- Under Agile, HR initiatives can be completed more efficiently, thereby saving on budget and resources.
- Agile is built to test, learn and optimise, which is particularly suited to modern HR initiatives.
- Agile can enable you to more easily adapt to changing workplace conditions.
- All activity is led and managed by the team, which can lead to better collaboration and increased creativity.
- Members of Agile teams are encouraged to take on tasks outside of their usual remit, allowing them to develop new skills.
- The workload should always be manageable (both for the team and its individual members), as it’s the team that decides exactly how work is prioritised.
Phoebe is hugely passionate about corporate culture. Specifically, how to intentionally evolve and transform an organisation’s culture so that both its people and business results can thrive. She began at Cisco in 2003, and has successfully developed her career at the company, now holding the position of Global People and Culture Lead. In this role she is focused on developing, leading and enabling cultural transformation through Cisco’s People Deal to enable their business strategy. Phoebe holds a BA from Royal Holloway, University of London.
Tracey’s experience in learning, leadership and talent spans nearly 15 years. She has worked across multiple industries including media and telecommunications, mining, transport and logistics, employment services, and recruitment, in both Australia and the UK. Her work has taken her to the Arctic Circle and 150m below ground looking for diamonds. Tracey is on a mission to help Sky become a modern learning organisation, and she is a passionate advocate of Agile as a means to achieving this. Tracey also has a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology and a professional qualification in Executive Coaching.
With knowledge gained over a decade of working with organisations and leaders to enhance the talent of their people, Natal understands the challenges faced when you need to drive behavioural and cultural change. Natal began her career in equity trading and financial services. Upon discovering her passion for the human side of business, Natal became a coach and facilitator. Next, Natal held head of roles in the banking sector for Talent, Learning and Organisation Development. Now, Natal is a leading figure in the Agile HR movement and helps co-create awesome places to work in every industry.
Jo Edwards, Head of People Operations at Leeds-based Sky Betting & Gaming, is leading a revolution in HR practice. As a fast growth and mobile first technology company, Sky Betting & Gaming was born agile.
There technology tribes are structured to follow goals, principles and values that enable them to be highly productive and responsive to customer needs.
Agile (with a capital ‘a’) has been around for at least 20 years. It was pioneered by software developers as a reaction to heavily regulated, planned, and micro-managed operating methods. Agile introduced a set of values and principles for software development under which solutions are evolved through cross-functional collaboration. Ultimately, the approach helped them overcome the challenge they faced: innovate or die.
But these organisations were at the bleeding edge of technology – surely most business models don’t have the same requirements? Well, fast forward to the present and technology is entrenched in the operations of virtually every organisation, meaning many of the challenges the founders of Agile faced then are shared with us now.
Agile isn’t for one type of industry or organisation. While it was originally intended for software development, the last few years have seen other functions such as marketing benefit from it. Now HR is realising how it can transform its teams and wider organisations.
Agile will work for any organisation willing to take the leap and commit to a new way of operating, because the primary problems it addresses are shared by us all – it provides rapid answers in an uncertain, changing world.
Agile HR is essentially a work management methodology. It’s a way of approaching work that’s characterised by gathering tasks, breaking up work into smaller, manageable chunks, and visually presenting it as an effective way of over-viewing what each member of the team is working on and their progress.
Agile HR focuses on collaboration and dynamism, rather than linear planning and independent contribution. An Agile team of eight members might work together to write, design and deliver an HR initiative, rather than working as individuals from top-down instruction. We can loosely explain this benefit with the adage ‘many minds are better than one’.
Unlike many HR trends, Agile isn’t a technology, strategy or tactic – it’s a mindset. Not one that’s reserved for specific industries or made possible by using certain software, it’s a behavioural change that can be adopted in any team that wants to become more versatile and nimble.
Agile methodologies have gained prominence for many reasons. The first and perhaps most obvious is the proliferation of business technology, which has transformed the way we interact and fulfil our duties. Changing views on the role of management have also played a part: typically flatter organisational structures have opened up opportunities for more collaboration, both vertically and horizontally. HR can apply Agile to:
The next section will explore the four areas Agile HR has the most impact.
An HR leader’s role can feel insurmountable. One day’s to-do list might include managing the relationships of key stakeholders, teaching managers how to manage, analysing metrics to reduce employee churn, while documenting and visualising all of the above. And that’s just the to-do list.
As HR is uniquely positioned to see the interlinks between the whole organisation, it’s likely to have an even bigger wishlist full of complex topics – this is why problems are often dealt with in a linear, cause and effect manner. Agile methodologies help managers to segment and tackle this workload through prioritisation.
