Agile HR: Balancing on the edge of Chaos

Increasingly businesses are finding themselves operating in environments fraught with unpredictable and disruptive change. For businesses to sustainably excel in the new reality it requires it to respond proactively and at pace. The terms Agile organisation, Agile working and Agile delivery are used intermittently to describe the new business environment.

Agile to many of us is intriguing. We hear it thrown about in inductions, in day-to-day project work, but it is not something we necessarily know what it means, how to use or even where to start. Agile delivery is a concept that started in the IT environment specifically in relation to software development.  Adopting an agile organisation is in today’s economic environment essential. The Agile Methodology is a great place to learn the basic principles and the values driving this way of working. After you decide to embrace it, go on the training and really understand it – it opens your eyes up to a new world of working. Now, this can throw up real challenges for HR and to many people the feeling of chaos and loss of control. However, it is time for HR to break out of the traditional boundaries, modernise and become a truly value-adding function in this modern workplace by embracing Agile HR. In this piece these challenges will be discussed, questions raised and some practical tips in embracing the Agile ways of working will be shared.


Lets take a look at the 5 top challenges within traditional HR functions today:


Multigenerational Workforce

As the new wave of millennium born workforce come in to play this throws challenges up for HR and businesses in general.  Those who have more experience need to question their ways of working and embrace these multigenerational organisations by breaking from their comfort zones.  Some of the elements between generations that stand out are:

New ways of working – With this young generation brings new ways of working, we work anywhere, on any device at any time. They have a new relationship with work. HR need to not shy away from this and constrain it but encourage and nurture it.

Dress code – Things as simple as dress code, a simple artefact of our culture has shifted, there is a general pull to being less formal. A lot of the experienced generation have embraced this dress down culture, however it can be the case that leaders within organisations have not, meaning there can be a disconnect between these levels. Leaders need to embrace these elements of change (role model the new behaviours required) in order to adopt this multigenerational culture shift.

Social media mentality – In the past HR was working out how to keep people from using social media at work now the shift is towards encouraging it. There is no need for policing from HR, but the need for a two-way trust as it is a tool for innovation, networking and has a lot of use in the workplace. Trust has not traditionally been an element of our function, however this is something we need to truly embrace in an Agile HR world.


Traditional Approaches to Performance Management

Traditionally performance management has been focussed on the time and input rather than the output and the value behind the exercise. The method of a fixed annual review is a very traditional waterfall approach and is focussed on the form filling and bureaucracy. In an Agile HR world, we need shift the responsibility from HR onto the responsibility of the employee and their managers. It is about ad hoc reviews and 360 feedback. Where HR can input the most is establishing the performance-focussed culture and develop feedback as a core organisational capability.



Narrow Skill Set

Another big challenge is for employee skills to remain relevant in this rapidly changing environment is for HR to encourage and enable continuous re-skilling and learning.. HR needs to avoid over –specialisms and narrow focus within roles. We need to encourage our people to develop broader generalist skillsets through moving away from linear career development approaches.

To use technology as an example, those who tie themselves to one technology early on in their career can find themselves hitting a brick wall when the world moves away from that particular technology. HR needs to encourage people to take up a wide knowledge of technologies to enable career development, proactive change within business to be ahead of trends and innovation.


Non Collaborative Working

A lack of collaboration leads to a lack of innovation. An office environment that does not encourage collaborative working leads to stale ideas and no drive for innovation meaning the business stays still in its market. We should take advantage of both horizontal innovation (innovating on the same idea to improve it) and vertical innovation (innovating on next idea up and disrupting market) in the workplace. An Agile HR function needs to encourage collective intelligence through collaboration within and outside of our organisatons and industries. HR can stifle this process through strict job descriptions and restrictive op models; we need to ensure a fluid and dynamic organisation design in order to be collaborative.


Agile and HR Clashing Mentalities

We are seeing the principals and mind-set of Agile seeping through our organisations, so we need to ensure HR keeps up and encourages it. In order to be embracing Agile, HR needs to promote self-managing teams, daily stand-up huddles, multi faceted skillsets, hybrid roles and employee ownership of own careers. Why not buck the trend of a strict and meaty HR policy by stripping it down from its controlling elements, simplifying it and using the tone of voice you want to hear from. We are hearing more and more that rules are being thrown out the window, for example Virgin and the ‘take as much holiday as you want’ approach. We don’t measure our hours of actual work completed, so why measure the days off.  These approaches can sound chaotic and clashing with the traditional rules and regulations that HR strives to achieve, however this is just not the case it is again down to trust. We need to have trust in our employees that they can deliver in this environment and do not exploit our trust in them. In HR we want a pull rather than push mentality. In order to embrace this new transformation we recommend that everyone takes a one-day introductory course in Agile.


To enable an Agile HR function there is a lot to change and can seem overwhelming. Here is a starter for 10 on practical elements that can be done to step closer to that Agile HR function:


  • Job Descriptions – Traditional ones do not support an Agile organisation. They cannot be prescriptive, too detailed or constrain the individual. Simplify it, make it adaptable to encourage multiple skills and collaboration and get the tone of voice right for user.
  • Performance Management – Switch up the annual review from a waterfall and quite frankly clunky method to feedback. Encourage a year round, ad hoc culture for feedback where it is given as and when it is needed. Implement a 360-hour a number of times a year for everyone in the business. Consider having team objectives where team goals are aligned with individual ones then rewards can be given as a unit. Why not use online tools such as Rippl or Performyard for feedback making it more accessible and simple for all.
  • Be Lean – continually try to optimise what you do in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. Use online tools, cut waste out of processes to ensure the steps are minimal and output is high.
  • Switch up your change management – instead of delivering 4 year bolt on change programmes adopt an Agile approach. Complete step by step incremental changes to ensure buy in by all and visibility of change in the business throughout the period.
  • HRIS – Technology plays a huge part in leadership and effectiveness of the business, it needs to be fast, simple and responsive. When analysing your current architecture in IT use the 3 SCRUM pillars of transparency (easy access data), inspection (provision of intelligent data) and adaption (how can we use this data) rather than at the jazzy functions it provides.
  • HR Policies – It is time to declutter. Take a step back and evaluate which policies could be simplified or scrapped altogether. Ask yourself what purpose each policy serves and whether it adds value to the business – often complexity is amassed over the years and just accepted as a given. Use language that is easily understood. If you are considering introducing a new HRIS, form a “path clearing” stream to address current complexities instead of replicating them in your flashy new system.



So to conclude becoming an Agile HR function is not Agile in itself until you understand the fundamentals, make the mind shift required and are brave enough to take the leap and bring along your team with you! Hopefully the answers around the common challenges, the areas that need to change as well as the practical tips on becoming Agile will help in this journey.

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