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Agile Leadership in Action During a Crisis – Top 7 Practices to Build Organizational Resilience and Develop HR Leaders – by Wayne Tarken

What is Agile HR? Is it the same as IT? Is a typical question I hear people ask. Many believe agile is for IT, not for HR. A common misconception that has prevented Agile’ s wider adoption into HR…until now. As HR leaders face a variety of challenges such as Covid-19, racial inequalities and remote work, they are searching for new ways to respond to these challenges. Agile HR is a program that could help

Why Agile HR?

We live in interesting times. Change is constant and coming faster. Many are out of work or afraid they will be. The financial and emotional toll is huge.

Do you think you’ll face more disruptions in the future? Hopefully not of this magnitude, but you know there will more. You can’t avoid future disruptions; only improve how you respond.

Covid-19 showed how woefully unprepared many organizations were. Yet despite this, I’m encouraged by the improvements in organizations such as ING, IBM and GE, driven by the adoption of agile HR practices.

The challenge is how to extend this to other HR leaders and their organizations?

My Discovery

In 2011 I took a career diversion from HR into IT as a Scrum Master developing enterprise software for IBM, then Comcast. It became apparent to me that agile project management was more effective in achieving the desired results than the typical waterfall process. I wondered how to extend agile into HR.

I spent several years toying with this concept, trying to translate precise agile tactics and methods into something that non-IT practitioners could understand. Concepts like experimentation, breaking down projects, iterative work, customer focus, self-directed teams emerged. But the challenge remained how to present these concepts to the HR leader.

I tried many acronyms, until the concept of EBIT2DA emerged. It has a sense of familiarity that most people can understand. If we know EBITDA as a measure

of financial performance, why can’t they use EBIT2DA as a measure Agile HR?

Let’ briefly review the seven practices of EBIT2DA

Experimentation

We’ve just gone through a massive experiment in the span of weeks, not months, moving employees out of the office into virtual settings. We’ve taken the agile approach of ready, fire, aim where it’s more important to get started instead of waiting to get it perfect.

But how will we sustain this progress? By creating an environment with the right culture and systems to encourage experimentation. To promote a safe environment with more cognitive diversity that continually generates new and emerging ideas to help keep pace with market changes.

Tips for HR Leaders – Review your performance management, talent and planning systems to ensure they promote a culture of experimentation

Breakdown

The core element of agile HR is breaking down a project, process, program into smaller components for iterative, incremental improvements that scale.

Take a look at this boulder. It would be impossible to move up the hill in its current form. We would need to break it into smaller pieces that can be moved a few at a time.

It’s a great metaphor for agile HR. The way we plan, communicate, schedule, meet, organize and work can be deconstructed into small components. To better design our work to meet the competing business, talent, priorities and resources demands.

Tips for HR Leaders – deconstruct projects, programs, reports, into smaller components that can be more easily resourced, scheduled and managed.

Incremental, Iterative Improvements

Now look at the stone wall. We took the smaller boulders and began to arrange them sequentially row by row until the wall was completed. The same analogy applies to agile HR projects. We break our projects into manageable components called Minimal Viable Products (MVPs). Iteratively and incrementally building them until they provide certain functionalities or capabilities.

The improvements are sustainable. Even if we stopped halfway through the wall project, a portion would still be finished. We wouldn’t have to start over. Same with technology. If you implement small MVPs, the improvements are locked it and available right away.

Tips for HR Leaders – Projects die when a key person or resource leaves. Avoid this by using agile practices to build MVPs that produce sustainable results every few weeks.

Timed-boxed activities

Traditional HR project work is based upon the waterfall strategy of building a product and releasing it all at once at the end. Conversely, Agile HR projects are structured around 2-4-week blocks of time called sprints, during which a small part (MVP) of the project is completed.

There’s an inverse relationship between the time it takes to complete something and customer satisfaction. In 2020, your plans on March 1 were obsolete by April 1. A lot can change over the life of a project. Failure to produce smaller, more frequent MVPs that can be periodically reviewed and approved by the customer, can result in a solution that no one wants. Plus, this lack of visible progress and recognition is demotivating. Agile eliminates these problem by creating and celebrating mini-successes every 2-4 weeks.

Tips for HR Leaders – change your time horizon from months to weeks focusing on generating smaller, more regular successes that recognize progress.