In a space increasingly concerned with ROI and measurement, Agile’s ability to introduce a more evidence-led approach is perhaps the second biggest reason behind its growing popularity. Agile methodologies favour iterative processes and shorter work cycles which enable managers to constantly review data and prove their activities are valid. This can be applied to address huge issues, as explains Natal Dank, Director at Southern Blue Consulting.
“Take a complex problem like engagement. With an Agile approach, we would start by going directly to those affected: the people. Together we’d identify something we agree could work, we’d then test it, and swiftly get feedback as to whether it worked. Then we’d go on to move to the next stage. If it’s not working, we’re going to leave it and go onto something else. It’s about becoming more evidence based, and using data and technology to help us.”
Outsourcing platforms such as PeoplePerHour have lead to an uprise in contractual work. As organisational boundaries become more fluid, every employee must demonstrate their contribution to the bottom line. This shift in managerial relationship requires leaders to become coaches and enablers, rather than instructors. Much of the best practice guidance on people management is built for the last century, a time before near instant commissioning and widespread flexible working.
“HR has to start working differently to understand how it can coach, train and build organisations in this new way. Many organisations jump into creating Agile solutions without real plans. They realise a new way of learning is required in a specific area, but fail to embrace Agile ways of working themselves. For it to be effective, you have to do both. Agile helps HR work with its people rather than implementing things on them.”
The fourth and final call for Agile HR is a reflection on how the workplace has changed. Digitisation and both online and offline networks are transforming even the most traditional companies.
One of HR’s greatest barriers to adaptation in this sense is how it operates. Where departments like sales and marketing have evolved, HR can still be compliance-driven and process heavy. The knock-on effect of this isn’t just inefficiency, but also a source of friction between employees and the department; a department whose fundamental role is to create positive work environments.
With the democratisation and presentation of important information such as KPIs, HR becomes transparent, enabling other departments to make requests where there’s availability.
As a high-tech company, Sky is well versed in Agile. We caught up with two of its people leaders who have recently applied Agile in different sides of the organisation. Our first question asked for an overview of their Agile experiences so far.
We’ve operated in this way since the beginning of August 2017– we moved away from an HR business partner model and decentralised. Now instead of HR Operations Managers we have People Operations Managers. It’s about looking at it from a customer perspective – the customer being the employee – and helping our people managers to give their employees the best experience they can have – tailoring any solutions to fit the audience. Traditional HR initiatives can be very bland and are often delivered to perfection, which leads to a waterfall approach across the entire organisation led by HR. Agile, on the other hand, is a collaborative approach which brings employees into any solutions. For me, that’s what it’s about – knowing your people a lot better and delivering value quicker
The journey started about 18 months ago. My team and I were becoming increasingly frustrated by a number of things that were constraining us. We were constrained by budget, by technology, by headcount, by pace, by change, by ambiguity. In learning and development, you can only offer so much to so many people when you have a limited budget. As a consequence, things become quite exclusive – you start to exclude people from learning because they don’t fit the particular criteria. We had to find a way to not just make an improvement but to actually transform the way that we thought about the role of learning and development altogether.
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 framework is the focus of this report.
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 identifies two ways in which the above instructions can benefit teams: Agile for HR and HR for Agile.
Agile for HR
“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.”
HR for Agile is essentially a lighter version of Agile HR. It has the benefit of being completely tailorable to and integratable with the wider organisation. We caught up with Cisco’s global people and culture lead, Phoebe Leet, who has adopted Agile principles without following a Scrum or Kanban framework.
It’s about our ability to enable and evolve the business. For us, digitisation is about using data to make better, more informed decisions when it comes to our people. We’re moving away from focusing on the individual when it’s actually a collective. So I think Agile HR is really about moving away from traditional HR practices and doing more consultative partnering with the business, to enable them to be more agile.
We do still have a hierarchy of leaders and teams. This ensures accountability, performance feedback, coaching and so on. However, our organisation is very big on dynamic approaches.
For example, we have a stretch assignment tool that enables you to internally outsource work. If I need five project managers for five hours to complete a task, people can apply from anywhere within the organisation. You can build your team and deliver results in that way – it almost becomes supply and demand. This fosters collaboration and connectivity across functions.
Generally, human beings don’t like change. Our environment is forcing us to adapt to the speed of innovation and digitisation. Change management is probably the biggest piece – we have to look at leadership and rewards, and how to harness talent, performance, and potential. This fast-paced environment requires adaptable skills and mindsets.
HR will continue to evolve, and move towards being a strategic partner – it’s been happening for a period of time now and will continue to do so. Our value lies within our people strategy. As artificial intelligence gains further traction, HR needs to influence technological developments in favour of the humans involved. This needs to work in line with a constant focus on driving the business forward and ensuring its success.
