Agile HR: All You Need to Know to Get Started

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It’s clear that in a world of work defined by VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity), the need to adapt fast is imperative. HR faces this same reality of solving problems faster by modernizing and digitizing the function. In other words, HR needs to urgently adopt an agile approach to transform the world of work. What is agile HR and which agile HR practices can you implement in your department?

Currently, agile approaches sporadically appear in various HR processes, such as talent acquisition or performance management. Yet, it is slowly starting to permeate into other areas as well. Agile HR can appear to be a complex topic at the start. However, we’ve broken down all the elements involved to provide practical steps to apply in the workplace.

Contents
What is agile HR?
Agile principles in HR
Benefits of agile HR approach
How to apply agile to HR
Agile HR practices examples

What is agile HR?

The agile methodology

Let’s first look at what the agile methodology is and then see how it translates to HR. 

“Agile is an iterative approach to project management and software development that helps teams deliver value to their customers faster and with fewer headaches. Instead of betting everything on a “big bang” launch, an agile team delivers work in small but consumable increments. Requirements, plans, and results are evaluated continuously, so teams have a natural mechanism for responding to change quickly.” – this definition offered by Atlassian succinctly defines the agile methodology and contextualizes it, that it is primarily an approach to project and software development.

 

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The agile methodology is based on 12 principles:

  1. Satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery.
  2. Welcome changing requirements, even late in development.
  3. Deliver working software frequently.
  4. Business people and developers work together daily.
  5. Build projects around motivated individuals.
  6. Convey information via face-to-face conversation.
  7. Working software is the primary measure of progress.
  8. Maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
  9. Give continuous attention to technical excellence.
  10. Simplify: maximizing the amount of work not done.
  11. Teams self-organize.
  12. Teams retrospect and tune behavior.

And four values:

The agile methodology came to life as software developers started working on internet applications. The need to produce new capabilities to the market at a faster rate was unprecedented. As a result, the teams, tools, and platforms changed to suit this delivery style – and so the agile methodology was born. It meant that there was a greater focus on iteration, collaboration, self-organization, and innovation. 

From this process, the agile methodology was born, which was solidified in the Agile Manifesto.

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There are several agile frameworks to manage projects, including the popular Scrum and Kanban.

The agile methodology started in software production, and it started expanding into other fields, such as construction, agriculture, research, the medical field, etc. It’s not so much the methodology that expanded into the industries, but rather an agile mindset that stemmed from the principles. HR is also starting to adopt an agile methodology actively.

Organizations that prioritize adopting an agile HR approach will more than likely better deal with changes than those who do not.

Agile HR

How to apply the agile methodology to HR might not be directly apparent. It is rather an agile mindset that HR can adopt and learn from. This is essential to deal with a workplace that is ever-changing and continuously in need of fast solutions. Agile HR thus is: 

  • Structuring HR to respond faster and adapt to situations more speedily and flexibly. 
  • Have a flexible approach to HR that molds as the workforce changes. 
  • An HR function that supports an organization that is more responsive to customer needs. 

Agile HR also challenges the traditional approach to HR practices in the following ways: 

Traditional approach Agile approach in HR
Career paths are defined and linear.  Career paths are dynamic, and employees can move in several directions.  
Learning and development initiatives are rolled out at the start of the year with a pre-determined objective and outcome.  Learning is rolled out just-in-time and is an ongoing initiative instead of a one-off effort. 
HR systems are developed over time and are implemented once everything is tested and functioning 100%.  HR systems are developed on a small scale, with a quick turnaround time. Feedback is quickly provided to understand whether or not the system should continue to be developed. 
Talent management functions as an annual process, placing employees in various talent buckets, and various training is then provided.  HR empowers managers and employees to take ownership of talent management. HR provides the tools and support to facilitate any talent management development activities. 
Recruitment is based on a needs basis. Once a vacancy becomes available, the recruitment process starts until the candidate is found.  Employers are continually developing their presence across all platforms, and create a database of talented individuals, to pipeline for future needs. 

Agile principles in HR

More than just a different approach to the various HR processes, the agile methodology forces HR professionals to adopt a different mindset: 

Mindset shift #1 – From clusters to collaboration

Far too often, HR has operated in departments (e.g., recruitment, HR admin, talent management, HR generalists, etc.) without any effort to collaborate. Furthermore, HR is so often removed from the business.

