May 30th 2019
CRFCast – HR Insights from the Corporate Research Forum: Agile HR: What, How and Why? with Natal Dank
Natal Dank, who leads the global Agile HR Community, discusses how HR is going agile. Many HR teams are adopting agile development methods to increase effectiveness, improve collaboration, and become more business and customer-focused. We explore the skills and mindsets needed to implement agile in HR, and the pitfalls to avoid.
Gillian Pillans [00:00:03] You're listening to the CRF cast where we explore research we've been working on here at the Corporate Research Forum and we discuss the latest thinking and strategic HR topics with academics, practitioners and leading experts in the field. I'm Gillian Pillans, research director at CRF. You can explore the full podcast archive and subscribe for updates by searching CRF cast on iTunes or Spotify. You can also find more about CRF and access all our podcasts and other research materials at www.crforum.co.uk
[00:00:48] Today's podcast is the first of a series where we're going to explore the topic of Agile HR. Now, agility is a hot topic in HR at the moment and we're seeing many HR teams starting to use agile development methods, which originated in software development to run core HR activities. Proponents of Agile argue that it can help make HR more customer centric, responsive, collaborative and business focused. Today, I'm talking to Natal Dank, who leads the global agile HR community to find out more.
[00:01:22] Welcome Natal. Thanks for spending time with us today.
Natal Dank [00:01:25] Thank you very much.
Gillian Pillans [00:01:26] We're going to talk about, say, the rollout of Agile within the HR community. And I think it'd be good to start with some definitions because I think there's a lot of confusion out there as to what we actually mean by agile and what what it what it means and in the context of HR specifically. So can you get us beyond the buzzwords and give us some explanation for what you actually mean by agile?
Natal Dank [00:01:48] So first of all, it is a bit more than just flex flexible working practices and the ability to work from home, which is often the misconception, particularly in the UK. Agile ultimately is an answer to complexity and change. So traditionally when we did a project or we designed a product, we would map it all out. So you would do requirements, you would do so. You do your budget, you do your documentation. And then probably about six months, maybe a year later, you're testing and you're implementing out to your customer.
[00:02:19] And what this meant is that your customer often didn't engage with what you had designed until right at the end. And what Agile says is that's way too late because the world is changing rapidly and we need the ability to truly test and validate whether this is what the customer needs. And so Agile takes that same project and takes that vision, but it breaks it into incremental iterations. And it says rather than just doing requirements first and in scope, let's try and produce a whole slice of that project. So a slice of value and get it to your customer and get it to your customer at a much faster rate. But it might be a smaller version to start with or might be a component of the overall thing and get them to engage with it, collect data, what works, what doesn't. If it doesn't work, then you can change direction. And so it's essentially breaking the risks down into smaller components and getting data to validate your next decision. So that's essentially agile in a nutshell.
Gillian Pillans [00:03:20] Now, today, HR is starting to get in on the act as well. What do you see as the main kind of environmental factors, the systemic trends that are driving this current interest around agile?