Agile should be tailored to suit the needs of the organisation practicing it. There are many ways of applying it, but the fundamental objective is to improve your way of working – not just in areas of responsiveness, but across the board. Natal provides an example of how navigation tech giant TomTom use Agile methodologies with an individual twist to execute HR initiatives.
“TomTom’s HR team has a standard structure, but they’re running an Agile-inspired problem backlog. They decide which problems are the most important based on what their executives want, what’s happening with the competition, what the data reports, and what resources they have. With this information they form a project team around that problem and aim to quickly solve it using Agile methods. Then they report back to their executive, not just on what’s been produced, but demonstrating how they’ve solved the problem. It’s an interesting and evidence based way of doing HR.
“In a recent project, we brought a cross functional HR team together (which is something Agile also does) and broke down the silos that exist within it. We did a hackathon-style sprint to accelerate a project whose objective was to transform their organisation by re-skilling their people to meet the future demands of their customers. They were taking ages to do it and not getting anywhere, so we brought this cross functional team together and used Agile methods to leapfrog the project and begin to solve some of their complex problems.”
The diagram shows how a typical Scrum unfolds. Terminologies may differ slightly between practicing departments, but the fundamentals are in place: a backlog is fed into the sprint which is supported by daily standups and followed by a retrospective – all of which is overseen by the Scrum Master.
This process will then be repeated after the prescribed two- to four-week sprint cycle until the long-term goal has been reached. Agile encourages experimentation, so if you find the sprint duration too long or short, change it.
Our next question explored which Agile frameworks and methodologies our Sky leaders have implemented, and how they look in action.
Within this Scrum framework we conduct standups, retrospectives, and planning sessions. We use strategic road maps with a backlog, and sprints – some of which have tickets and stories. Our organisation has ten different tribes [Agile working groups], and we use a Kanban board for each. This works well to focus each group on a local level before it’s fed back up to the higher level people roadmap.
We then speak to our teams to find out what their priorities are. We ask what they might need from different areas, and how we can share the workload across tribes in order to complete the tasks quicker. Rather than perfecting one area, we’re all here to make Betting & Gaming better and we need to do it across the whole organisation.
We have a lean, keen team of nine people who are the centre of expertise for learning and development working towards epics with a backlog of work. We bucket the backlog into features or releases – this is a two-week chunk of work we can release to employees or managers. We then put together a sprint team, which usually has at least four people to fulfil the two-week sprint.
You then apply the usual ceremonies – a planning session and morning standups or huddles. We do our showcase and a retrospective for each of those releases. It’s an evolution: we take managers’ development and release new things that are related to managers’ development every two weeks. We use analytics to understand whether people value it and whether they are consuming it. If they love it, you release more like that. If they don’t like it you have to go back and learn why it didn’t work.
Our whole work schedule gets broken up into these very manageable chunks, but over time we’re evolving something very rapidly. More importantly, it’s being data-driven because every two weeks we’re getting feedback on whether our work is valued.
Agile methodology means a radical change for most departments. While the tactful use of Agile for HR and HR for Agile mean practitioners can decide how drastic they want the transition to be, the department will always need the buy-in of the wider organisation. This is perhaps the greatest challenge to going Agile.
The adoption of Scrum will almost definitely mean a fundamental change in the way the department operates – the way it delivers work, how it reports back to other departments, and the way it makes decisions. Natal provides an example of how the lack of responsiveness throughout an organisation is the greatest impediment to successful Agile.
“I’ve worked in a couple of organisations recently where they wanted me to come in and help them do a project in an Agile way, but the way they made decisions was very committee based, hierarchical and slow. Every decision had to go to the top person and then come back down before we could move forward, this meant there was no way to experiment.
“It’s essential not only to have your leaders on board, but also properly using Agile techniques themselves. Then they realise they have to lead in a very different way, that they have to step back and allow the decisions to be made by the people who are doing the work. The biggest barrier is when leaders ask people to be Agile but aren’t ready to change anything themselves.”
Clearly, in order for Agile to be successful it’s essential for those at the top to embrace the approach. One of the main pushbacks from leaders could also be the solution to securing their buy-in – Agile can likely solve the complex problems they’re personally facing.
Natal explains: “Ask them to allow you a safe space for the team to try Agile; to test, to fail, to learn and solve the problem at a faster pace. Generally, the answer will be positive because they’ll be so keen to see change in the problematic area. Basically, you ask permission to experiment. That safe space is vital because part of Agile is about getting things wrong and learning from those mistakes.
“If you can then deliver an answer to their problem, they’re often amazed. They start to get excited, particularly when they see the energy that it creates. Teams come out of the experience invigorated, and no one wants to return to the old way of working. When the leaders see this change, they will understand the huge benefits it can bring. This is the thing about Agile, you get things wrong as you’re working, but you always get an outcome and you often solve the problem. Generally you get a great result and leaders really like that.”