An agile approach to HR necessitates that teams should be multi-skilled. As an example of this, an HR professional could be sitting in the same room as a business manager, investment banker, and marketing director to work on people management needs.

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Imagine a team made of these individuals to work on a matter such as organizational culture. It would yield far more effective and holistic solutions than a traditional approach where only HR professionals would work on this. This encourages co-creation, which has shown to deliver far more innovative solutions than a clustered approach. 

Mindset shift #2 – From fixed to failure

One of the most powerful aspects of an agile approach to HR is the speed at which it enables process development. This means an increase in potential failure, which is not a bad thing. It only implies that processes are being deployed faster, and a solution to a problem can be developed much more effectively. A traditional HR approach would have a fixed approach, where change is not welcomed, and a system has to be set to 110% effectiveness before it can be deployed. 

This mindset shift also encourages prototyping – which means that HR professionals experiment, map, and research the best methods of delivery. A simple example of this would be a team consisting of IT professionals, an HR manager, recruitment, marketing, etc. This team would build a performance management app in two weeks and roll it out to 20 people. It means they would test the app on a small group of people, and the consequences of failure are basically inconsequential. 

Mindset shift #3 – From every year to every day

HR in many organizations has often followed a traditional yearly cycle, which places the various processes on a calendar. Remuneration, performance management, talent management, and other HR processes are typically reviewed on an annual basis.

However, an agile approach to HR assesses circumstances every day and then follows the appropriate methods to develop solutions in the moment. This allows for HR to receive information from the immediate environment and enact upon it.

Benefits of agile HR approach

There is a method behind the madness of an agile HR approach. The benefits for an agile HR approach include, but are not limited to the following: 

  • Improved team collaboration – There is better communication and teamwork between employees of different parts of the organization. Agile HR also emphasizes transparency and therefore instills enhanced trust throughout the team. 
  • Continuous feedback – Feedback is received on a more regular and consistent basis. This enables HR to develop solutions that are relevant and effective. 
  • Better adaptability –  The pandemic has highlighted the need for teams to adapt to changing conditions. The agile methodology aims to “test, learn and optimize,” allowing teams to shift quickly if needed.
  • Greater measurement of output – Agile emphasizes results, which is evident in the present dashboards and visualizations. As a result, the HR department can show direct results related to the time, cost, and performance of any initiative.

How to apply agile to HR

Your team doesn’t have to adopt the full agile methodology for it to be effective. You can select specific features to suit your needs.

Below are general steps that you can pick and choose from when applying the agile methodology to HR. We will use ‘new joiner onboarding’ as a process to demonstrate the agile methodology in practice: 

1. Define the problem

Before you can use any methodology to improve an HR process, you first need to identify the exact issue you are trying to improve. The best way to find out is by consulting with all the relevant stakeholders involved.

Example: It currently takes 10 days for a new joiner to complete the relevant paperwork to be properly onboarded. The organization wants to shorten this to three days.

2. Decide on your resources and define roles and responsibilities

Once you know the problem, the next step is to put together a team that can tackle it. Agile teams are usually small and have complementary skills.

This team will be using one of the agile methodologies to design and execute the desired solution. You may choose to use Scrum, Kanban, Lean Startups, XP, Dev. Ops and Continuous Delivery, all of which are agile methodologies. Each methodology comes with its own way of managing the project.

But simply put, the work will be carried out in sprints – this is a 2- to 4-week period, at the end of which the team delivers an initial version of the solution. In the following sprints, the team iterates on their previous work.

Whichever approach you follow, you will need to take into account the human resources you will need, as well as the physical resources (e.g., dashboards, visualizations, etc.)

Example: In order to shorten the time it takes to fill in the relevant onboarding paperwork, you need a system that can streamline all the necessary documents and eliminate duplicate information. Assemble a team consisting of HR generalists, recruiters, and  IT personnel to develop dashboards.

You now need to deploy each member of the team into smaller teams that produce high-end results. Each team is responsible for providing feedback to the broader team during standup meetings. Ideally, you will also choose a scrum master who is primarily responsible for guiding the entire process and team. In our example, it could be the HR generalist.

3. Develop your goals

In the agile approach, goals are what needs to be delivered by the end of each sprint. These can be broken down into activities that create a ‘backlog.’ You need to develop this backlog to decide what you need to do and how long it will take. The entire team needs to contribute to this process.