 

 

 

Self-Organizing Teams

Self-organizing doesn’t mean random. The best teams include the required disciplines, domain knowledge, technical expertise and cognitive diversity based upon project goals. There’s a greater focus on individual roles (scrum master, product owner). These teams are smaller yet generate higher productivity and information sharing.

Tips for HR Leaders – Use the Jeff Bezo’s two pizza rule as a guideline for team size. (If you can’t feed them with two pizzas, the team is too large.)

Servant Leadership

Many leaders are challenged as organizations shift from a hierarchical to a network model. Moving from a focus on command and control to facilitation, where their role is to remove barriers, provide resources, not manage the work. They will likely be the biggest barrier to the success of your Agile HR initiatives.

Tips for HR Leaders – Focus on leadership as shared responsibility between leaders and their teams. Implement the right practices and systems to facilitate this culture change.

Always Be Communicating with Customers

How many times have you worked on a big, multi-slide presentation only to have it skimmed at best or filed away at worst? Your stakeholder “customers” aren’t looking for massive presentations. They’re already inundated with more information than they can handle. The agile way is to write less, talk more, communicate better.

The voice of the customer is represented by the product owner who reviews, modifies or approves the work every day. The stronger the person in this role, the more successful your project will be.

Tips for HR Leaders – Incorporate customer input on everything that you do. Focus on creating one-page documents that stress your key points and provide enough information to generate interest in and potential commitment to your plan.

Now that we’ve discussed elements of Agile HR Leadership, let see how we can incorporate these practices into our daily work

How to get started

Many organizations start their Agile HR journey by hosting awareness sessions to review key principles, often followed by a task force or program committee to facilitate the process, hoping that these efforts take off and scale.

Unfortunately, they rarely do. Why? Because just as you can’t learn to ride a bicycle by reading a book, you can’t learn agile by attending a seminar. You have to use it.

Based upon this thinking, we’ve developed six work practices that can be used to gain experience and comfort with agile HR practices to help the program scale. Let’s discuss the most important – meetings.

How we Meet

What’s the purpose of meetings? To solve problems, communicate, plan and align efforts? Yes, but how often is this achieved? Meetings can be the least productive part of your day. Often, the only thing that changes are the due dates for the action items. Employees become frustrated and de-energized.

My belief is that the most important reason for meetings is to identify and solve problems as quickly as possible – Here’s a typical example where that doesn’t work:

A project team has a weekly Monday meeting. At the end of the meeting, everyone is assigned a deliverable. On Tuesday someone runs into a problem with their assignment. They try but fail to resolve it. Tuesday turns into Wednesday, Wednesday into Thurs and so on. Before you know it, Monday comes around and nothing was accomplished. The team lost an entire week before the problem was identified let alone solved. At this rate it could take weeks to solve it. Let’s see how Agile HR improves this.

It takes long meetings and breaks them into shorter 15 minutes daily stands ups called scrums, where every participant answers these 3 questions:

  1. What did you do yesterday?
  2. What will you do today?
  3. What problems did you have?

In this scenario, the problem found on Tuesday would be identified and discussed on Wednesday (What problems did you have?). Solutions could be discussed, evaluated then implemented on Wednesday (What will you do today?) We’ve reduced the problem resolution process down to 3 days versus an entire week

Now imagine if you could you speed up problem solving into days not weeks? What would be the impact to you?

Conclusion

You can’t predict when the next disruption will occur only that it will happen. All you can do is get better at responding.
Agile HR leadership practices provide a way for HR leaders to build organizational resilience and the required capabilities.

The seven practices of EBIT2DA provide foundational strategies that organizations can leverage to build internal developmental and leadership programs that promote agility.

The key is to just get started. Don’t wait to get it perfect, you never will. Start to incorporate the HR Leader tips into your strategies and programs. Then look at the way you run meetings, gradually shifting to more frequent, shorter scrum sessions.

The result will be a more resilient and agile HR function and organization.

 

About the Author

Wayne Tarken, Agile HR Coach helps business leaders implement agile and leadership practices that improve organizational performance

He founded the Agile HR Consortium, a group of 60+ organizations that develops agile practices and tools out of which EBIT2DA emerged as a groundbreaking 7-step agile developmental roadmap. He created the “Developing the Agile Leader” graduate course at the University of Pennsylvania

He has worked with dozens of Fortune organizations like IBM, Comcast, Johnson & Johnson, and is recognized as an outstanding speaker who holds an MBA in HR from Temple University

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