You might have heard the term ‘Agile HR’ bandied about in recent months. But unlike many HR trends, Agile isn’t a technology, strategy or tactic – it’s a management methodology.
One that enables teams to gather tasks, break up work into manageable chunks, and visually present it to overview individual workloads and progress. Agile HR focuses on collaboration and dynamism, rather than linear planning and independent contribution.
This handbook will explain why Agile is so hot right now, and take you through the steps to introducing it to your department.
While there are no limitations as to who can operate successfully under Agile, there are certain company cultures that facilitate it better than others. The overarching characteristic of those that thrive under Agile is boldness; teams should be prepared to commit without trepidation.
The following checklist outlines the company culture traits that would facilitate Agile.
These are the particularly favourable components of an Agile team:
The world of Agile might seem alien to those outside of the tech world – particularly when you come up against what feels like a foreign language of ‘Scrums’, ‘Kanbans’ and ‘sprints’. This section breaks down the essential Agile terminologies and explains how they fit into the approach.
Scrum is the most common Agile framework. It provides a means for teams to establish a hypothesis of how they think something will work, try it out, reflect on the experience, and make the appropriate adjustments.
The Scrum Master, like a coach, is responsible for engaging the Agile team players with the task at hand. They must ensure the values and principles, practices and processes are agreed by all.
A backlog is a list of tasks (or ‘features’) that the team has determined to be of highest priority at any given moment.
An epic is essentially a long-term goal. It’s a target that’s large enough to be split into tasks that make up a sprint. For HR, this could mean improving employee engagement.
Led by the Scrum Master, these are short daily meetings among the Agile team which discuss what each member achieved on the previous day, what they intend to work on during the day ahead, and whether there are any blockers that could disrupt this flow.
Kanban is another Agile methodology that involves the design, management and improvement of workflows. This is often done through visualisation.
Kanban boards are used to visualise the Agile team’s workflow, indicating which tasks in the backlog are being addressed, and which are awaiting approval.
Sprints are blocks of work that usually take place over a two week period. Each starts with a sprint planning meeting in which the Agile team discusses priorities and objectives for the fortnight ahead.
A squad is a group within the Agile team that tend to sit together and work closely on the same projects.
A tribe is made up of a collection of squads that share work in a common area.
Led by the Scrum Master, retrospectives are meetings that take place at the end of each sprint to discuss triumphs and failures that might have occurred over the period.
The correct application of the above frameworks can transform the way the department collaborates with its people. When the team is bought in and its principles are followed closely, Scrum enables the delivery of quick and actionable feedback from those involved. The system is setup to encourage real time interaction to help quickly identify experiments that may stray off course.
For HR, the approach has the potential to put an end to change management problems, because the solutions are coming from those who will experience them. Natal Dank, Director of Southern Blue Consulting and Agile HR pioneer, identifies two ways in which the above instructions can benefit teams: Agile for HR and HR for Agile.
“Agile for HR is about HR teams fundamentally embracing Agile ways of operating using techniques like Scrum and Kanban. It’s using principles of self-organisation, experimentation, transparency, and looking for intrinsic ways of motivating rather than extrinsic rewards. It’s about saying to HR: ‘You have to actually start working differently to create the answers that are needed for the future of work.’
“Then we go into HR for Agile. This is all about the answers that come out, so we’re starting to see Agile ways of learning, team-based performance, and even new ways of designing workplaces to meet the needs of our new environments. The challenge is that we can’t just use pre-designed ways of doing these things from other organisations. We need to find out what works for our own brand, our own culture, our own people and we can only do that through experimentation and Agile ways of working.”
Every HR team is different, so naturally there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to applying Agile. While some of the stages are fundamental – Scrum, sprints and standups, for example – others can be adjusted, such as the makeup of squads and tribes. Use your knowledge of your department to make the best judgement on which route to take and where to focus the most attention.
The following action plan includes 10 steps to implementing Agile.
1. Research and training
Using this guide as a starting point, do your research. Read the Agile Manifesto and look up successful case studies. Discuss the prospect of going Agile with key stakeholders, find out whether any of your team have experience in the field (this might be a good time to reach out to your dev team, if you have one). It isn’t essential to use an Agile consultant or coach, but if your organisation lacks the experience it will almost definitely help. Train your leader to become a Scrum Master; a hands-on coach rather than a manager.
2. Build a business case
Figure out exactly what you want to achieve and identify how Agile will help you get there. Perhaps it will help your team digest a task that has previously felt insurmountable, or maybe you feel your team’s collaboration and communication could be improved. Now Agile HR success stories become more abundant, such as the ones discussed throughout this report, it’s a great time to take inspiration from others.
3. Select your Agile approach
Do you have the headcount to operate a full Agile team of 6-10-player squads, or will you need to scale back? Information like this will help you to determine which approach to take.
Perhaps you don’t have bandwidth for daily standups, but you do see the benefit of visualised workflows – Agile is supposed to be versatile enough for you to tailor.
4. Assemble the team
Group your organisation into small, high-performance teams (squads) to discuss workloads for the backlog, set their own targets, and provide regular feedback during standup meetings and retrospectives. This is where you will assign a Scrum Master who should act as a coach and engage the team.
5. Arrange a backlog
This is your opportunity to compile a list of the work you would like to achieve within a chosen amount of time. Work with the team to produce a backlog that’s aligned with the department's wider objectives (epics), and has manageable items that can be tackled during Sprints.
6. Plan your first sprint
During your Sprint meeting, discuss the items on your backlog that you would like to tackle during the Sprint. A typical Sprint lasts between two to four weeks, so establish exactly how long you feel it will take to achieve the items in your backlog. (Remember: you can always recast this duration next time should it not work out.)
7. Conduct the first sprint
Starting with your inaugural daily standup, this is where your Agile journey begins. Team members should be mobilised and ready to go with blockers and areas of collaboration addressed.
8. Hold a retrospective
Following your first Sprint, this is your chance to discuss what went well and what didn’t. The retrospective will provide an opportunity to review the fundamentals: is a two week Sprint sufficient? Is the workload evenly shared among team members? How will you approach the next standup meeting? Again, the Scrum Master should take the reigns for this conversation.
9. Share the success
Using the visualisation tools, deliver the answers to the questions you sought to address. This is the opportunity to get any skeptics onside for your next Sprint.
Review the areas that failed, explore what went well but could be improved and incorporate the feedback of your whole team. This is the fundamental of Agile HR, nothing is cast iron or immune to critique, and everyone has their say in how to improve the process.