Natal Dank [00:03:31] The main reason I'm talking to people around Agile is that they're looking at how to redesign how they work. And that could be a team level. It could even be at an individual level, but definitely at a business level. And what it is, is that there's some really big systemic changes happening around it. So we talk about these big topics like globalisation, digitalisation, complexity, political uncertainty. And all of this is creating an environment in which we have to either deliver value in a new way to our customer or our customer is now needing very different things from us or something's happened to our market perhaps as a disruption or perhaps we're trying to be a disruptor. And we hear a lot of words around. We need to get speed to market. We need to deliver value to our customer at a much faster rate. And we also need to the ability to pivot and turn because our competitor is doing that before us. And so agile increasingly is seen as one of the key ways that you can redesign how you're working, both mindset and sort of ways of working to in an attempt to access these these problems. Why businesses are looking at agile is things like accelerating digitalization, dealing with changing constant changing priorities, the need to increase productivity at a rapid rate and ultimately have a much better kind of customer experience. So they're sort of all the big drivers that are taking place. I think this is what's interesting is that it's now seen as the buzz word and a hot topic, but it's actually been around for a long time. And I think what's also something about Agile is that it pulls on a lot of thoughts and philosophies that were starting to appear from really kind of a 90s on what things like systems, thinking, complexity, theory, design, thinking. The Agile Manifesto was written in 2001. And this is sort of seen as the start of what Agile is. But this was a group of very technical people getting together and writing a manifesto about how you would ultimately run agile projects in the ITC. You then a few years later, you have the very famous book Scrum Comes out by Jeff Sutherland and this is again, all the examples were how agile essentially allows you to deliver a great amount of work. Quality work in half the time. So we then start to see very successful companies like Spotify build themselves on the basis of agile from work go and then kind of have this huge impact in the market and is seen as great in players as well. So we then have a trend where I.T. companies and successful start-ups are using this model. Probably it's more in, say, the last five years or even less that you're now seeing the concept of agile transformation at whole organizational level. So companies like ING, ANZ in Australia, Suncorp. We've now got hearing of some of the big supermarkets are starting to look at how do they embrace agile. And a lot of it is connected to the need to deliver a very different product to your customer and the need to digital lines. And then from the back of that, there's huge implications to nature. So we've gone, oh, well, this is a method of working that could actually benefit us and we could be a better team by embracing this. But actually, there's all these implications. As an organisation goes agile. What are the people practices that you need to support this? And so more and more HR are now seeing there's a need to understand agile to evolve things like performance, reward and talent to feed into this new working environment. And on organisational design. So really, in the last I would say two years I've seen it go from all this is really interesting. I need to do something to lots of HR teams truly taking on the methods and evolving how they work.
Gillian Pillans [00:07:32] Okay. So I guess there are different models of adoption of Agile within HR. What sort of models of adoption are you seeing within HR and perhaps what are some of the challenges around who's those those different adoption models?
Natal Dank [00:07:47] There's kind of a few different categories of why hate our professionals. And our teams are looking at agile. And the first is what we talked about just then, which is my companies work in this way from word go. And you have, you know, increasingly HR professionals that are going into I.T. or design companies working in a full, agile way and are looking at how do they evolve hate child practices, services, processes to feed into that environment. You've then got organizations that may not be agile to begin with, but their I.T. area has embraced agile because they need to digitalized quite rapidly. And examples that we might mention through this podcast is things like River Island. So River Island, High Street Fashion Store need to be an online retailer now just as much. And so they need to transform their digitalization. That's led to HR going "I need to understand what this means and I need to evolve the people practices for that part of the business". You've then got the next level we're in where now you've got the whole organization. The CEO is announced. We're going agile and quite quickly HR's wanting to understand what's my role in this? How do I support this to be successful? And actually, I quickly see this and tensions with our existing hate, our practices with the way we now want to work.
Gillian Pillans [00:09:11] You've mentioned some of the principles underpinning Agile, but I think it be useful to go back to some basics and really understand, you know, what are the core principles that underpin the agile way of working that really makes it different from from other traditional approaches to to doing work.
Natal Dank [00:09:28] I think at the heart is delivering customer value. And this for me is probably the big transformation, particularly once you take it into nature, because by putting your customer, which is our people at the centre, it's all about people experience. So delivering value to your customer and in an incremental way. So this is also a big change for hate shop. So we are traditionally big bang change, big bang implementation, big rollouts. And this is saying how do you incrementally deliver value over time by inviting your people to be directly in there with you. So you experiment, you test and you get the data of what works and what does it to then make the next decision. And that's very different to just piloting something because in the past we would maybe run a pilot that I know in my previous roles. I had invested so much money, time and kind of credibility in that pilot that it was not going to fail. But this is creating space where you it's okay to fail because you do it in a safe environment and you do it quickly then to make to be order deliver value rapidly to your customer. An agile team wants all the skills then and there. So in the traditional. Project there would be lots of handovers, and we say that, you know, almost 50 percent of knowledge can be lost with all these hands and definitely slows down. So in an agile project or environment, you're putting all the skills so cross-functional across skilled team together. And they. The idea is they can deliver everything they need in that one short period of time. At this also means you introduce concepts of self organisation because Agile says the people that are the closest to the work and also the closest to the customer have all the great ideas and innovation and the skills to make it happen. So it's about getting a team model where people can self organize and to make to get things done. But ultimately, delivering incremental value to your customer, I think is really what starts to to change both agile but also agile nature.
