Agile Requires a New Company Culture, and HR Can Make a Big Difference

How HR Can Support an Agile Transformation  

When teams are ready to change the way they work, HR may be their greatest champion in shedding the old and stale ways of thinking and operating. That is especially true when it comes to Agile transformation. As their strategic partner, you have a huge role to play in setting the table for success: Getting creative talent on board, and giving them the space and safety to innovate. So, even if your work in HR does not have an immediate impact on day-to-day operations, the success of your company’s Agile transformation depends critically on you.  

OK…so what now? 

Do You Have the Right People in the Right Roles? 

You probably already know this, but of all the reasons that most startups fail, the main reason usually isn’t money. In a Forbes survey, only 2 out of 20 CEOs of kaput companies stated that funding was an issue. By stark contrast, consulting and analytical firm CB Insight found that a staggering 23% of startups fail because of an “inadequate team.”  

Even if you’re not a startup, consider the impact of weak links on the rest of your staff, your customers, your leadership, and ultimately, the company’s health. While this might seem obvious, it’s worth repeating: HR’s first responsibility on a strategic level is to ensure that you have the right folks in the right roles.   

Start with your recruitment strategy. Revise job descriptions to bring in people who are already familiar with, or trained in, Agile. Make it a point, too, to look for “T-shaped talent”—that is, people who have a depth of skill in needed areas, but broader cross-functional skills as well. 

One of the biggest obstacles will be sorting out who can, and who cannot, handle working within self-organizing teams. So, when hiring, seek out characteristics like: 

  • Self-starting 
  • Collaborative  
  • Responsive 
  • Empathetic 
  • Coachable

Even after you’ve recruited the best players, they still need to learn your playbook. Assume that they will need some coaching and instruction on precisely how your organization has implemented agile processes.  

Give Your Most Strategic Thinkers the Space They Need to…Think 

I like to believe that one of the reasons that humans are drawn to spaces with tall ceilings is because it helps us feel like we have more freedom. Consider that agile environments are the creative equivalent of roomy spaces. You want your teams to have plenty of headspace to manage their workloads and projects.  

While that may seem like a lofty metaphor (which ends here, we promise), it’s actually pretty accurate when it comes to the foundational goals of Agile: You bring the right talent together and give them the freedom they need to execute. Increasingly, for example, many agile companies give staff at least one day a month to work on whatever they want, whether that’s paid work or not. The freedom to experiment opens the door to greater creativity and innovation. First, though, the freedom part has to happen.   

Help management understand that their role should be more strategic in nature, and that modern workspaces rely less on hierarchy and more on enablement and support. A manager’s role should be to coordinate teams, communicate across silos, and furnish resources—not to micromanage projects. 

Letting go of day-to-day control doesn’t mean letting go of the direction, mind you. But being a modern leader with an agile mindset means doing everything you can to make sure that teams are not inhibited from doing the jobs that they were hired to do in the first place. 

Protect the Intellectual, Creative, and Psychological Safety of Your Workers 

Google’s two-year Aristotle project somewhat famously studied 180 teams, collected data from over 200 interviews, and studied over 250 different team attributes. The study then used some of the most talented analysts and psychological experts, and what they found was some of the expected. Good teams need dependable people, clearly stated goals, and the knowledge that their work was going to be impactful.   

The surprise? Analysts uncovered that workers needed to feel psychologically safe at work in order for teams to innovate successfully.  

So: Safety and innovation are deeply connected, and productive professionals know this. A-list talent isn’t going to make suggestions in a meeting or a huddle when ideas aren’t welcomed effectively. What kind of imagination are you likely to bring to work with you, or utilize regularly, if you feel humiliated, embarrassed, micromanaged, or distrusted?   

By contrast, what kind of innovations are you more likely to recommend or discover if you feel safe to take risks, share your opinion, or air grievances about a colleague or a manager?   

Your engineers, product staff, and designers need more than technical skills to succeed. Effective communication skills throughout the company are an absolute must. Psychological safety is probably as important to incoming and existing staff as salary and other tangibles. If folks feel stifled, or (heaven forbid) unsafe, the culture will stall, people will walk, and your team will be left with more shoes to fill.  

If your environment is on the high-pressure and/or stifling side, you may need to start gently, but do it with a firm hand. You are positioned to be the very individual who helps the company change course. Here are some ideas to get you started:  

  • Find allies and identify champions. Are there folks in leadership who are aware of the issues and who will agree to some gentle—but firm—conversations? 
  • Show them the data. It’s much harder to argue with facts than opinions. 
  • Start with small, incremental changes. Companies are built on layers upon layers of relationships. Reconfiguring them is going to take time. 
  • Ask for help. You may need to bring in reinforcements, and that’s precisely what a communicative, encouraging, and qualified professional will help you do.  

Use an Agile Framework Within HR  

Yes, you can absolutely use Agile within your own teams, and you can become an agile HR department even if the organization hasn’t yet reached its full Agile transformation.   

Your own transformation will also give you greater insight into the pain points and difficulties of the process. Agile isn’t just for engineers and software. It’s a framework that can be layered into any business function to free up creativity and innovation.  

When you embrace (you’ve probably done this already) that your employees are the clients, and that your products are how you develop employee programs, Agile transforms HR into a strategic functional specialty.  

Agile for HR looks a whole lot like Agile anywhere:  

  • Prioritize change over “the plan” → It’s not called Agile for nothing! 
  • Embrace data and testing over opinion and anecdote → Data never, ever lies. 
  • Put individuals and interactions above targets → Humans are your greatest resource. 
  • Rapid bursts of innovation over big campaigns → You don’t “go for” a marathon every day; you go for a run. 
  • Try small experiments over massive “bet it all” campaigns → It’s far easier to adjust and learn in small increments. 
  • Collaboration > Hierarchies → Management removes obstacles to success rather than provide constant oversight.

There is never a “right” moment for transformation, but there are people around you with a deep and resonant understanding of what needs to change and where it’s needed the most. HR is a profound link between those conversations and resources, and could be the spark that directs the culture into a new and utterly transformational future.  

Rebecca Rutherford

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