Agile software development has gone from being an upstart movement to part of the mainstream. Now organisations are looking to apply the principles and processes of Agile to other areas of their business, including HR. Enthusiasts promise that this heralds a new era or paradigm for HR. Leadership consultant, Richard Littledale, discusses how you apply these ideas practically, what is the real opportunity, and what risks do you need to be aware of.
The ideas behind Agile software development aren’t new – and neither is the notion of applying them to Human Resources. The US management thinker, Josh Bersin, has been sharing his ideas about the Agile Enterprise, and Agile HR in particular, since the turn of the decade (2).
That said, Agile philosophies and tools are currently having a big moment in the sun. It’s mainly down to their role as key elements of the “digitally transformed” world that thought leaders like to tell us we’re living in – a world where “Vuca” (business shorthand for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) rules supreme.
Our work with leadership teams parallels this thinking, in that many top teams are adopting flatter, more collaborative structures to increase responsiveness in this environment. We have observed businesses sending groups of senior leaders to Silicon Valley to learn and import the Agile secrets. Unfortunately, many senior teams have struggled to capitalize on these shifts due to the existing leadership culture – the mindset and history steeped in hierarchy and silo thinking – required to match this flatter structure.
Our own stance is to approach the issue as critical enthusiasts. I believe that Agile methods have the potential to revolutionise HR and to make it more relevant. That change is badly needed following a period in which much of the profession appears to have become slaves to unvalidated “Best Practice” concepts. Saying that though, I don’t believe that the promise dangled by Agile thinking will be properly realised unless we look critically at what it actually offers within this area.
We have analysed the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of the Agile approach to HR – based upon our own experience applying it in a leadership consulting context at YSC, and from conversations with developers and users, some of whom have been working this way for over a decade.
Agile software: A brief history and definition.
Agile is the umbrella term for a cluster of approaches to software development: building useable software gradually from the start of the project, instead of trying to deliver it all at once near the end. It works by starting small and refining through fast feedback loops, called iterations. Prototyping – particularly the idea of the Minimum Viable Product – and learning directly from users are also key elements to the approach. Agile is also a team ethos – prizing autonomy in decision making, flexibility and systematic learning.
The roots of this kind of software development date back to the 1950s. But it gained a name and shape in 2001 when developers got together to pen a Manifesto for Agile Software Development (1) – a reaction to the type of rigid, inflexible (and usually eye-wateringly expensive) blockbuster IT systems that had all too frequently failed to deliver value to the businesses they were supposed to support. Since then, agile frameworks have continued to evolve and flourish: two of the most widely used are Scrum and Kanban.
Agile is about software, but it is also bigger than that. It both reflects and creates big changes in the way we work. It is the opposite of traditional, top-down project management – the emphasis is on empowering people to collaborate and make team decisions. It is evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. And the project is never over. Agile developments involve continuous planning, testing and integration in line with rapid and constant changes to business needs and priorities. This is why it is seen as the perfect methodology for a world where change is the only constant.
SWOT ANALYSIS OF EMPLOYING AGILE HR
Challenging assumptions: One of the core principles of Agile is that assumptions – particularly those central to the success of a product or process – should be made explicit and constantly challenged through evidence gathering.
Openness and accountability: In Agile, goals or tasks – and the amount of progress that has been made towards them – are shared openly. A Kanban board is made public, product demos show off progress, and retrospectives encourage open discussion about what went well and badly.
An egalitarian philosophy: In an Agile team there are roles, but responsibility is shared. The focus is on achieving what needs to be done to move forward, rather than what needs to be done to make the most senior person happy. The Stand Up meeting, a core ceremony of Agile working, is a great way of ensuring that everyone involved in running the project is able to have their say and do their job well.
A cultural fit with modern, tech-led organisations: In organisations led by technology (which is rapidly beginning to mean nearly all), Agile practices are a core part of the culture. There is a better fit when HR has the same culture and speaks the same language as the business it serves.
A focus on the user or customer perspective: An Agile approach involves creating “user stories” and “personas” that speak to the real needs of the individuals and groups. A common criticism of HR is that it has become too distanced from these; Agile can help HR focus more clearly on the needs and experiences of their customers.
Real evidence of efficacy: For a methodology that prizes evidence, the formal evidence for the efficacy of an Agile approach is pretty weak (3). Agile’s sheer breadth, as a philosophy, culture and a group of methodologies, makes it hard to pin it down and isolate the parts you want to test. And what you can’t test, you can’t prove. This currently doesn’t appear to concern many practitioners, but it is a weakness nonetheless.
