‘Agile’ has been around as an approach for decades in software development, but is spreading through organisations as they realise that all teams would benefit from working less rigidly. Alistair Shepherd explains how HR can become more agile as we enter the new year.
To thrive in today’s environment, businesses need to adapt quickly to market or industry change; something that often means a fundamental transformation away from long planning processes to become more agile.
Those who make a successful transition have the opportunity to achieve a raft of benefits including performance improvements, growth, better customer satisfaction and improved employee engagement.
So, what does agile look like in 2020 and what can HR do to support it?
2020: agile is everywhere
In software development agile is well established as an approach. The agile manifesto has been broadly adopted by thousands of software teams around the world.
And it’s easy to see why other areas of the business want to follow suit – agile working has the potential to help organisations manage rapid change and become more customer-driven. It helps us navigate difficult complex decisions in a rapidly changing environment which must be a win-win for every business function.
However, people working outside of tech can often struggle with the cultural change. Unlike in software development, there isn’t a manifesto on how to implement agile work in the rest of the business, so it often leaves HR departments with the challenge of creating a new policy. This might mean updating company values and definitely means training mangers to help their teams make the shift. How can HR help managers and their teams embrace an agile mindset?
In its 2018 report The Five Trademarks of Agile Organizations, McKinsey suggests that rather than being a machine, an agile organisation is more like a living organism.
Viewing your company as an organism means reducing silos by removing some of the hierarchy and focusing on action rather than reporting. The good news for HR is that this means focusing on people over process.
Borrowing from the original agile manifesto is a good starting point, which means: individuals and interactions over processes and tools; customer focus over internal management; and responding to change over following a plan. So how does this translate practically in the workplace?
1. Aligning vision and values
Agile organisations are driven by a compelling purpose and the most successful transformations happen bottom-up with top-down support. The role of a CEO, leadership team and HR is fundamental for setting the clarity of purpose.
But without managers re-enforcing that vision it will not stick. It’s a skill to translate purpose and values so they are meaningful to the team. Virtual coaching could be a way of translating a company vision into a meaningful team purpose, for example.
2. Goal management
Equally, in an agile world the expectation is that goals are not simply cascaded down.
Managers should be given the context of the organisation or department goals, but it’s their job to decide – with their team – how their work fits into that broader objective.
This includes managers and HR taking a step back to enable the team to achieve its goals without controlling the way they work.
3. Iterate and learn
The agile world is about iteration and learning. According to Simon Hayward in The Agile Leader: “To be effective leaders in a digital world we need to be both an enabler and disruptor.”
On a practical level, this means a push and pull from HR to enable teams to make fast progress by focusing on an outcome (a minimal viable product). HR needs to reinforce learning agility by facilitating frequent check-ins to share progress, solve problems and ensure alignment.
This could be in the form of employee and manager one-to-ones, learning in the flow of work or regular pulse surveys. Annual performance or learning cycles aren’t designed for agile work, so becoming more agile as an HR function will have a huge positive impact on an agile business.
Again, manager coaching is essential at this stage. Encouraging and enabling them to lead through disruption and teaching them to make quick decisions in short learning cycles means they can validate assumptions and move forward as quickly as possible.
4. Client focus
A ruthless focus on the customer is critical for an agile organisation. For customer-facing teams this may come naturally. But, if not, can HR encourage the use of techniques such as hackathons, crowdsourcing and virtual collaboration spaces to get their teams as close to the customer as possible?
Reflection helps transparency and continuous improvement of products, services and work methods. It helps build psychological safety so team members feel more comfortable admitting failure and learning from mistakes, which potentially has a bigger impact on team performance than anything else.
Team retrospectives are commonplace in agile software development but used less often in the wider business. Taking time out to reflect can be a challenge for busy managers and teams, but HR can assist here by providing tools that can help form the habit.
Tools are available that can offer regular nudges to make reflective notes that can be added at any time ready to review in retrospective meetings. They can be scheduled either by the team or automatically if there’s been a lot of interaction.
Moving towards agile work might feel like a huge change but simplicity should be your guide. Small steps and quick changes are the foundation of agile; you don’t need to change everything at once.
Making a start on your journey in 2020 simply means becoming more adaptable and customer-focused, which is a positive start to the year for all.