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.