AgileHR Finally Hit The Mainstream Management Media (HBR)!

Ketterä HR

It’s time for the early majority to join the club!

I quit my job in 2010 because I learnt about agile and realized it will change how organizations will function, how we will work and how the profession I love will have to change. My calling is help organizations, management and HR to move towards agile, networked and learning organizations, and since 2010 I have been working to do that. Since University Peter Senge’s teachings about learning organizations were in my heart , and finally agile theory and mindset introduced a system and language, built-in rapid feedback loops and a healthy human view to enable the next generation organizations. “This is what I want to work with”, I realized!

Agile HR just hit the recent HRB in an article with examples of AgileHR. In this  HBR article the authors say the “with the business justification for the old HR systems gone and the agile playbook available to copy, people management is finally getting its long-awaited overhaul too”. I could not agree more!

How could you continue keeping up HR practices and HR processes that are providing very little value to the business, designed inside the HR bunker, imposing them on the business, often burdening managers with spending their valuable time doing nonsense, with wrong timing and bad user experience?

After my eight years of building expertise in the AgileHR area, training close to 500 HR and management professionals in the implications of agile on both HR and management, I believe I can pinpoint the biggest plague of my target group to really succeed in transforming their organizations.

The HR executives and Business executives do not have time to learn.

How on earth could you possibly steer a digital company or lead transformation in your unit if you don’t really get what is changing? Taking out several days to deeply learn about this new digital and agile paradigm, to deep dive to really get the mindset and to invest time in experiencing how agile methods work to build the rudimentary skill set also for the executives, is too big of a stretch for this group with packed calendars. The people who actually have the mandate to change systemic structures such as planning cycles, budgeting, performance management, incentive design, policies will not take out time to learn the new rules of the system.

What I’m hearing is that they need an “executive summary” or a “one hour intro should be enough”. How’s that for a challenge? One hour to explain and help you internalize that EVERYTHING you learned about business logic, management and operations is now turning upside down when working agile.

AgileHR or Agile management is not a walk in the park or something you learn through reading a book or understanding on a quick superficial level about being “flexible, nimble and working in iterations”. This HBR article is approaching AgileHR through great case examples, but is not getting in on the mindset and belief system that guides all decision making in HR when working in Agile ways.

My definition of Agile HR lands in the following categories, which require different subsets of agile- and HR capabilities to design, develop and lead. When you talk about AgileHR at least specify the context you are talking about. This categorizing might help you.

  1. AgileHR as in designing HR practices for Agile businesses
  2. AgileHR as in Designing modern and user friendlier HR practices (but not specifically to Agile operations)
  3. AgileHR as in using Agile tools, methods and practices in HR
  4. AgileHR as in supporting a starting or ongoing digital transformation

Let me open up these categories a bit to you.

1. AgileHR as in Designing HR practices and processes for agile business units.
Agile & digital is an umbrella for how these business units operate. For you to be able to design relevant practices to support these operations, you have to know the new roles, rules, cycle times, meeting structures, mandates, value delivery streams, prioritization levels, new role of management in the system, the performance measures, KPIs, the terminology, and logic of agile. This is where I see the HBR article fails. The authors are presenting examples of “AgileHR” without enough context.

Let me give you an example: If you understand the agile system you will know that an agile system will not need an “additional performance management process”, because performance management and continuous improvement is a built in feature of the agile way of working. How’s that for a nut to crack for HRs and management?

If you don’t know what I mean with performance management being a built-in feature in agile, you don’t understand agile on deep enough level to design Performance management to Agile businesses.

2. AgileHR as in Designing modern and user friendlier HR practices (but not specifically to Agile operations)

There is plenty to learn from Discovery working, Lean thinking, Lean Startup, product and service design, design thinking and user experience mapping for HR to design relevant, useful and valuable HR tools, practices, processes and policies that are validated and tested with the users. This is the part that the HRB article covers quite nicely. Great examples of rethinking the HR portfolio of value and services!

