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Over the past two decades, agile methodologies have fundamentally transformed the tech community, enabling organizations to increase solution speed to market, customer satisfaction, and profitability.

These same methodologies are now being seen as enablers not just for IT and Digital organizations, but also for operations, marketing, and, yes, even HR practices.

As a Director of Talent Development for a Fortune 4 organization, my team has successfully leveraged these principles to transform our delivery of talent programs to our employees and leaders.

So how can the same agile principles that took the tech world by storm be applied to the human resources function? 

In this article, I’ll cover:

Let’s dive in.

What Does Agile HR Mean Exactly?

Agile HR is a solution delivery methodology that uses iterative development principles to prioritize speed of delivery, experimentation, and customer satisfaction.

Agile HR is more than just processes. It starts with a mindset and culture that you’re trying to develop.

Many large/established organizations are plagued by bureaucracy, clunky processes, and red tape. This leads to stagnation, declines in employee engagement, and, ultimately, poor customer satisfaction.

An agile HR mindset and culture is all about tearing down these barriers in order to embrace agile values like customer satisfaction (whether your customer is internal or external), simplicity, speed, and innovation.

Why HR should Be Agile

In order to understand the agile future of human resources, it helps to look at its origins.  

In 1901, as a product of the Industrial Revolution, rapid innovation, and the pressures of wide-scale unionization and worker strife, the National Cash Register founded what was thought to be the first HR department called ‘Personnel.’  

Primarily an administrative arm of the business, Personnel focused on tasks associated with recruitment, hiring, employee grievances, and even employee wellbeing.

Over the next century, fueled by legislature strengthening employee rights, HR teams would become increasingly administrative and compliance heavy in nature. Rapid globalization and technological enhancements like HR information systems eventually led to human resources functions being gutted, offshored, and even more admin-focused.  

However, in many instances, the pendulum had swung too far and National Cash Register’s Personnel team’s focus on employee wellbeing had been left in the dust. As Namely describes, “The HR departments of yesteryear have been characterized as backward, stodgy, and glorified complaint departments. There’s a reason why organizers can sell out entire conferences about the need to ‘redefine HR.’”

Today, HR responsibilities extend beyond employee relations. People are demanding more from their employers, and HR professionals’ roles have evolved into strategic partners in accelerating business results.

With the increased scope and strategic accountability, however, comes a need for human resources to adapt and rise to the challenge. This is where agile HR comes in.  

Traditional HR delivery models can lack the speed, customer attention, and innovation needed to meet your employee's wants and needs.

Agile enables HR teams to rapidly spin up products/product teams and take a human-centered approach when designing new initiatives.

Traditional HRAgile HR
Process-centricCustomer-centric
Holistic Iterative
PrescriptiveExperimental 
FormalFlexible 
PerfectionProgress 

How To Become Agile

So how do you become an agile HR function? Agile is often thought of as a process or methodology, but, in reality, it’s much more than that. I like to think of agile HR as being comprised of three primary compliments: 

  1. Agile mindset and culture
  2. Agile processes 
  3. Agile org design and delivery.

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Agile mindset and culture 

Employee satisfaction first

Agile processes are all about putting people first and ensuring customer satisfaction. In this case, your customers are the employees and leaders at your organization who will leverage the products (i.e., benefits, talent development tools, learning, and development, etc.) that your HR team is delivering to them.

Taking a human-centric approach, for example co-creating, your solutions as a collaboration between the HR team and business leaders is a great way to ensure you meet the needs of your customers/end users.  Beyond co-creation, you can also leverage surveys, focus groups, or interviews to collect feedback. The key is that your feedback process must be timely to inform the iterative development of your HR solutions.  

Create simplicity, increase speed

One of the major tenets of an agile culture is a propensity for simplicity to enable speed of delivery. While it’s common corporate lingo for us to say not to “boil the ocean”, the reality is this is a trap that HR organizations continually fall into. Too often, processes are over-engineered or designed for the simplicity of the HR team members rather than the end user.

Simple processes for both the HR and the end user increase not just the speed at which you can deliver new services to your colleague, but also the likelihood that your employees will adopt and leverage your new HR solutions.

Minimum viable products (MVP)

At some point in your career, you’ve no doubt heard “don’t let perfection get in the way of progress.” It’s natural for us to be perfectionists, especially about work we’re passionate about and have ownership over.