Gillian Pillans [00:11:34] Okay. This idea of putting the customer at the heart of what a does is actually quite revolutionary for all of HR functions from what we see in CRF. I think the other the other thing I'd like to pick up on, at CRF we have a core belief fits the role of HR is not about doing HR stuff, but it's about building the capability of both the organisation and the people within the organisation to deliver business strategy and to create sustainable value for key stakeholders. So I'm curious as to how Agile can help HR, deliver on that core purpose for the business.
Natal Dank [00:12:11] It could be as simple as, in Agile there's an idea of; you really kind of put yourself in the shoes of your customer or for us, our people. And this is having personas. It's doing things like experience mapping. It's writing things like user stories to guide your work. So it's truly understanding what does what do my people need? Why? And let's go and then test this with them to find out what works for them. And we talk a lot about employee experience in HR and that by enriching the employee experience, we are going to be able to differentiate ourselves from our competitors, have competitive advantage, but also just be a great place to work. And Agile is constantly driving towards that aim by putting your customer or your people in the middle of what you do and your validation is your people. So by measuring their experience and measuring their feedback, getting data of how they engage with different products and services of what you're delivering, you know, if you're on the right track or not, just that little shift of perspective has fundamentally changed how a lot of our teams are working by embracing agile.
Gillian Pillans [00:13:23] Let's talk a bit more specifically about the business case. Can you share some concrete examples of how investing in an agile each hour has actually had a tangible impact on on measurable business outcomes?
Natal Dank [00:13:36] Yeah, definitely. So I think at a high level, probably the key outcome is, first of all, the end of kind of the hate our silo. So which is, I think, a big issue for HR. A lot of the problems that we face or initiatives we're trying to lead a very complex and they usually need lots of different people and also people in the mix business, not just one person looking after talent, one person looking after engagement, one person looking after recognition. So by bringing together a multi functional cross-section of our people to solve the problem, your ending site silos and collaborating in such a different way than the other key thing that I'm seeing is this delivering of value at a much faster rate. And yes, there's the slow it starts and you fail a bit. But actually once the flow is there, you deliver some immense value very quickly in terms of some examples that fit into that. So probably a great working model of Agile HR is at the Sky Company and at Sky, they went from what was kind of a people development or a low learning and development team and then some individual people looking after things like engagement and recognition. And now they've built a whole people experience team. And this was all achieved within a couple of months, essentially. So they've gone from sort of just this slow rollout of programs to touching all people across the business.
[00:15:04] Another interesting example is with River Island, who I spoke about earlier, and they used agile in particular to run their apprenticeship program and levy that a lot of organizations I think we're doing recently. And for them, what was the first P one was they got it all done in the reduced timeframe.
[00:15:25] And for them, what was the first P one was they got it all done in the reduced timeframe that was actually given to them, which was something that they never thought they were going to achieve at the start.
[00:15:37] And they designed a full apprenticeship program. In half the time then educational provider was doing in this space. So they kind of just rapid development is quite amazing. And there's another company I work a lot with who aren't agile as a company. But we've been introducing elements. And what we do is we run these sort of kind of sprint weeks or kind of hackathon style using agile techniques. And we often have people from the boards at the end of the week when we showcase and all you, what you always hear from members of the board is, wow, we've just accelerated a project that we've just done six months work in one way. And so and while it's not just about working fast better.
[00:16:22] The delivery of what you can achieve delivering that value just starts to get more and more rapid. Once you get this flow and these candidates.
Gillian Pillans [00:16:35] Coming up in the second half of this CRF cast. We're going to get into more detail about how agile HR works in practice. We'll discuss the skills HR professionals need to build and specifically the mindset needed to successfully implement Agile. Then we'll finish with some practical recommendations around what to do and the pitfalls to avoid.
