Agile HR – What does it actually mean?

HRDs are often told to be more 'agile'. But what does this actually mean?

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Aug 8, 2023

If there’s one thing HR professionals are increasingly being told to be right now, it’s more ‘agile.’

Agility is the buzzword of the moment.

To many, it’s the silver bullet. Experts argue it adds value to HR; or has the potential to reinvent operational HR models and even the potential to modernize the profession.

And yet the chances are, if you ask a random group of HRDs what agility actually means, they may not actually be able to tell you.

Instinctively, many HRDs might have a sense of what it means – like needing to be more adept in decision-making, or not taking the most obvious path.

Research claims HR leaders certainly need to exhibit more agility (KPMG finds 91% of organizations claim agility is now a strategic priority), but the nagging elephant in the room really does seem to be defining what it actually means.

So what do HRDs actually need to know to debunk and understand this concept?

It’s actually got a proper definition

The good news, is that unlike other HR buzzwords such as engagement, or resilience, or adaptability – which all seem to have endless interpretations – ‘agile’ is actually built on solid foundations, and is far less ambiguous than it may sound.

What it isn’t…

It’s initially easier to define agility by saying what it’s ‘not’.

“There’s a myth that ‘agility’ is about project management – that it stems from IT programmers following a rules-based planning approach,” says Riina Hellström.

For those who don’t know Hellström – well, let’s just say she literally wrote the book about this topic.

She is the author of the best-selling tome ‘Agile HR’; was one of the first HR leaders to start the agile movement, back in 2010, and today is CEO of the Agile HR Community, global network focused on training the craft of Agile in HR.

What she doesn’t know about agile HR isn’t worth remembering, and she exclusively spoke to TLNT about what HRDs need to know about the concept.

“What agility really speaks to is the process of working out how better to get things done,” she says.

So what exactly does this mean?

She says: “Companies traditionally adopt what I call a ‘waterfall’ approach – that is, they have a project, and then reverse engineer it into a plan, assuming everything stays constant as the progress.

“What agility is about, is recognizing that plans change, and that we need to find new ways to add value. The agile mindset is one that embraces this change, and sees this not as a problem. It’s one that also sees the additional value from lots more incremental feedback.”

She adds: “An agile person thinks differently, to break things down into smaller parts.”

Doesn’t this describe what HR already does?

There will no-doubt be many HRDs reading this who think they do this already – that they know it is simply not practical to expect projects to run smoothly, and that (of course), they’ll need to react to things that happen as they go along.

So does this mean they’re already practicing ‘agility’?

“The question we need to ask these people here,” argues Hellström, “is whether these people are co-creating, doing small-scale tests. A waterfall plan broken down into steps is not agility, because agility is also about accepting that if things aren’t working, a whole new direction/shift is needed.” She adds: “In my experience, very people in HR are naturally agile.”

It’s not getting things done faster, nor necessarily better

Significantly, another thing agility ‘isn’t’, is that it’s not about getting things done more quickly – or even better.

Speed of delivery may well happen, says Hellström, as a natural byproduct of testing along the way. But what the approach is really about – she says – is stripping out what isn’t of value, and taking things down to smaller, constituent parts.

Alongside this, it may surprise many to learn that agility is not – as a result of seeking only what adds value – about seeking perfection.

“Agility talks about effort vs value,” says Hellström. “It’s about cutting out the unnecessary to get to what is really needed. It’s not, therefore about over-delivering.”

She adds: “Bu taking an agile approach, what you end up with may not have been the initial preferred solution. but rather something that ‘does the job’, and which is ‘good enough’ to deliver what is needed.” It’s about recalibrating what perfect looks like.”

It’s about being realistic

Although agility isn’t exactly about doing the bare minimum, the fact that it seems comfortable with ‘just doing enough’ may astonish some.

However, contrast this to much-cited, over-engineered transformation projects which return barely a fraction of their intended aims.

Compared to these, it could be said that agility is a lesson in being honest about what’s actually needed.

“Lots of HR folk create for HR, rather than create for users,” explains Hellström. “So what agility is really focused on is creating what the end user ultimately needs.

There’s no fixed recipe

The good news, she says, is that while HRDs may not naturally incline towards agility, when exposed to it, it’s often something they are very eager to learn about.

“I think it speaks to the human-centric approach HR professionals often have,” she says. “Agility is almost like an invitation for HR because it’s so useful to them,” she continues. “All that’s really required is for HR to be trusted and mature enough to use it.”

And, it seems the good news about agility keeps on getting better.

Hellström says: “The one thing that really makes me mad is the consultancy bandwagon that’s cropped up around agility – claiming that there’s a fixed recipe for ‘how to be agile.’  This then gets turned into a model or methodology that they can sell, and make money on. This couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s no blueprint for agility. Our community is all about encouraging people to come in and learn about it, and for HR practitioners to develop their own flavor of it.”

Such an outlook might sound like agility can still mean whatever anyone thinks it can.

But what Hellström is trying to say – one suggests – is that it’s not something didactic, and it’s for people to experiment with. It’s quite refreshing really.

“The word here is ‘context,’” she says. “Someone with a good understanding of agility will realize they can’t do everything – because some companies are more traditional, and compliance driven than others, for example. But they will also understand that there is somewhere where they ‘can’ start.”

Some might say, therefore, that being ‘agile’ is really about choosing the right approach, appropriate for what one is doing.

For example, an agile approach may not actually be needed in something already very process driven, but it might be great for areas like talent management, or DEI.

“The best way to dip into it,” says Hellström, “is maybe to try it out for a specific project – such as onboarding.” She adds: “You can create in a bubble first, to prove results. After this is when HR can then scale things more broadly across the organization.”

No one is saying agility is easy, and for some hierarchical organizations, it’s likely to encounter resistance.

But the opportunities for agility to make big differences are, she argues, are huge.

“You can even have ‘HR for Agile’ – which looks at the role HR can play in designing modern workplaces by combining all our previous know-how in organizational development with agile ways of working,” she says.

So, isn’t it time that you gave agility a crack of the whip?

Hellström says: “HR will have to pivot if needed, but if embraced, it is a more disciplined way of working. Agile teams are amongst the best teams I’ve ever worked with.”

She concludes: “Agility is here for the taking. It’s suitable for any industry, at any stage of maturity. I would say it’s worth learning about, and worth giving it a try.”


How to implement ‘agility’

·      An agile transformation is not one that you’ll design on paper, or take from a template, and you can’t just force it through a reorganization. Instead, it’s something that you will co-create with your own people. This starts with onboarding every single person to the agile mindset.

·      It’s by having an agile mindset that HR can work according to agile practices – first on a team level, and then gradually shifting the operating model towards a flatter, cross-functional, customer-centric and value-driven team structure. 

·      No two agile development projects are alike. There will always be nuances in each individual deployment.

·      There’s no need to be all or nothing. An agile operating model will typically evolve, and there will be a need to fix ‘bugs’ of the model together.

·      It’s never going to be perfect the first time around.

(Source: Agile HR Community)

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