HR Goes Agile – But What Does that Mean?

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What if you were tasked with developing a new tool for your company, but your management team first wanted to know how long it would take?

And then, they asked you how much it would cost?

And finally, they wanted to know what kind of return on investment it would generate.

Reminder: You don’t know exactly what it is you’re supposed to build.

If this sounds a little bit like putting the cart before the horse, that’s because it is. But for generations, this was the way most projects were budgeted and planned. Before executives would sign off with their approval they first needed to know how much time and money it was going to cost and what the ROI would be.

The agile methodology, which has its roots in the world of software development, turns this process on its head. It’s all about evolution – and the collaboration of self-organizing, cross-functional teams that deliver quickly, constantly improve, and respond rapidly to change. Agile focuses on real-time testing over process and procedure. And it actually discourages executive sign-off and approval.

Agility as a Pun: What It Is and Is Not

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of listening to Peter Cappelli, Director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School, present on agility in HR. (You can watch the full presentation I attended here.) The essence of agile, as Peter shared, is:

“Putting people and their interactions above processes and planning.”

It’s thinking about the who, instead of the what and the how, first.

It also, when executed in its true form, removes hierarchy; it’s not about one senior executive’s opinion, instead it’s the collective thought of the team doing the work.

Out of context, people have interpreted agility to mean flexibility, or an overall lack of structure, and the ability to pivot quickly. These qualities are not untrue of an agile environment – in fact, they’re aligned with the ideology behind it – but there’s a lot more to it than that.

While the interpretation is broad, most people with an understanding of what an agile environment is would agree that it includes these core components:

  • “Sprints” – which are used to tackle tasks quickly and with a great amount of focus and intensity. In an agile environment, resources are allocated based on needs as they emerge.
  • Scrum – or, small, cross-functional teams working collectively together in a ‘scrum’ framework. The concept, which originally comes from the scrum formation used by rugby teams, helps project teams track their progress and plan course corrections in short, daily meetings.
  • Team interactions over planning. Priority is given to face-to-face collaboration and decisions are made based on the autonomy of the team as opposed to decisions being dictated from the management team downwards.
  • Consistent and repeated customer input. Throughout the process, end-users, or consumers of the product or service, are consulted for their feedback. Their feedback is critical to “getting it right,” including for design and functionality.
  • Prototype sharing – where feedback is gathered regularly so that improvements can be made along the way. Agile is not about “big debuts.”
  • Testing and continuous feedback – all the time, everywhere.

Tips to Achieve Agility in Talent Acquisition

Knowing more about what agility truly is and is not – thank you for helping to clarify, Professor Cappelli! – how can this methodology and project practice be applied to talent acquisition?

Here’s my take on how HR and TA can become more agile:

  1. When choosing a project team, remove all titles. It’s not about the who’s who at the table, it’s about the skills they bring to the team to help deliver and drive the project. To tie this specifically back to talent acquisition activities, this could be a team charged with uncovering new or improved sourcing strategies. Members could include the hiring manager community, HR leadership, recruiters and sourcers, and other stakeholders in the business. But all of the streams these individuals come from – and their titles – would have zero bearing on the delivery and execution of identifying additional sourcing strategies. This should be one team working in unison to deliver the strategy to the business.
  2. When choosing project teams, be cognizant of everyone’s strengths and weaknesses. Create a team with a good mix of skills. Even if someone might not be strong across the board (a rarity anyway), consider adding them to the team. Junior and specialist-types go great in an agile environment. And, the more opposing or diverse schools of thought the better.
  3. Eliminate all protocols that rely on structure. Enable the team to act in the here and now as opposed to “properly” funneling ideas up for approval. Agility is a mentality, and the more fluid and fearless the team is able to operate, the better the results will be. In sticking with the sourcing strategy example, in an agile environment, once the team decided on a strategy they would immediately begin testing it and applying it – they would not seek out approval first. This would allow them to quickly “try out” their theories and refine the strategy after seeing it in practice and realizing the results.
  4. Eliminate cadenced, or pre-determined, reviews. HR is the central nervous system for performance reviews but in an agile environment, this is done much more ad hoc. When given in real-time, feedback can be immediately applied and improvements can start to be made.
  5. Incorporate early adopters. Back to the thought about big debuts, sometimes HR policies are rolled out without much testing or practical application. Introducing a new policy, like a new paid time off structure for instance, could be group tested by a department or team to make sure there are no holes in how people might try to take extra time off, for instance. Before re-writing the handbook, try it out first.

Sometimes it can be easier to understand a concept like agility with a tangible product, or something we’re all familiar with, and Cappelli came armed with a great example. He shared a story about GE Appliances and their pursuit to manufacture a better, more affordable refrigerator. Instead of going the traditional route and having one team ‘kick the can’ around about better design and a different team look into how to source parts at a cheaper price, they assembled a cross-functional team and just said ‘we’ll give you any of the support you need.’ And then, they left them to it. Not only did the team build a new refrigerator in half the time and for half the cost, chances are it’s the refrigerator in your home right now. The refrigerator they created is GE’s Monogram refrigerator, and it’s rated #1 in its category by Consumer Reports.

So, whether you’re looking to create an effective response to the hot talent market or to cool down refrigerator prices, agility is making its way into a multitude of industries and companies. Agile is no longer just for IT.


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