Agile-Minded HR Leaders Can Drive Cultural Change

This is the most exciting and challenging time to be working in HR. At no time since its founding as a professional discipline has it been more essential for HR practitioners to rethink the way we operate. Nor have we ever been better situated to meaningfully contribute to the success of the core business.

The greatest impetus for change is a new way of working — agile. Agile practices were already well established in technology-driven departments like software development, but over the past few years we have seen agile concepts spread across all organizational functions — to the extent that even some very large organizations are now taking on full-scale “agile transformations” that completely reshape how the company works.

Transitioning from a few tech-focused teams working within an agile framework like Scrum to an entire organization adopting a whole new way of working has not been a smooth progression. This is because to become agile, there must be a full-scale organizational shift that entails fundamental design changes — from recruiting and training to, most importantly, organizational culture — all of which are in the direct province of HR leaders and teams. Many successful transformations have been made to date, and from them we have learned an assortment of strategic dos and don’ts.

Creating Lasting Change

First off, it can be all too easy for organizational leaders at all levels to talk about “doing agile” by focusing on transactional behaviors. Daily stand-ups and biweekly retrospectives are fine behaviors, but the real focus should be on the lasting, transformational elements of change. For HR professionals, this often boils down to working on that all-encompassing and yet nebulous thing called culture.

We can benefit from the fact that so many business leaders are realizing that an organization’s culture is integral to its success. When you partner with leaders in an organization to define the culture that will enable its strategic goals, it may be helpful to do a “From-To” exercise. Listing out an organization’s current state in the “From” column can help the team recognize cultural strengths that can be leveraged moving forward, as well as the things that need to change. Listing out desired cultural aspects in the “To” column can help create a vision that compels everyone toward action. Your guidance can help ensure that the “To” column includes core drivers of engagement and agility, such as customer focus, team collaboration, open sharing of information and direct communication.

Building Your Support System

As you embark on your agile transformation, one core question to consider is: who in the organization is likely to support the change and who is likely to try to block it? The “who” in this case could be teams, new hires, employees who have been around for decades, managers – anyone. I’ve seen executive leaders and front-line team members be equally influential in either helping or hindering organizational changes. Note that the “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” mindset can be a detriment. Managers and teams who are doing well in the current environment may be the most resistant to change and therefore fall into the “blockers” category.

While weeding out blockers is essential, it’s equally important to identify and empower supporters. Storytelling can be a highly effective way to recognize role models and provide legitimacy for change. Your current methods of sharing company news – town halls, all-hands, team or department meetings, newsletters, etc. – can be utilized as ways for individuals and teams to share their success stories featuring outcomes and, just as important, behaviors. Just as communicating the cultural change you’re after – again and again and again and again – is critical, so is exposing people to the methods that are required for cultural transformation.

HR’s role has always been an important one, and now it is even more so. C-suite executives are realizing that they must modify their business structure to keep up with 21st-century demands, and agile is the answer – not because it’s a simple solution by any means, but because of its incredible potential for transformative benefit. Equipped with the ability to drive cultural change, HR practitioners will be at the forefront of this organizational revolution.