Agile could become a sacred cow: Agile inspires a fervour that distinguishes it from other analogous approaches like Six Sigma or Lean. That’s worrying if it means practitioners cease to think about it critically. Hailing Agile as a messiah won’t help us overcome the real challenges of the task at hand.
Short feedback loops and focus on experience could make HR prioritise the superficial: Applying typical Agile tools like customer experience mapping could be hugely beneficial to HR. But there’s a danger that it could cause teams to focus on quick, easy, more superficial measures, rather than on longer-term impacts. For example, in important areas like recruitment: a slick, frictionless recruitment process is great, as long as it still hires the right people.
Agile could make HR more evidence-led: “Where’s the evidence?” is a question that has long dogged the profession. Because Agile is about how things work in real life, not in an experimental lab, the data it produces will never reach the highest standard. But it offers a valuable chance to develop hypotheses and test them systematically.
Agile could add value and reinvigorate the reputation of HR: HR has suffered, sometimes unfairly sometimes not, from the perception of being an out-of-touch silo, clustered at the centre of the organisation, and far removed from the actual business end of things. An Agile HR approach, by contrast, is all about creating measurable value. If done well, it can quickly show whether an intervention has made someone’s job easier or more efficient. Equally importantly, it will show when it hasn’t.
Agile is a threat to traditional HR practices, and to the professionals who make a living from them: The potential to oust the cult of HR best practice and replace it with alternative methodologies is a dangerous development for traditional HR and is likely to meet with resistance. Even if they start to use the language of Agile, it’s unlikely that such a major change to the status quo will come from those who currently represent it.
The perils of the zeitgeist: Agile is “so hot right now” that there’s a danger of people rushing to jump on board the bandwagon: appropriating the language without really understanding the principles behind it. If people start paying lip service to Agile, it will become just another piece of “business bullshit”(5) and the moment will be lost.
Agile is hard: Getting the context right for Agile to have an impact is difficult and takes bold leadership and a different approach to problem-solving. Agile involves people thinking about problems conceptually in order to break them down into chunks. And it requires a culture of psychological safety that allows constructive challenge and the possibility of being wrong. Above all, it involves senior leaders letting go of the illusion of control.
HR has a measurement problem: Measuring the impact of HR interventions is hard. There are no clean, controlled experimental conditions. There are often long gaps between action and seeing the intended effect (e.g. hiring graduates). Yet without measurement, practitioners are ham-strung: if you don’t know what has worked and what has not, iteration is going around in circles rather than actually making progress.
What actions, then, should we take to give Agile the best possible chance of improving, or even saving, the HR profession?
how to deploy agile hr
- Deploy Agile HR in an agile way
Resist big bang approaches. Think carefully about what problem or problems you are using Agile to solve. Make sure that there isn’t a quicker or cheaper way of going about it. Collect data as a baseline to ensure that you can track change, and then start small. Unless you adapt Agile HR to your needs, and personalise it as you go, it is unlikely to succeed.
- Start by using Agile to strip HR back to the bare bones
The key question that needs to be asked about any HR intervention or process is: “is this better than doing nothing? Use Agile to strip away the processes and interventions that do not add value, to give yourself space and resources to build activities that do.
- Use the best available evidence to shape the hypotheses you want to test
When you are considering interventions to implement – or to drop – consider the best available evidence rather than best practice. Even without theory or research to guide hypotheses, you can get to great results if the system is efficient at killing ideas that don’t work. You only have to look up at the cobweb in the corner of your window, or at the veins in your hand, for evidence of what random variation can achieve given enough iterations.
HR is full of bad ideas that have never faced evolutionary pressure. Even if the data was there – which it isn’t – it takes time to see the impact of the decisions that you make. What this means is that HR should use the best evidence to shape the options, which should then be tested through Agile to ensure fit to context.
So what is good evidence? Rob Briner from the Scientific Director Center for Evidence-Based Management likes to show a pyramid of evidence, with systematic reviews and meta-analysis (studies which aggregate other studies) as the best evidence; and ideas, opinions editorials as the worst. Visit the Centre for Evidence Based Management, which has all sorts of information freely available to help with your hypotheses (6).
Make measurement a strategic priority, and get creative
Make decisions that prioritise building up a body of evidence against which you can evaluate interventions. If you are considering a tweak to your appraisal ratings, maybe don’t do it. Use forced distributions if you need to, but be aware that what you are giving up is valuable. And don’t think that the data we already have is good enough. If your measure of whether an intervention is successful is its effect on employee engagement, that is not adequate. If all of your measures are proxy measures, try harder. Think carefully and creatively about how you can use technology and other opportunities to create an array of measures that allow you to collect consistent data over time. And then hire people with the analytical chops to make sense of it all.
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