Photo: Joshua Coleman

Going Agile: Beyond the Buzz

“Agile” has been a buzzword thrown around Silicon Valley, startup conferences, town halls and HR department meetings for years now. Additionally, in the past several weeks we’ve heard “agile” again in large volume as companies rapidly try to adjust to remote work and the new realities we’re all living in due to COVID-19. While it’s true that adopting an agile mindset may be more valuable to companies than ever, it’s much more than successfully managing a quick transition from in-office to work from home. 

Though the idea originated way back in 2001, there still is not a widespread understanding about what agility really is, and how it can benefit organizations of all sizes — especially now. From addressing internal dysfunction to helping a business overcome competitive challenges, to coping in a world filled with VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity), embracing agility can give businesses the edge they’re looking for, ultimately transforming the way they work. 

For the transformation to be successful, however, agile has to be more than a buzzword. If it’s just showing up in memos, on Slack channels and PowerPoints or mentioned in passing at meetings, you are doing it wrong. To go from just saying or writing agile to actually being agile, you need to know where to start and what to watch out for. 

Here are four of the most common barriers experienced when trying to implement the agile mindset, and how to overcome them to become a truly adaptive organization — and thrive in these uncertain times:

If Agile Is the Answer, What’s the Question?

In my work as a Scrum Alliance Certified Agile Coach and Certified LeSS Trainer, I occasionally come across teams that want to be agile just so they can say that they are agile. I call this “agile for agile’s sake,” and it’s a big warning sign. Too often teams haven’t sharpened their focus enough before attempting to embrace adaptive practices. This can lead to confusion, frustration, and ironically, the opposite of agility. Another large warning sign is if you see heavy slide decks and best practices books popping up all over about how you’re going to become agile. They often mean that DDT (Deck Driven Transformations) is underway, as it is usually instituted by a large consultancy. When employees are still tasked to work through the controlled process of long development and feedback cycles for a project, then they are using up their valued time and resources, and a growth in documents contradicts what agile is all about!

Instead, figure out what agile will fix for your organization. It’s imperative to understand your own organization’s priorities – to know the why behind implementing agile – if you want your transformation to succeed. Otherwise, you’re just using a new buzzword, without any true meaning behind it.

Agile is an OS, Not an App

Another common pitfall I see are teams looking to jump on the “agile bandwagon” and expect it to be a quick and easy process. These are organizations looking to put a check mark next to “agile” and cross it off on its to-do list. We often see organizations “buying, unwrapping and installing” a popular, commercially available heavy framework or producing an internal over-engineered operating model that resembles a traditional model, spiced up with agile buzzwords.

But that’s not how it works. It’s not an app that you can simply download, install and be up and running on within moments. Agile is an Operating System – it will impact how everything is done (remember, the goal is transformation), and it can take some getting used to. 

Setting realistic expectations about what the agile framework is and is not, and how long it will take to transform into an adaptive organization is extremely important. Without this mindset, team members’ commitment to the transformation may wane, undercutting everyone’s efforts to evolve, as full, company-wide buy-in is necessary for success. 

Swim a Lake, Don’t Boil the Ocean

Another problem I’ve seen when working with companies looking to embrace agile is starting off too broad and shallow – looking to overhaul everything at once. Instead, I recommend focusing narrowly but going deep in specific areas, and then expanding, for example, like in Large Scale Scrum, where the idea is to descale an organization, in order to scale agility. The bigger the organization, the more important this is. 

To do this, identify a product or function where impact can be felt in real terms quickly. This is your best bet about where to start. Oftentimes, HR is a great department to include in an agile transformation. This is because HR policies are incredibly important, as it involves changing the way employees are treated.

It is interesting, however although maybe not surprising, lean companies are having a less painful experience adjusting to the unprecedented conditions we’re currently in, because being lean helps with adaptive-ness (agility), and it is based on the degree of organizational “descaling.”

Urgency as the Catalyst to Change 

Finally, in my experience, there needs to be a sense of urgency for an agile model to really take hold and thrive within an organization. The team must know and feel that something is fundamentally broken, and that embracing new practices and methods is essential to survival. Without the understanding that something must be fixed, the likelihood of a successful transformation is significantly lower. This is because those without a sense of urgency are resistant to change.