The concept of the MVP throws perfectionism out the window. The focus here should be on creating solutions that meet the minimum necessary requirements established to begin to add value to your organization as quickly as possible. From there you can garner employees’ continuous feedback and iterate.

Agile processes 

Leverage feedback for iterative development 

The beauty of leveraging the MVP approach we discussed above for your HR solution delivery is that you’ve accelerated getting a usable product to your leaders, bypassed accidentally over-engineering the solution, and collected meaningful real-time feedback to refine the process.

Iteratively developing your products simply means that you’ll continue to refine and re-release over time based on employee and leader feedback. This might happen more upfront when your HR processes are net new to your organization, but it’s essential that over time you continue to collect feedback and make refinements to ensure their efficacy and effectiveness in the future.  

Design thinking 

As I mentioned above, putting your end user first is one of the penultimate principles of agile HR. One of the easiest ways you can ensure you’re meeting this principle is to formalize design thinking practices within your HR function.

Design thinking is simply “a process for solving problems by prioritizing the consumer's needs above all else.” In the HR space, this means applying these same human-centered principles to solve complex problems and create the best possible employee experiences.  

All new challenges, problems, and solutions that you’re trying to implement as an HR function should begin with a formal, human-centered design step.

Deconstruct complex processes 

Agile in the tech space masterfully deconstructs complex solutions into smaller, more manageable pieces that can be developed and implemented over time. This allows agile product teams to incrementally improve products at a much quicker rate rather than building one large, complex solution all at once.

Agile HR is no different. You have the ability to dramatically improve the speed at which you can enhance your employee’s experiences by taking a similar approach. As part of your project planning efforts, segment complex HR challenges into simpler, easier-to-implement components. Each component should stack back to the big picture/end goal of what you are trying to accomplish.

An easy example of this would be implementing a new hybrid return-to-work program. Rather than trying to build a holistic approach to bring all of your employees back into the office, break your approach into logical steps. 

For instance, you might first look to bring your executive population back into the office as a mechanism to have them set the example. Or, if you have multiple offices, you might consider bringing employees back into a key hub location first.

This affords you the added benefit of course-correcting along the way by using a real-time feedback loop to continue to iterate on your approach as you bring your end vision to fruition.

Communication rituals 

Communication is an art in an agile world. The speed at which teams are working requires increased levels of communication, but it’s also essential that you ensure your delivery teams aren’t bogged down in meetings that prevent them from executing. 

Agile has this figured out. Meetings are reduced and key ‘rituals’ are leveraged to tear down barriers and keep teams focused on what’s in front of them. A couple of rituals I recommend considering are ‘stand-ups’ and ‘retrospectives.’

Stand-ups are designed to be rapid-fire working team meetings that address progress updates, any challenges, and remove barriers.

The simplest approach for this is to have everyone on the team cover:

(1) What they’ve accomplished since you last met
(2) What they are working on currently
(3) What barriers they are facing.

Any barriers identified during the meeting should be assigned to someone to address to ensure progress continues. Stand-ups are traditionally done on a daily basis, but you can adjust the cadence to your needs. 

Retrospectives are less about progress updates and more about lessons learned. The intention of a retrospective is to create a safe space to align on what went well, and what didn’t go so well, and use this as a feedback loop for continual improvement.

This would happen traditionally on a weekly basis, but, again, you can adjust based on what makes sense for your solution delivery teams. 

Agile org design and delivery 

Agile org design 

Your organizational design is an imperative input into your agile journey. However, the makeup of your agile HR team can vary dramatically depending on the scale of your organization, the maturity of your agile processes, and the scope of what you’re delivering.  

Regardless of your organization's specific needs, there are a couple of principles that are inherent to any agile HR team: clear purpose, customer focus, autonomy/decision-making pushed to the lowest possible levels, and data-driven decisions based on feedback.  

infographics of key components of an agile hr team

Based upon the scale of your agile organization, you may also need to implement new agile roles such as Agile Coaches, Scrum Masters, and Product Owners.

Cross-functional agile product teams

Regardless of the org design you align on, agile delivery is predicated upon your organization's ability to spin up agile product teams that are flexible and cross-functional.  This means bringing together a diverse team of individuals from various HR/business functions who each have unique and complementary skill sets needed to bring your HR product forward.  