3. Agile HR as in Using Agile ways of working in HR teams when developing new products, services or policies.

Many HR teams have started with Kanban, Scrum, Design thinking or different modified agile ways of working to manage their own work and projects in a more complex environment. The elements of agile are perfectly applicable for people operations, too. What I like most is to see my clients doing hypothesis with user validation, prototyping with rapid feedback, and incremental planning, development and releasing of valuable chunks for the business. It is Wickedly COOL to see how the hard boiled HR professionals actually start questioning the miserable, massive, global “roll-outs” and “casdaces”, so familiar to us in HR.

HR teams should be learning about the whole “agile onion”, it all starts in the values and mindset, our human view. Unfortunately, too many teams approach agile through learning a tool or a method, i.e starting to use Scrum. Agile is not a tool or a method, it is a holistic approach on how you work on anything more complex, how you think and why you think in another way. Also being mindful and knowledgeable on where Agile is NOT suitable is relevant and requires a broader conceptual collective understanding in the HR team.

4. AgileHR as in Supporting Digital Transformations from the HR-, management- and people perspective

Digital transformation are two words found in most of the companies visionary strategies today. Many HR functions are not even considered early allies by the business, when initiating the transformation program. This is because the HR processes and policies most often are considered blockers of innovation, creativity and progress towards digital operations. The business people “want HR to stay as far away as possible”. This leads to HR being too late, knowing too little, and not having the opportunity to build capability to serve the new paradigm of work when the rubber hits the ground and your product development organization suddenly is all agile or working through the “SAFe” model.

The following examples are just a couple of practical tips you would need to consider very early on in the digital transformation from an HR perspective (many of which are only removing blockers for the transformation, not actually adding value):

  • Prepare for new roles. It probably will take several months for you to update your role descriptions, job descriptions, job grades and pay scales, bands and train managers in all that. Map out RTEs, SPCs, CSMs, POs, Lead architect, data scientists, Frontend developers, Back-end developers, UX specialists, Designers, ETL experts, certain coding language skills (which need to be updated with approximately ½ year cycle). Your business is already recruiting these people and you might be lacking the HR-support for these new roles, skills or compensation.
  • Prepare for supporting and re-skilling your management and team leaders, their role will change completely. If you are not supporting and preparing the middle management in what to expect and how to behave (and why) in the new paradigm, they will block the transformation. This would require a whole book to explain this, so I’ll just leave this here for now.
  • Redesign the organization model. You might need two organization models parallel in the company, one for the line organization functioning in the industrial-mindset, and another for the digitally inclined organization working with agile and incremental delivery. Now choosing the operative model for the agile organization is another chapter in itself. This is an executive decision. If the executives haven’t learnt deeply about agile, how on earth are they able to choose between the different scaled models of agile, i.e. Spotify model, LeanKanban, LeSS, SAFe, Teal, Team of teams, Nexus and others? Yes. There are many. If you don’t know why and how these models are different, and what they are for, how on earth is your executive team ready to make such a vital decision and you as HR leader ready to support any of the models with HR practices? Just saying.

Learning is required on all leves

I want to return to my point. Learning about agile and about digitalization requires invested time from all levels of the organization. Most often the decision makers just do not understand this new paradigm well enough, to be able to make solid, sustainable and useful decisions to build an agile organization.

The biggest blockers are actually the executives, the management and HR. Not because of willingness, but because of lack of time to learn this deeply.

Not understanding this, and having a fear of loosing your face on executive level because of ignorance, can lead to faking that you understand. Once an executive team is on this path, many around the table faking  they really “get digitalization” …well, good luck with the transformation!

Please, executives, VP HRs, Unit leaders, TAKE TIME TO DO YOUR HOMEWORK.

Get an agile enterprise / executive coach. Take out time to really learn properly. Show your vulnerability for a while, and let it lead to a huge leap forward as a management team capable of leading a digital and agile transformation.


Riina Hellström is a Change Leader, HR Executive and Agile Enterprise Coach, Speaker and consultant, helping her clients with complex business-, organization- and people- related transformation. Her specialty is desgning agile organizations and supporting Executive, support function and management groups in transformation.


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