This is true from the top to the bottom of an organization. Without buy-in from the entire team, creating real change, real transformation is impossible. When it comes to senior leaders, getting them engaged and invested can make all the difference. 

Contrary to how you may have heard the word “agile” used previously, it’s not about cutting costs. That has never been the primary goal of being an agile company. Agile is about moving beyond the buzzword to become more adaptive and nimbler. This allows a company to transform the way it works fundamentally, innovate quickly and ultimately become more competitive. This ability to adapt and innovate has never been more important than it is today, where the entire fabric of work is changing with unprecedented unemployment and entire industries turned upside down by the pandemic. The businesses that can adapt fast will have an edge on those that are moving slowly: ultimately, the faster you can adapt, the more economically feasible your business is in our rapidly changing world.

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.

#WorkTrends: Iterate! How HR Can Get Agile

At the beginning of his career, Ed Muzio was getting frustrated in a meeting that was going nowhere. Though Muzio kept his mouth shut, a friend of his noticed how disgruntled he was. After the meeting, Muzio’s friend told him that he had an obligation to speak up — because if he didn’t, he had no one to blame but himself.

That advice stuck with Muzio and has guided him as he has worked to bring behavioral science to the workplace. Now, Muzio has collected his ideas into the book, “Iterate: Run a Fast, Flexible Focused Management Team.” During our conversation, we broke down the components needed for organizations to become more nimble and agile in today’s constantly changing markets, and the role that HR can play in doing so.

Listen to the full conversation or read the recap below. Subscribe so you never miss an episode.

The Need to Empower Management

Muzio believes that organizations are not nimble enough to react to change, and they need to embrace iteration. “We know it’s the way that complex systems solve problems,” he says. “We need the same level of sophistication in our human organizations.”

This doesn’t mean that all change is massive and large-scale. Often, projects or processes need small course corrections to keep things on track. This is where management comes in. Muzio describes management as an organization’s “feedback system.” However, truly embracing management’s role requires management to be empowered in ways that many organizations have not done.

Muzio says it’s management’s role to evaluate goals and decide what resources to reallocate, should things go off-course. Because managers touch all aspects of an organization — from the C-suite to the interns — they are best positioned to make the course corrections an iterative philosophy requires. “It’s an important purpose that only management can perform,” Muzio explains.

Knock Down the Silos

Muzio believes that one of the key barriers preventing organizations from becoming more nimble is their emphasis on siloing operations. Too often, he says, organizations leave managers to their own devices, each responsible for a separate stage of a process. “If I’m at the top and managing a set of disparate individuals who are managing an even more set of even more disparate individuals, does that lead to innovation?” Muzio asks.

Organizations can emphasize innovation, though, by creating a model where teams are more united and communicate more. He calls this concept “upward-looking success,” and emphasizes that teams should be held more accountable collectively — and not just for meeting individual goals. This encourages different teams to communicate more and breaks down the silos that traditional business organization has created. Because of this cross-communication, implementing the small course corrections organizations need becomes much easier, keeping companies better positioned to meet their goals.

What Can HR Do?

While all of the above advice can easily be applied to an HR department or business, HR departments also have an important role in helping their organizations become more agile.

First is to use data to use data to model your insights and requests. Muzio uses a staffing ramp as an example. As you try to meet your hiring targets, use your data to show how well you are meeting your organization’s forecast. Be up front about whether or not you can hit your target, and also be proactive in giving rationale for changing your target.

Second is to function as an organization’s eyes and ears — and ensure that an organization is focused on its present and future, not on reliving its past. To explain this, Muzio brings things full circle, to a futile, unproductive meeting. Make sure the meeting is focused on the present and future status of the company, not on what has happened before. If you notice things going haywire, Muzio says, nudge the meeting — or whatever it is — in the right direction.

But make sure you bring actionable suggestions to the table yourself. “You can start to say, ‘There are tools we can use to spend less airtime talking and more airtime decision-making about the future,’” Muzio says.

Resources Mentioned in This Episode

Thinking Like an Engineer in HR

Engineers and product teams have been using the agile method for decades to efficiently develop and deliver the best possible products. Most commonly used by software developers, this method helps cross-functional teams organize, continuously iterate and deliver high-quality products for customers. What may seem surprising is that departments outside of engineering and R&D are adopting these methods to better manage projects — including human resources.