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[00:17:16] Let's get into than the secrecy about how fragile actually works in practice and I guess specifically within HR in particular, and to sort of tease out what's different to traditional work work practices and thinking about it, it strikes me that there are there's the systems and processes for work are different on that first thing. Secondly, the way that you manage people is different. So how you organise into teams, how people collaborate, the sort of skills that individuals would need. And then thirdly, there's a change in culture and mindset that underpins all of that. So can we. Can we talk about each of these and just sort of get a let's let's open the curtain and find out how it really works in practice and what you need to do to get going on this.
Natal Dank [00:17:59] So for the first one, for systems and processes, yes, there's lots of all these very interesting words that aren't necessarily about sport and what it's probably good to kind of get comfortable with this first and for foremost. Agile is a mindset. So it's about this incremental development to your to your customer. And then there's a whole series of practices that you can embrace to make agile happen. One of the most known frameworks is Scrum, but that might not suit your environment. And so part of what I talk about in Agile HR is finding out what's your own distinct flavour. If you do look into the systems and processes, however, then some of this often some core elements. And so one is rather than your Excel spreadsheet that maps out your initiative or your strategy or your operational plan. What you're looking at is portfolio of initiatives or a portfolio of work and then a backlog, which is ultimately the wish list of everything you think you might need to get done. But this backlog keeps changing and evolving as you move forward with your with your new initiative or piece of work. And what we do is we prioritize that backlog. What is the how could we deliver value now to our customer? What do we know the most about? Where do we stop first? And then you take that backlog and you go, okay, for a set period of time. That could be two weeks. It could be a week. Could be a month. We are going to focus on this amount of work from that backlog and then we're going to test that and we're going to get data to inform what we do next. So that's kind of one of the core aspects. So you've then got the introduction of boards can ban boards from boards. And lots of these are digital because a lot of our teams are virtual as well. And I find that just this level of prioritization can greatly impact nature. We've often got these huge wish lists. We're always struggling, competing, compile authorities and by using this agile technique to prioritize. We can manage our stakeholders a lot more effectively, as we can say, oh, this is exactly what we're working on. The boards are transparent. So the idea is sharing the work that we're working on. And they know that if by asking us to do this new thing, we now need to not do something else. And you can actually have those kind of conversations, which is a really kind of empowering tool. You also introduce kind of some new roles. And so rather than managers and leaders, you've got a self organizing team that is self organizing around this board or backlog of work, deciding where to start and how to get it done. So you've got decisions at the team level. You've then got a role like a scrum master or a coach that helps facilitate a makes that happen. And then they can't make decisions themselves. And they're all about helping that team dynamic and collaboration.
[00:20:53] You then generally have a role such as a product owner and the product owner is very much owning that vision. That's coming from the customer. And we're having a lot of those conversations with your sponsors and your stakeholders and ultimately the end customer. And they again, can't make the main decision. But what they do is they own that backlog. And so they're bringing the views of the customer to that backlog of work all the time. And they're and they're prioritizing it. This is what I'm hearing. And then it's a kind of collaboration between a product owner role and the team of how you get the work done. The next one around how do we organize our our people? So I think I've kind of stopped going into that a little bit. So what you're kind of seeing is a couple of things. So one is if you think about that team model, you're bringing together a cross-functional selection of people. Sometimes you're your asking business people to be in that team as well. And you're saying for this set period of time you're going to work together. Self organize to get things done. We talk about t shaped in Agile. So we want t shaped teams and we want t shaped people and t shaped is this idea that you can work across a breadth of areas and have a breadth of experience and in hey Chas, I think that's just so important. And then you've got a few special isms, or maybe one where you can deep dive. So that might be reward. It might be learning. It might be talent. More and more we're seeing we're needing paycheque, people that can work across a breadth of areas, a breadth of experience, and then bring core special isms and fit for particular pieces of work. Another key one is definitely around. So areas like Sky and River Island that I've already mentioned. They're actually hiring people that don't necessarily come from pet shops so much. So they're definitely business partners and others going into the team. But they're looking for digital expertise, they're looking for marketing expertise and they're looking for an online kind of ability. So learning now is how can you connect with people in a social environment, not just design a two day program. So definitely the type of backgrounds they're looking for is really kind of shifted. Yeah.
Gillian Pillans [00:23:13] So it's there's different skills that you need. It's a different way of working. But then underpinning all of this. It's fundamentally also about a change of of mindsets. So tell us a little bit more about about that part of it. From your experience, what sort of mindset shifts are needed to make this work in practice?