Product teams coalesce around specific products or projects and take ownership of the project from its inception all the way through its delivery/implementation.

Cross-functionality is key in an agile HR product team. Diversity of thought, expertise, and specialization built directly into the team ensures that the product team is self-sufficient and has the internal subject matter expertise to take full ownership and accountability for driving the product forward.

Sprints 

Agile teams usually leverage sprints as mechanisms to drive rapid momentum through the design, development, and delivery of new solutions. Sprints are short, dedicated, and time-boxed periods of time in which specific deliverables will be completed within an agile product.  

This is where the concept of iterative development meets the reality of agile delivery. Each sprint focuses on a specific set of deliverables, allowing the team to deliver value in a quicker manner, collect feedback, and continue to make progress toward the larger HR solution delivery goals.

Bringing It All Together—A Case Study In Agile Talent Development 

Getting started with agile HR can be much simpler than you might guess. I want to provide you with a real-life case study of how I’ve used agile HR principles to deliver high-quality talent development solutions.

My team oversees a high-potential leadership development program that we deliver to one of our business units. We developed it via the same agile principles I discussed above: 

  1. Cross-functional agile teams - We began our journey by pulling together a cross-functional agile team of employees with diverse skills and roles. This included members of the talent management team, HR Business Partners, business leaders, and human-centered designers. This specialized team had the diversity of thought and skill required to deliver the solution and was empowered by our executive leadership team to have the requisite autonomy needed to drive the product forward without bureaucracy, red tape, or additional approvals.
  1. Communication rituals - The product delivery team took advantage of traditional agile communication rituals. We met twice a week for standup calls to ensure alignment and once weekly for a retrospective to allow us to slow down and examine what was working well/not so well and adjust accordingly. For example, we were able to quickly identify barriers with a specific vendor we were leveraging for training content. This allowed us to change our approach and reset expectations with the vendor for future engagements. 
  1. Employee satisfaction first and design thinking - We began by leveraging a pair of human-centered designers (a role that sits within our technology organization and usually supports the design of digital products) to conduct a significant amount of user research (interviews with executive leaders, past program participants of other leadership development programs, internal clients of the business unit the program supported, and perspective high-potential candidates in the program) to inform the design of the program and ensure it met all customer needs.
  1. Simplicity and iterative development - Rather than designing/developing the entire program soup to nuts before presenting to end users, we took an approach where we deconstructed the vision into smaller pieces. This created simplicity and allowed us to take an iterative development approach. This meant that, although we designed a vision for the entire program, we developed and delivered phases/iterations of the program over time. This increased our ‘speed to market’, and allowed us to collect continuous feedback from our participants along the way that informed the design/development of future phases.

As you can see, this didn’t require us to transform our entire HR organization. All we had to do was coalesce around the principles I laid out above, pull together an empowered product team, and organize our project management in a way that enabled simplicity, speed, and continuous improvement. 

The results spoke for themselves: we created the single highest-rated development program per employee satisfaction scores that I've been a part of.  

Jump-Starting Your Agile HR Transformation 

Don’t be afraid to take an agile approach to your agile HR implementation. Take baby steps towards implementing your larger agile vision, collect feedback, iterate, and experiment. 

Let your colleagues co-develop the agile approach that will work best for your organization, and be sure to break down your approach into easy-to-implement chunks that you can release over time as you work to move your HR function fully into the agile realm. Once you know what works for your team, you can scale what works and create a true agile transformation. 

My recommendation is to first start with the culture and mindset you’re trying to establish before moving onto formal agile processes.

As Agile HR Community states, agile HR “is about truly stepping out of the tradition of following HR best practice and embracing a test and learn approach to deliver value, the value that is validated by our people and their experience of work. Only once HR embraces this mindset can the profession successfully adopt Agile tools and practices within our own teams and projects.”

Some further resources:

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By Alex Link

Alex is a HR Director for a Fortune 4 organization with a passion for developing the leaders of tomorrow. He has a Masters of Science in Human Resources and Labor Relations and has extensive experience in HR, Leadership Development, Talent Management, Learning and Development, and more. When not focused on helping people realize their career aspirations, he enjoys playing guitar, reading sci-fi fantasy novels, relaxing with his wife, and playing with their two young children.