#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.

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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