Natal Dank [00:23:31] Yeah, look, I think this is the key. And and many people in Agile kind of bang on about mindset. And it's not until you really give it a go that it truly comes out. It's really easy to start applying a few new tools and techniques. But if your if you don't fundamentally change your your way of thinking and your and your kind of approach to what you're doing, then actually nothing really changes. And you could actually fail quite quickly with that job. And so mindset shift is first and foremost, this kind of letting go of the idea of perfection from word go. So traditionally, we've always wanted to blueprint the whole thing out. And we also have taken that to our stakeholders. So this is the shiny new thing we're going to deliver to you now. We still talk about that vision and we get them very involved with what that shiny new thing looks like. But we will bring the evidence of getting there. To them in a very different way. And so letting go of that and getting comfortable with the ability of working with unknowns is probably one of the first things. The other one is this concept of self organization and collaboration. To truly allowing a collective way of getting there, bringing everyone's thoughts and ideas into it, and allowing the decision to be made at that level is a huge shift. And then understanding how you scale that across an organization is it is another key area. So a lot of kind of the ability to talk about a vision and initiative and let the detail come out from the people that are working on it is a big shift for a leader. And then also just a lot of people that are working in this space.
Gillian Pillans [00:25:19] So today we've really focused on talking about how agile can be deployed within HR to help improve the effectiveness of the HR function. But I think it's another angle to this, which is which we touched on earlier in the conversation. But some organisations are adopting agile across the business, not necessarily just in here, but in their core operations as well in some instances. And HR can also play a role in helping the organisation go agile more broadly. So what what role do you see HR as playing in helping and helping that that overall business change? And more specifically, what what skills would we need as HR professionals to make that happen?
Natal Dank [00:26:04] So I think this is a really important space and this is one of the main drivers behind the agile headshot community. So what we're so there's two kind of signs. One is, yes, agile. We can embraces it as our own function and it can greatly help how we work as a team and deliver value to our business. But the other key side is this whole transformation pace and this is really important. And so as an organisation embraces agile out, there is different models that you might be able to follow. But as we know from Agile, it's all about finding out what works in your organisation. But quite quickly, as you embrace agile ways of working, you're starting to get these conflicts with existing hate child processes and structures. So a good one is performance. So if your performance often link. Directly to reward is individual based pay for performance, maybe bonuses that are based on ratings, but your working environment starts to move towards collaborative teams doing building value to a customer. So you're evidence of success starts to be very different. There's been questions as to how you start to evolve our performance to support this new environment. And we are seeing companies moving away from ratings. We're seeing them having much more real time peer based feedback ways of doing performance. And we are seeing also a shift towards more collective recognition and reward and of course, reward, not just being bonuses as such.
[00:27:43] So quite quickly, you need to be asking these questions. How do we. What happens for role descriptions? What happens for your job profiles that you've got? If you start having teams that are much more cross-functional, if there's an ability to move people around at a faster rate, to meet the needs of the customer or to solve the problem, and you've even got these new roles like Scrum Master and product owner, like what does this mean for a business? And what I was finding. Up until now is that HR often felt on the back foot in this space, often weren't actually knowing what Agile was, and then not truly understanding how the existing hate jail processes were either causing a blocker or needed to be evolved to support this transformation. And that we had this sort of start to happen where he had were seen as sort of stopping agile in many ways and getting a bad name from it, but also for agile transformation to be successful from what? Oh, you need to be looking at the people practices that underpin it. And so this is all about bringing us together. And so take your place at a really and I think important role in agile transformation. The other key one is coaching our leaders.
[00:28:58] So leaders might say they want to go agile, but when they realize that it's a very different role to play, that can be very challenging and they can feel quite vulnerable. And and so like in all kind of big change initiatives. HR's role in coaching leaders, helping them understand their role and really kind of enabling them to take it to the next level, I think is a really important role to play.
Gillian Pillans [00:29:23] But I guess there are limitations to what we can do with Agile in the HR field. So let's bring it back to Earth and, you know, where doesn't it work and what might be some of the limitations around this? So that's opportunity for HR.
