Agile HR – take the first steps now

New Thinking 4 October 2018 Bruce Keightley

So you’re starting on the road to new Agile ways of working in your HR team. The changes needed are broad and far-reaching… but where do you begin? Here are two things you can do immediately to start off in the right direction.

Performance appraisals

To get the best results from Agile, organisations need to focus on developing teams and getting them to a high-performing state, rather than on hiring high-performing individuals.

Agile puts the focus on cross-functional teams that deliver value in either an iterative (small steps) or a flow-based approach. While individual performance is still important, it’s team performance that enables the increases in productivity and quality that Agile delivers.

The first challenge in team-based appraisals is to identify the behaviours and skills that contribute to teamwork and find an effective way to measure and develop them. Research shows that patterns of communication (energy, engagement and exploration) are the most important predictor of a team’s success – not only that, but they are as significant as all the other factors – individual intelligence, personality, skill and the substance of discussions – combined.

Feedback

Teams and individuals need a constant stream of feedback from all directions to support a culture of continuous learning and improvement. Moving from project to project makes it difficult to capture meaningful feedback for periodic performance reviews and it’s often difficult for individuals to know what they need to do to improve.

The Agile approach is to move away from periodic performance reviews to more immediate, regular feedback throughout the year. This allows individuals and teams to continuously learn and improve. The challenge is in collecting, collating and managing this steady flow of feedback.

Upward feedback is very valuable, but active management support and encouragement is needed to create an environment where employees feel safe to contribute. Upward feedback needs to be acted on or else employees’ participation will reduce and the relationship between employees and their managers will be damaged.

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Now start understanding value

Once you’ve started an Agile journey by acting on appraisals and feedback, move onto thinking about the extent to which your workers – as opposed to your managers – create or generate value for your organisation.

If you’re honest, the ‘working level’ probably accounts for the majority of revenue. Management efforts should rightly focus on creating the best working environment for their people. To that end, people-related soft skills are crucial to enable managers to succeed.

New expanded skill set

Agile’s power comes from small, stable, self-organising teams that have reached a high-performing state. But taking a group of disparate individuals and getting them to the point where they can deal with disagreements, have arguments without making it personal, resolve disputes by themselves and absolutely have each other’s backs, is not easy.

Coaching is now seen as a core skill for a managerial career. However, managers need specific team coaching skills to complement existing individual coaching skills. “The companies that most effectively adopt Agile talent practices invest in sharpening managers’ coaching skills.”

Those team coaching skills cover the full range of human interaction. The more skilful the coach, the greater the likelihood they can get their teams to that elusive high-performing state. Here are the interactions they need to work on:

  • Collaboration and negotiation
  • Team working, conflict resolution and ‘difficult conversations’
  • Facilitation and coaching
  • Self-improvement and self-organisation
  • Questioning, listening, presenting

Employee experience and engagement

Diane Gherson, IBM Head of HR, said that “Employee engagement explains two-thirds of our client experience scores”. Just to be clear, she’s saying that more engaged employees improve the experience of their clients and that adds value, not just for clients, but IBM too.

So how can we help create and maintain engaged staff? Gherson believes that “It’s how employees experience the whole process, end-to-end that is key… in some ways, treating them like customers... To get it right you have to work with a broader set of players… You have to broaden your scope and stop thinking in silos in order to create a great employee experience”.

One of the simple things you can do is get employees involved in creating HR programmes, ask for volunteers from across the organisation and let them decide what to do!

Imagine having recently-hired employees develop or overhaul the on-boarding process. They are, after all, the best people! They will be aware of all the things that make you better next time:

  • What was valuable
  • What was missing
  • What was frustrating
  • What worked well
  • What didn’t

Who better to fix the process – the experience – than those with the most up-to-date experience of it?

Empowering people

A sure-fire way of increasing employee engagement is to empower them. Allow them to make their own decisions within specific boundaries. Agile practice explicitly hands over to the team doing the work the power to change their processes and, through self-organisation, the power to decide how they will go about doing the work. The key is to remember that with delegation comes accountability; Agile teams hold themselves accountable for delivering their outcomes.

Improving engagement through empowerment is one of the keys to successfully implementing Agile (everywhere). People are much less likely to resist the change when they’ve had a hand in shaping it. So when you’re considering taking the first steps, make sure you get everyone on board. By getting everyone involved, empowered and accountable.

Takeways

As HR moves to an Agile way of working, it needs to:

  • Broaden the scope of performance appraisals to include team performance, not just individual performance
  • Elicit feedback throughout the year and from all directions so individuals and teams can continuously learn and improve
  • Invest in team coaching skills and broader soft-skills training
  • Get employees involved in creating/overhauling HR processes and programmes

1 The New Science of Building Great Teams, Alex “Sandy” Pentland, Harvard Business Review, April 2012

2 HR Goes Agile, Peter Cappelli and Anna Tavis, Harvard Business Review, March-April 2018

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