packets, bolstered by valuable tools and resources that actually give employees that most precious and limited of resources: time.

If happiness is important to employees, then time should be paramount to employers. Just as money sends the message of, “Your contribution is valuable,” how companies (attempt to) give employees back time, or at least good value for time spent, sends the message of, “Your time is indispensable.”

Unfortunately, far too many companies spend not enough time and resources and human effort on improving infrastructure and processes that would give time back to everyone in the organization.

“Our customers were spending most of their online time on platforms like Facebook and Netflix,” says Ralph Hamers, CEO of the global banking group ING. “Those set the standard for user experience.” This is true for all tools and interfaces that employees use to perform work and administrative tasks. And that means that everyone has less patience for inefficient processes, tools and systems. For some that means looking for greener pastures elsewhere. So what can your organization do about it? Take a page out of the Lean manufacturing handbook and look for ways to radically reduce waste. (See “The 7 Wastes” below.)

Again, your organization’s mission, vision and values should drive what is considered wasteful and useful. Everything must drive toward user delight – meaning both customers and employees. If you can’t articulate the value of something in terms of your end users, then it may be waste. Whatever you decide to act upon, the conversations and discourse that you create in your community may end up being the most valuable thing, because it forces people to identify for themselves what they believe is driving customer and/or employee delight. It forces everyone to think for themselves, again, rather than blithely accepting what has been handed down to them as somehow true or unassailably right.

The 7 Wastes

The seven Lean wastes (mudas), which you should continually strive to remove, are:

1. Transport (moving products not actually required to perform the processing)
2. Inventory (all components, work in process, and finished product not being processed)
3. Motion (people or equipment moving or walking more than is required to perform the processing)
4. Waiting (waiting for the next production step, interruptions of production during shift change)
5. Overproduction (production ahead of demand)
6. Over Processing (processing beyond what’s absolutely necessary, “gold plating”)
7. Defects (effort used to inspect for and fix defects)

6. Transition: Lasting Impressions

As we saw above in Develop, an employee who is leaving can be viewed as an employee who could one day come back and whom your organization would greatly benefit from and thus want to come back. For this reason, rather than focus on the reasons for an employee to leave your organization – whether resignation, termination or retirement – we will focus on the crucial offboarding process.

Offboarding

Offboarding is a critical turning point for your brand and the Agile HR department’s integrity and credibility, as well as the rapport and bond between HR and the employee in question.

With guidance from Agile values, offboarding requires:

  • Clarity with integrity
  • Transparency with tact
  • Holding the employee in esteem, regardless of the grounds for the work termination
  • Lightness tightly coupled with firmness
  • Empathy, rather than courtesy or civility
  • Positivity

The inversion of onboarding, the offboarding experience may be the last formal event where the employee interfaces physically and with full presence of mind with your brand and the HR department as a whole. Without clarity of your organization’s vision, mission and values as well as the empathy of dealing with a person in transition, HR stands to deteriorate the corporate brand quite a bit. We have learned through mistakes that offboarding is a tenuous and delicate process requiring care and attention – and that is hard to do when you have a business to run. This is why, while helpful, scripts cannot be relied on: everyone in HR must have a clear North Star for the company guiding their interactions and they must act with agility and humanity.

Agilists and Resignations

Above, we demonstrated that the need for qualified agilists is high and that the pool of said is shallow. This will be reflected in employee resignations, often because competitors have offered higher salaries, more competitive benefits, more flexibility or vacation, or have managed to convince your employee that the competing brand is better, stronger, cooler. Magnanimity and genuine happiness are your friends here: as long as you are not leaking good agilists like a sieve, an employee’s departure provides you an opportunity to gauge, in the long term, the strength of your hiring brand. You may set a task to, for example, reach out to the resignee within a year of departure to ask a few questions like:

1. How are you settling in at your new employer?

2. What have you learned about your experience that can help us keep people like you who may be considering leaving?

3. What feedback would you like to provide about your employment and resignation experience?

The most important detail to ensure the resignee leaves with is an open invitation to come back, if just for a conversation to discuss what it would take to rejoin your organization, if that is attractive to both parties.

The best proof of your brand promise to employees in the market is how many of them leave and come back. We are fortunate enough for this to be the case for us. When the average tenure of an employee today is 4.3 years and the Agile industry still reasonable small, your business should expect this to happen. That means you can learn from it.

Taking Action

If we agree that HR needs to be approached differently in the Agile organization, what are some actions that your HR organization can start doing today? While each organization’s context will necessitate some customization, here are a few small steps with deep impacts that HR can start with:

  • Strive to give continuous, actionable feedback; learn to appreciate and seek out the same from others.
  • Strive to align compensation with organizational values, such as teaming, collaboration, transparency, etc.
  • Encourage and create a safe place for omni-directional feedback: up and down, side to side.
  • Drive toward empowering decision making closest to problem source, which requires more trust and aims to transform micromanagement into open communication.
  • Use cross-functional teams with varied perspectives through serial and group hiring discussions.
  • Leverage existing and future technologies to improve employee working experience.
  • Hire for culture and value fit, not just according to espoused experience and capabilities
  • Create space for (smaller-scale) change and (larger-scale, longer-term) transformation.
  • Find ways to visualize strengths and weaknesses on teams (including the HR department) and encourage development in individuals and teams based on radiated information.

Putting It All Together

What does it mean to provide resources for humans? And how different is this process when the humans in question have deeply held Agile values? If Agile HR means “resources for Agile humans,” then it falls to us to decide what each of the terms mean. Every day the concept of Agile and business agility gets clearer and clearer, and with this article, we have strived to show what resources mean in the context of an Agile organization. Specifically, the resources – physical, virtual, environmental, yes, but also social, emotional, conceptual and other – that the HR department provides and also supports the emergence of, so that Agile businesses can learn continuously, itself supported by the very humans that make any of it possible and all of it matter.

Resources

  1. HR Goes Agile (Harvard Business Review) by Peter Cappelli and Anna Tavis
  2. 5 Reasons To Choose A Top Brand Over Top Pay (Fast Company) by Stephanie Vozza
  3. “Drive” by Daniel H. Pink
  4. Do We Need $75,000 a Year to Be Happy? by Belinda Luscombe
  5. Separating Performance Management From Compensation: New Trend For Thriving Organizations by Kathy Caprino
  6. ING’s Agile transformation presented by William Rowden, SolutionsIQ
  7. How Long Should An Employee Stay at a Job? by Alison Doyle
  8. Happiness and productivity: Understanding the happy-productive worker by Daniel Sgroi
  9. Decoding Global Talent by Rainer Strack , Carsten von der Linden , Mike Booker , and Andrea Strohmayr
  10. Labor Day by the numbers: Americans can’t stop, won’t stop working by Ashley May

Download PDF