Activities are then prioritized and assigned to different team members. During standup meetings the team members update each other on the progress they’ve made.

Example: Gather all documentation for onboarding and place it into an electronic database to automate it within two weeks. 

This would be a larger objective, and your backlog would break down this task into smaller sub-tasks. Example: 

  • Gather employee registration form, medical aid application form, payroll form and upload them to a shared folder.
  • Establish a process of who signs what and when.
  • Review two electronic signature solutions.

4. Start with your first sprint

As we’ve mentioned before, a sprint is a specified and usually short period of time that a team tries to complete a certain amount of work. This helps teams get things done faster, and the maximum time for a sprint is usually four weeks.

During the regular (daily or weekly) standup meetings, the team should discuss progress on the sprints. Areas where teams are collaborating on sprints should also be addressed in these daily meetings.

Example: Has the HR generalist compiled the folder with all the forms? If not, where is the problem and who can help them with it?

5. Take note of feedback

After completing your sprint, you’ll go into a sprint review.

Here you need to consider the feedback, both from the team and from clients or end-users. Understand what some issues that arose were, identify barriers to success and frustration points. Analyze if there’s a fair workload and if collaboration has taken place. If there are notable successes from the first sprint, be sure to celebrate this. This will help the team to be more motivated for upcoming sprints.

Example: After testing the new process, the team found out that the process still took six days. The new employee forgot to sign one form. The team decides to iterate the process and include an email reminder sent on days 2 and 3 to remind the employee to sign the forms.

You may need to choose the parts of this process that works for you. Or you may need to run several sprints until you complete the final product. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach. 

Agile HR practices examples

The outcome of the above process means that HR is working faster and producing much more dynamic solutions than before. Below are some examples of how an agile way of working can have a net positive effect on HR practices: 

Recruitment

One of the most expensive costs for organizations is the time it takes to hire talent. There is a constant demand for vacancies to be filled, and an agile recruitment methodology can aid in this. A traditional recruitment process would include screening, an interview, a second interview, an assessment, perhaps a final interview, and then an offer. This, however, is really against the agile methodology. An agile approach is to provide candidates with transparency, a clear understanding of the organization, and provide enough information for both the candidate and employer to make faster decisions. 

For instance, Uber created a gamification element to the recruitment process with an app called UberDrive. The game guided applicants through San Francisco and awarded points for drivers taking the shortest route and information on how to provide tips of things to do in the city to customers.

The app offers candidates a transparent perspective of the job they would be doing, how much money they can earn and how it is to work for the company. This increases the decision-making processes for everyone involved in the recruitment processes and provides a faster and efficient solution as opposed to a traditional recruitment process. 

Onboarding

Organizations are constantly trying to improve the experience of new joiners, as it is one of the most crucial moments of a good employee experience. Alongboarding is an agile methodology approach to employee onboarding. It aims to make the experience more dynamic and relevant for new joiners. 

An onboarding experience should include the basics, which is introducing the new team member to the broader organization, roles, and responsibilities, values, goals, missions, etc. The agile methodology comes to fruition by co-creating the onboarding experience with the new joiner. The experiences have to be done in sprints (such as two or four weeks). 

Performance management

One of the HR areas that has come into the spotlight in recent years is performance management. There has been consistent feedback about the efficacy of an annual performance review and whether or not it is still a relevant approach to evaluating an employee’s performance.

An agile approach to performance management encourages frequent conversations and regular performance discussions instead of an annual or bi-annual performance discussion. This type of regular feedback enables employees and managers to make changes more often and faster, and iterate the work processes.

As an example of this, GitLab refocused its performance management approach to focus on managing remote teams. They applied iteration to everything and embraced total transparency. In their handbook, they specifically focused on ‘measure results not hours.’

This shift focused specifically on the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and an agile approach allowed them to make this shift. Then, they focused on performance and productivity as their cornerstone of evaluating employees, and not ‘number of hours worked’. To support this, Gitlab developed a performance matrix, which they have subsequently iterated as well. The outcome of this was to provide an opportunity for employees to receive continuous feedback for their development more often than not.

Over to you

Adopting elements of the agile methodology can help your HR team improve collaboration and work more effectively and efficiently. Understand which agile practices your team could benefit from and implement them on a small scale first.

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