It may seem like a stretch for an HR department to use agile. These practices were originally designed for teams building tangible, shippable products, and we typically associate products with physical goods that consumers buy and use. “Product thinking” may seem like a foreign concept, but when you really think about it, employees often feel unclear on what HR teams do within the organization and what “goods and services” they deliver.

HR encompasses many specialties, including recruiting and hiring, compensation, employee relations and company culture. Applying the agile method in a Scrum framework is a useful way of illustrating all the things the HR team is responsible for, who the correct points of contact are within the team, and what outputs and expected timelines look like.

Rather than visualizing a physical good, a better way to think of a product is “an idea, method or service created to serve a need or satisfy a want.” HR outputs certainly meet those criteria.

So how would an HR team “product-ize” something and apply a Scrum framework to that project?

Let’s take a program that all employees understand and care about — annual review cycles — and demonstrate how an HR team could use a Scrum framework during the complex, multi-step performance review process.

Identify Who the Users Are and What They Need

Employees, managers, peers, executive leadership, compensation teams and HR business partners are each players in the typical annual review cycle, with specific needs and points of view. These stakeholders need to know key due dates, to be able to deliver effective feedback and to access the correct software tools to award promotions and pay raises. By identifying the appropriate “users” who are part of the process, HR teams can pinpoint the essential product requirements from the very beginning.

Prioritize and Refine Which Features to Work on First

The next step is working as a team to break down user needs into requirements and organize them in order of priority in a list (or backlog) that can be owned and executed. The Scrum team should regularly review the project backlog to ensure the appropriate tasks are included, prioritized and ready to be worked on in a time-bound sprint, usually two weeks. Make sure time-consuming and time-sensitive tasks include deadlines and dependencies to not only help prioritize the tasks, but also illustrate what’s needed to fully complete the requirement in the sprint.

For example, an annual review may require collecting peer reviews from multiple team members before a hiring manager can proceed with scheduling a performance review with the employee, recommending a promotion to leadership and working with compensation experts to identify an appropriate merit increase. The idea of conducting a performance review might seem daunting to a manager, but emailing six employees and consolidating their feedback is not. By prioritizing the backlog and regularly revisiting the tasks, teams can quickly identify blockers and tackle segments of a large project piece by piece to make optimal use of each stakeholder’s time.

Constantly Iterate and Improve

One reason the agile method works so effectively for software teams is because it facilitates constant iteration. Scrum teams use Sprint Reviews and Product Retrospectives to reflect and to discover ways to improve in the future as a means to deliver better products time after time. After adopting a Scrum framework to manage the performance review process, measure whether the process was more streamlined and efficient. Solicit feedback from managers after the review process and compare their satisfaction against their previous experiences. It will quickly become apparent that teams that break large projects into requirements, prioritize them and push them through time-bound sprints will ship more products (or conduct more quality performance reviews).

Referring back to our example of “product-izing” the performance review, the end goal is to release a final experience which includes:

1. Valuable features. In this case, employees receive effective feedback that helps them grow professionally.
  2. A method. Processes for managers to give feedback to employees about their performance, like regular                    one-on-one discussions, merit increases or promotions.
  3. A service. Delivery of a quality, on-time performance review.

If used correctly, the application of these frameworks should result in a better experience for managers, employees and all other stakeholders.

Embracing this empirical ethos allows teams to continuously test and learn. Any engineer’s goal should be to delight end users, and that’s something every HR professional can identify with. HR teams should try applying these concepts, especially when tackling a large, cross-functional project. When agile is practiced with regularity, not only will workflows and collaboration within HR departments improve, but stakeholders throughout the organization will also benefit and be delighted by the better user experience as a result.


Future-Proofing Your Talent: How Agile Talent Practices Can Drive Digital Transformation

What kind of talent will your organization require in the next five years? In today’s volatile and complex world, digitization, artificial intelligence and automation have moved the goalposts for workforce development.

Make no mistake: These factors are disrupting the world of work. The skills required to succeed in organizations are shifting — and this is having a profound effect on workforce planning and on the career paths of employees.