There’s no paint by numbers guide to implementing Agile. Each organisation will come up against its own set of challenges, and have its own functions to marshal. We asked our leaders to describe how their departments got Agile off the ground without friction
We started our research by reading Agile books, then spoke to our own tech teams that use Agile who were enormously supportive. It wasn’t that we flipped a switch and became Agile – it was a change process. I had to engage the whole team over a two and a half-month warm up period. I introduced them to the concept, recommended books and explored their concerns. Eventually we agreed on a date to start.
To be honest, we went in not really knowing what we were doing because none of us had done it before. That was quite a bonding experience – everyone felt blissfully ignorant together. I suggested a trial of three months where we would go the whole hog. And if at the end of three months we decided it was no good then we’d drop it and return to the way we know. We never looked back.
We have HR operations teams and a people operations manager who reports directly into the tribe. Initiatives are co-created by the people operations manager and the tribe so that everyone is bought in, it worked so well that we decided to scale up and create a new people operations team. We increased the headcount by five, and worked with two leading Agile coaches to guide us through the mindset shift. Our CTO and people director collaborated with the coaches to run an inspiration session to prepare us all for the task ahead.
It was like bringing two worlds together. A traditional HR world, and a new wave of people operations. Much of HR’s policies and procedures are driven to manage non-performing and non-attending employees. It’s quite common for an HR function to spend 90% of its time on 10% of the population, whereas we want to spend 90% of our time engaging and developing the rest of the population. For us, that’s what Agile is about.
Agile is a mindset and a project management methodology – therefore technology isn’t essential. There are, however, a number of tools out there that can enhance operations. It’s highly advised to get your Agile project up and running first, which will give you practical knowledge of where technology can be deployed. Once your team is well versed in the principles and rituals of Agile, your culture will be better placed to take on new technologies. Natal explains where technology can be used to increase adaptability and collaboration in Agile teams.
“There are some great players in the market, like Perkbox, that are innovative in how they put tools in the hands of HR. It’s real time. If you consider the engagement space, there are now all these great providers of real time data, not just to HR but directly to leaders of organisations. There are now workplace apps that can help people give feedback to each other, to coach each other, to communicate in more effective ways.
“Yet, in the last project I was working on, I had to fight to get these innovative tools into the organisation, which gave pushback such as ‘we don’t know the name,’ or ‘we’re not quite sure if that’s going to suit our culture’. There was so much resistance, but once I finally brought them in, everyone was like: ‘This is amazing. It’s so easy to use. It’s intuitive. This is going to transform how we do feedback.’ So I think there are parts of HR that see the advantages of embracing technology, that want to use data in a new way and are going for it, but I also think there are big parts of HR that are resistant.”
HR needs to let go of the fear factor. This doesn’t mean losing control, it means creating new and effective ways of working and collaborating. As Natal rightly points out:
“I think that Agile HR will soon be the norm. I think the way we work in organisations will be quite different and, in five to ten years’ time, we probably won’t be called HR – which is a good thing. Our job isn’t about managing people as resources but collaborating with them to build shared value for our customers, businesses and people.”
Our final question asked how are leaders envisage their Agile departments operating in the long run, and also how they plan to measure the success (or failure) of their ongoing projects.
There’s a definite drive in almost every industry and organisation to be more agile – the difference is whether they’re doing it as the verb or the noun. Unless you’re in a company like Spotify or Facebook, where the foundations are built for it, practicing Agile requires leadership and commitment.
More organisations will want to explore how self-organised, empowered teams can overcome hierarchies and single points of failure. Many will therefore see the Agile mindset and methodology as a solution. But the danger is that Agile can go wrong if only the methodology is adopted. However if a leader can embrace the mindset and champion the principles that support it, I think Agile can transform virtually any team, function or organisation.
Our biggest objective is to help our people managers have great conversations with those they manage. We want regular, productive development talks so our people know they have a career in whatever direction they choose at Sky Betting & Gaming and they feel valued for their contribution.
We have a company survey that covers personal growth – so the aim is to see those scores increase as a result of the work that we’re doing. Engagement scores should rise as a result of personal growth, and naturally if engagement scores rise employees are happy therefore the company is happy. It’s like a service profit chain but rather than focusing on processes and tools, we’ve decided to focus on the individuals, the employees. Any initiative we do we ask what we are supposed to be fixing, what the individuals want, what our community is saying.
In six months’ time people want to see what the change has been and whether the value is coming from. We need to be able to deliver on what we’ve said and hopefully we’ll have happy stakeholders, happy customers and people will believe in the model. Only time will tell but at the moment it feels good.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.