Blog: How to start working with Agile HR

When I am doing training or giving presentations, I often get the question: But, how should we work instead? And how do we start? What could be some first steps?

The answer to these questions is that it depends (as always). Creating awareness of what is happening in the world, in the market, and with your competitors is a great way to start (start with WHY). Then move on to starting a discussion about what you as a company can do to meet the challenges. How HR can contribute, can be a second step. The next step is training, new knowledge about how the traditional HR processes can be changed, and how HR can use agile methods and tools. But it's not enough. We also need internal ambassadors in all parts of the company who run experiments and gradually learn what works and what does not, by success and failure. People who has knowledge of agile working methods and can coach the company through the change journey.

The old change strategies are outdated, and instead we need to understand that it is about testing new ways and doing things we have never done before, for us to maintain competitive in a complex reality. A share of all employees' time should be devoted to experimenting with new ways of working and methods, both to improve HOW we do things but also WHAT we do to make our customers happy and satisfied. Customer value is always in focus in an agile way of working.

I suggest 3 different strategies for starting with new ways of working in HR:

  1. Quick wins - low hanging fruits - where can we get the biggest effect first?
  2. Start where the pain points are (this is where the need for change is the biggest)
  3. Start wide and create a whole new way of doing things for all HR processes

Each strategy has its advantages and disadvantages. Your current situation determines which one you choose. Just make sure to involve the business from the beginning by saying "we are trying some new things now and we would like you to be involved and find new ways to do things, because we want to be there to support you."

Start within the HR team, test different ways of working, experiment and learn, iterate, keep what works (creates customer value), and throw away what has become redundant - then transfer the same way of working to the business, gradually and involve all teams in iteratively improving and changing how to proceed.

When the HR team is allowed to have a high degree of autonomy, the motivation increases. Motivated team members lead to high-performing teams that push themselves to constantly learn new things and become even better. With a system that allows it, work becomes both a challenge and at the same time a reward. Everyone wants to be part of a successful and high-performing team, it is a fantastic experience. Every day becomes an opportunity for individual team members to expand their boundaries and grow. The focus is on fast iterations, constant learning, and value creation for the customers.

What is stopping you? To step by step, eliminate what hinders you, and increase what supports you is an ongoing work that never ends. Change will be the new normal, where we are constantly looking for new and better ways to deliver value to our customers. We do this by asking challenging questions and allowing people to grow by giving them the responsibility for providing answers. This is what we call Servant Leadership. For a better future, both HR and managers need to act like this.

Start small and simple, for example with a daily morning meeting (daily stand-up) or by having regular reflections on the past (retrospective). When you meet an obstacle, ask "why".  For example, why do many organisations have approval processes? If we trust people then processes like these would not be needed. What happens if we take it away?  Is it worth a try?

Why do we need a travel policy? If we had transparency in our travel accounts, maybe we could take away the travel policy and trust that our employees make sensible decisions? Maybe a broad guideline that says something like "treat the company's money as your own" is enough? What happens if we take away the travel policy altogether? Does it support or hinder us?

Is there a tendency to change computers every three years just because you can, regardless of if it is needed or not? Could we save money by letting employees decide for themselves when to change computers, because they have the knowledge regarding what they need, to be able to do their job in a good way? Can we make costs transparent so that everyone understands approximately how much we spend on new computers, and what we instead could do with the money that is left, if not everyone takes advantage of the policy?

What will happen if we let everyone have as much vacation as they want to? Experiments have shown that employees tend to take less time off if everyone can choose how much holiday they want. Perhaps it is sufficient to just have a guideline? What would the unions say about that? How can we start a dialogue with the unions that creates common goals and better workplaces?

Does the way we work with Performance Management really support or hinder us? Does today’s way of working improve the way we perform at work? Or would we perform better if we removed our performance appraisal and treated people as responsible adults? What would happen if we used OKRs instead?

We need to question if what we do at HR really supports the business and what could be alternative approaches, perhaps leading to better results. We cannot know for certain if removing the travel policy is the right thing to do, but it is the realisation that it is possible to question everything we do to find better solutions, that drive us in a direction where we look at people like Y - they want and can take responsibility for themselves, their work and they want to create value for others.

Many of Agile People’s principles are inspired by the Agile Manifesto. They are based on short cycles (sprints) that involve constant deliveries, continuous feedback, and cooperation to achieve goals. By working in this way, the products and services we offer will better meet our customers' needs and unnecessary work will be eliminated.

Running a business today is not so much about processes, it is about people, teams, and relationships. Let us create organisations that can be life places instead of workplaces and create conditions for profitable companies with happy, performing employees. Together we can create better organisations. The next blog will dive into Agile Performance Management.

About the Author

Pia-Maria Thorén

Pia-Maria is an international authority and speaker on Agile leadership and Agile HR. She is an Inspirational Director and founder of Agile People also an author of Agile People - A Radical Approach for HR and Managers (That Leads to Motivated Employees). Agile People is a global network of people who work to improve workplaces by helping HR and leaders to attain an agile mindset for the future of work by using agile tools, methods, values, and principles. Pia-Maria specialises in helping companies move towards a culture of increased agility through Agile HR, Agile leadership and Motivation.

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