HR faces the new challenge of understanding which aspects of jobs can be automated — and of understanding the broader impacts, including the human element for the people involved, of digital transformation. In the face of technological disruption, it’s challenging to confidently predict what any role will look like in five years’ time. So how can HR teams coherently plan the skills and competencies that will be needed at each level of the organization amid the constant advancement of technology?

Here’s how you can use agile talent management to future-proof your talent and take advantage of the competitive advantage that technology now provides, based on research in our recent white paper on the topic.

Update Your Competency Framework

Today’s volatile world means employees need to fit into constantly adapting, agile project teams. It’s unlikely that your existing competency framework was designed to support agile working and digital collaboration.

Digital and technical skills will undoubtedly be needed in your organization. But at every level, individuals will also need strong interpersonal skills and evolved abilities. These “future-proof” competencies that allow employees to thrive in a 21st-century workplace are:

  • Learnability.
  • Agility.
  • Curiosity.
  • Drive to succeed.
  • Data handling.
  • Strategic solutioning.
  • Business acumen.
  • Virtual collaboration.
  • Digital communication.
  • Mental endurance.
  • A coaching mindset.

No matter what the job role is, these competencies will be required for success.

Build, Borrow or Buy Your Talent

You have three options for equipping your organization with the necessary skills:

  • Build: With a global digital skills shortage, it isn’t easy to hire specialist digital talent. Investing in your existing workforce is something that every organization can and should be doing.
  • Borrow: Creating partnerships — for example, with universities and other organizations — can provide short-term access to talent and expertise.
  • Buy: Purchase consultancy expertise either at an individual or organizational level. Or you could subcontract assignments to a third-party organization.

Realign Your HR Business Processes

It’s no longer enough to provide annual or semi-annual performance reviews. Your talent will need continuous and forward-looking feedback. Key performance indicators will change frequently as individuals change roles and move across different project teams.

Your reward and recognition practices should become more flexible — and more focused on the competencies and measures of success you want to encourage.

Focus on maximizing the “employee experience” in your organization. Remember, 80 percent of your organizational success will be driven by 20 percent of your people. If you don’t reward your key talent appropriately — or provide the right environment — you’ll lose them.

Make Roles More Fluid

With digital transformation, job roles are changing at a faster rate than ever before. One solution? Enable your talent to evolve at speed by moving away from traditional career ladders to fluid career maps. This can be done through articulating talent needs of the future and encouraging talent movement in the organization, with emphasis on enabling individual growth as well as building depth and breadth of capability.

To articulate needs of the future, workshopping what “good” (and also “bad”) might look like in the future can be very powerful. Subject-matter experts, line managers, incumbents and other key stakeholders can develop “success profiles” that help you forecast talent needs and create targeted development and retention initiatives. Ultimately, these insights will fuel the development of flexible, engaged workforces with deep expertise in a range of areas.

Additionally, an openness to gig working will serve your organization well. Gig working is rapidly becoming a dominant trend, particularly among knowledge workers. By harnessing gig workers with the right skills and attributes, it’s possible to bring the right talent to bear on the challenges of the moment.

Utilize Smart Talent Data

A key ingredient to future-proofing your talent is using smart talent data. You can significantly enhance the way you recruit and manage talent, and improve the candidate experience, by integrating your recruitment and HR systems. The resulting data can provide talent analytics that will help you make smarter talent decisions — and prove the value of your services.

By leveraging data, you can create “organizational heat maps” that highlight the jobs, geographical areas, departments and teams where talent is available or specific development is required. Digital transformation will necessitate ongoing development of existing employees. Proactively manage and develop your talent, whether that’s by facilitating internal mobility, creating development programs, offering coaching or mentoring, or by giving people the opportunity to work on specific projects. Successful organizations will be those that provide continuous learning and effective retraining programs.

Don’t Crush Your Culture

Emphasize people over process. Throughout the constant flux of changing roles and agile working, it’s vitally important that your organization retains an effective operational culture. Fundamentally people are at the crux of any major organizational change, whether it’s technology-driven or not. Therefore, your culture should be a key ingredient that attracts and empowers people as well as engages them so they want to stay. Strive to create a culture where employees don’t fear technology or automation, but instead recognize and appreciate how technology can help them do more, create bigger impact and enjoy their work.