3 Steps to Agile HR (and Why You Can’t Afford Not to Take Them)

September 12, 2017

3 Steps to Agile HR (and Why You Can’t Afford Not to Take Them)

As agile methods spread from IT departments throughout mainstream companies, HR departments will need to reinvent themselves. Agile companies favor the soft skills of collaboration, curiosity, and humility over hard skill sets, so HR will have to change the way it hires, trains, assesses, and rewards employees. This will entail rethinking longstanding assumptions and methods of partnering with the business in favor of a new mindset. In a recent HBR article I offered an example of how one company rethought its HR practices, but here I will focus on the three key steps in that transformation:



As I assert in Sense & Respond (coauthored with Josh Seiden), to understand how agile teams work, you have to go out and play detective: observe, listen, and ask questions. Use this opportunity to collect data on how employees work together within teams and how teams work together within or across departments. Observe different points in the product or service delivery cycle, or watch one team across a whole project. Talk with employees about their daily challenges, triumphs, frustrations. The more you know about your own workflows and products, the better you can respond in the next step. Even if your teams are not agile, you should go sense what they are doing and reach out to others who are doing it differently.

To understand how agile teams work, you have to go out and play detective: observe, listen, and ask questions.


Armed with all this new information you now need to rethink your current practices. Are you hiring for the right profile? Review and revise your job listings and descriptions. If hard skills are table stakes, how do we start to refine our process to find agile-compatible candidates? Look closely at your performance reviews and their criteria for evaluating employees. Do they assess and reward the right skills and outcomes? Agile teams work in short unpredictable cycles. They favor collaboration over individual contributions. They may have new measures of success besides meeting deadlines or even generating revenue. Your metrics should reflect these new values.


Agile methods also depend on regular reflection about the process itself. In order to shift gears quickly agile teams roll out their new ideas in stages and then continually self-assess what’s working and what isn’t. HR teams too can use regular meetings, called retrospectives, to evaluate any changes as they are implemented. Making even minor changes in the language of policies or strategies for interviewing can yield major shifts in company culture—and employee mindset—if they are done in the context of continuous learning, evaluation, and improvement.


Repeat—or Reassess

The retrospective is just one example of agile’s insistence on continual self-improvement—so this transformation will not be a one-time overhaul but a new way of thinking and working. The process will not end here. Just as teams and employees must regularly reflect on how their work is meeting their goals, HR departments too must continually reflect on whether they are asking the right questions, measuring the right values, and incentivizing the right behaviors. If not, try something else. In other words, your department—like your employees and your company—should also embrace continuous change. Over time, this shift in mindset will reveal bigger patterns and gradual trends that are hard to see up close and in the midst of your everyday routines.


In short, agile methods can make companies more productive, efficient, and responsive inside and out, but HR is crucial to unlocking this value. It is only when HR itself becomes agile that these organizations can fulfill their potential. As the department with the most direct control over company culture, HR is ideally placed to be an engine of change.

The Authors: 

Jeff Gothelf is coauthor of SENSE & RESPOND: How Successful Organizations Listen to Customers and Create New Products Continuously (February 2017, Harvard Business Review Press). Jeff is an author, speaker, and organizational designer. Jeff has worked in various roles and leadership positions at iXL, Fidelity, AOL, WebTrends, and TheLadders. Most recently Jeff cofounded Neo Innovation (sold to Pivotal Labs) in New York City and helped build it into one of the most recognized brands in modern product strategy, development, and design. As a principal in Neo’s NYC office, Jeff functioned as head of executive training, coaching, workshops, and education. Jeff is regularly keynoting conferences, teaching workshops or working directly with client leadership teams across North America, Europe, and Asia.