Natal Dank [00:29:37] Yeah, so agile is definitely not the answer. And both in business and and in nature because it's a way of finding out answers. And it's a method. It's a mindset, a method of working.
[00:29:51] And so even you could even apply an agile, a mythic and still actually fail with what you do. So that's that's something that can happen. So there's a few kind of, I think, kind of challenges for each other. One is if you introduce ways, agile ways of working, but the way you're kind of working, all your processes and systems demonstrate a different way of work quite quickly. There's this conflict. And I find that some teams really struggle with that. Also, if you just introduce it into one part of hate jar, there's this whole part of how do you then work with the other areas of nature? And then again, there can be these conflicts which actually makes it quite hard to try to do it. The other thing is that you don't necessarily go into an operations area and say, oh, we're going full, agile. Agile is about solving complex problems, innovation and also when you're close to the customer to test and learn and get results. So that doesn't always fit what what hate charge is about in an operations environment. It's more about how do we become very lean, efficient. Yes. Being in touch with our customer. Looking at sort of more how we're managing our workload. And that's why you're saying more about kind of systems to help you prioritize and manage work rather than this kind of true innovation, agile kind of rapid development. So I think it's also being quite comfortable with where you would kind of apply different agile methodology and mindset within H.R. and being really upfront with that, because you then need to say, okay, how different parts of hay are, but also different parts of the organization coordinate with each other. So if you've got one area that is working agile incrementally, the way you budget, the way you plan, the way you manage resource is very different to where it might not be agile. So how would you coordinate? How would you govern that kind of environment? So how to time? You need to get different parts of either teams or parts of an organisation to understand each other. And if they don't, it's it can be quite challenging and it might not work. I think the other final one and it sort of relates a little bit to what I started when I was saying is that is mindset. So you can apply a few new tools and techniques, but if you don't fundamentally change your mindset, nothing really happens. And I've definitely seen people say, oh, we tried a bit of agile, but it didn't really work. And that's because there was no real embrace of this fundamental kind of shift in how we organize and how we deliver value. And that's quite scary. So if you're not really ready to go there, then you're more than likely could fail.
Gillian Pillans [00:32:33] OK. So to finish off, let's let's bring it back to a very practical level and and talk about some what would what would be your top your top recommendations.
Natal Dank [00:32:42] So start small, get a nice, juicy, complex problem where if you solved it, it would make a difference and then give yourself a safe space to test and learn and know that you're going to get things wrong to begin with.
[00:32:55] But you're creating an environment where you're going to use the techniques around reviewing and retrospective, you know, what worked, what did it to then take it forward.
Gillian Pillans [00:33:06] And just finally, if people would like to find out more, where would you recommend that? So we go and look. So to learn more about this.
Natal Dank [00:33:12] Yeah, definitely. So can go to the agile HR community, which is www.agilehrcommunity.com and at the community we are now doing lots of meet ups that people can come to in lots of different cities. And this is people coming that are doing it, sharing their stories, but also people that are curious and interested. So come to a meetup. We're doing some learning programs in this space and then there's lots of blogs and information that you can link up to.
Gillian Pillans [00:33:48] Thanks again to Natal Dank for taking the time to talk about Agile later in action. So before we finish, let's summarize the key takeaways first. Agile has the potential to help each hour redesign how we approach our work to make us better equipped to deal with complexity and deliver volume much faster to our stakeholders. Second, what are the benefits of Agile is that it puts the customer, whether that's the business, the leadership team or individual employees at the heart of the work. So we're not going away in designing some sort of HR solution that frankly isn't what the business needs, which, let's face it, is something that quite often happens in HR. We're prototyping, testing and getting customer input all the way through third. Agile is not just a different way of working. It requires a shift in mindset and an openness to experimentation and collaboration. Join us next time. We will be talking through some case studies of a different age. Our teams have implemented agile and what results they've achieved.
[00:34:53] You've been listening to the CRF cast with me, Gillian Pillans, research director at CRF.
[00:34:58] You can find out more on our website at www.crforum.co.uk. Follow us on Twitter @C_R_Forum or join the CRF group on LinkedIn. Bye for now and thanks for listening.
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