The HR Agile Manifesto
The Agile methodology has been around for many years, but it gained greater traction in 2001 when the Agile Manifesto was written by a small group of people who were unhappy with the traditional waterfall method of technology development. Since then, many companies have seen the benefits of a development process that is less sequential and rigid and more collaborative and iterative. We gravitate toward the simplicity of linear solutions, but reality is much more unpredictable, thus the attraction of Agile. The principles of the Agile approach are rapidly being adopted outside the technology development arena in functions such as marketing, operations, and supply chain logistics.
Human resources, as an organizational function, tends to be obsessed with standardization, predictability, and control. Our compulsion for compliance predisposes us to want our processes to be consistent and unvarying. We create checklists and audit forms to ensure everything is buttoned up. We’ve produced micro-managing specialists who are change-averse in many functional areas of HR. We often feel that if we bend, we’ll break. But HR has to learn to flex as the workplace becomes more nimble, adjusting to changes in the marketplace as well as transformations within the cultures in which we work.
So it’s time for us to figure out what agility means, and how we can adopt the mindsets and processes of Agile development to move us, with greater dexterity, into stronger partnerships and more meaningful contributions to the organizations we serve.
The Agile Manifesto reflects the four mindsets of the agile movement:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working software over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
Applying the Agile Manifesto to HR
Before we consider where Agile might benefit the HR function, it’s important to note that Agile is not useful with routine and predictable tasks, so it won’t work well for payroll and other transactional duties that are inherent to HR. But from a human capital strategy perspective, it’s essential to recognize that according to some experts, engagement doubles when Agile is practiced. So as we work with our partners to develop processes, programs, and strategies, we can improve engagement and enrich those partnerships through Agile practices.
Looking specifically at the Agile Manifesto, HR can easily modify the four mindsets.
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools. While it’s important to have policies, and to apply them equitably and consistently, we also have to recognize when the policy prevents us from doing what needs to be done. It’s a matter of building flexibility into policies and keeping in mind the purpose behind the policy in the first place. Additionally, measurement is valuable, but according to this principle we have to remember we’re working with people in a relational context, not a transactional one.
- Working software over comprehensive documentation. This one will be a stretch, but I think at the heart is the realization that we must avoid the comfort of crossing things off our to-do lists, writing up the process, then setting it in stone. Just as an Agile developer must stay focused on letting the product (software) evolve, so too should we have a more open mindset when it comes to what we deliver from the HR Office.
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation. This is, perhaps, the most critical aspect of Agile to the HR community. Much has been written on this topic, especially in the past 10 years, but we have more work to do. This is the “seat at the table” challenge HR has been wrestling with for decades. We are reluctant to collaborate, partially because we feel we need to control things to avoid legal and PR exposure. We must learn to partner, and encourage the business units and organizations we serve to own HR solutions. We’ve created dependence that ought not be ours.
- Responding to change over following a plan. Plans are great. Failure to create a strategy often (almost always) leads to catastrophe or missed opportunity. But change is constant and we have to be responsive as circumstances and priorities shift. This happens through regular review of our plans, which may lead to tweaking the existing path or even abandoning the plan altogether.
Most of us in HR “get it” when it comes to Agile theory, but our organizational cultures and legacy mindsets prevent us from putting theory to practice. We owe it to ourselves and our organizations to gain an understanding of Agile principles and, as Agile suggests, incrementally and collaboratively rebuild our processes to be more flexible and responsive. A good place to start is scrum.org, a web site dedicated to the Scrum subset of Agile, which provides several useful resources.