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What does agile HR look like?

Kate Le Gallez

Writer, Culture Amp

As many organizations look to become more agile and customer-centric, HR risks are seen as an internal hurdle to high performance. HR leaders have been searching for a way to meet this challenge. 

The answer is a more agile approach to HR.

Agile is an iterative approach to developing initiatives that are structured around experimentation, integration, and review, and supported by a trusting and collaborative culture. Agile has its roots in the software development world, but the mindset and principles of agile are increasingly being tested in the world of human resources. 

Agile HR is defined as an approach that prioritizes the speed of responsiveness and adaptiveness within the HR function.

In this article, we explore agile HR lessons from the tech world, why agile HR teams need real-time feedback, and how agile HR teams approach employee feedback. 

Agile HR lessons from the tech world

Agile’s natural habitat is software development, which was introduced as a way of meeting rapidly changing and complex customer demands. As the Harvard Business Review says in their piece on the new rules of talent management, "Agile isn’t just for tech anymore. now it’s transforming how organizations hire, develop, and manage their people."

For HR, agile will necessarily look and feel different. The question is: what can HR learn from software developers’ experiences?

The answer is probably not surprising. As with all significant cultural changes – and agile is cultural – the difficulties have often come with implementation. These challenges have led leading businesses, like Spotify, and agile thinkers, like Alistair Cockburn, to refine their approach to agile HR over time. In both cases, it was about taking agile back to its key imperatives: deliver, collaborate, reflect, and improve.

For HR teams in the early stages of their agile journey, these lessons are important. HR needs to address its evolving role and consider where it needs to focus on agile value creation for its customer – the organization – over the perceived certainty of "traditional" processes. 

Agile HR needs real-time employee feedback 

An agile approach to collecting, understanding, and acting on employee feedback can underpin the transition to agile HR. But what does it look like in practice?

Over the past few years, feedback processes have evolved from the traditional consultant-led model toward bringing feedback in-house. Employee experience platforms, like Culture Amp, offer organizations one place to measure and improve employee engagement, performance management, employee development, retention, DEI, and more.

While consultant-led models, characterized by dependence, lack of internal ownership, and high cost, can hinder an agile HR, in-house ownership empowers HR to support an agile business.

The table below shows key differences between a consultant-led model and an agile approach to feedback. 

Consultant-led feedback Agile feedback
Focus on traditional best practices Focus on every-improving best practices
Externally led Internally owned
Long lag between survey and results Tight feedback loop
Top-down release of results Real-time datap
Dependent on external expertise Empowered leaders and teams
Cost dictates cadence Cost responds to organization's needs

How agile HR teams approach employee feedback

Bringing feedback in-house is just the start – implementation is where the real work happens. HR leaders should think about how getting feedback in-house can support a more agile approach to feedback and, more broadly, a more agile HR.

We looked at how this can play out through the lens of four fundamental tenets of agile:

1. Responsiveness

Agile is all about speed to market, but speed for the sake of speed achieves little. Instead, organizations need feedback that’s responsive to business needs. Bringing feedback processes in-house helps tighten this loop and gives control back to the organization.

Before joining Culture Amp as Chief Scientist, Jason McPherson worked as a consultant for many years. He saw how outsourcing the analysis of employee feedback prevented HR teams from acting quickly. "Consultant-led feedback processes often involve a significant lag time between gathering feedback and receiving results. The data is crunched externally, going into the consultants’ closely-guarded black box, with reports magically emerging weeks or even months later," he explains. 

With an in-house employee feedback platform, you can focus more attention on taking action where it will have an impact and then re-measuring to check how the changes are landing.

2. Experimentation

Agile focuses on ever-improving better practices, rather than antiquated "best practices." For the feedback process, this may mean experimenting with things like cadence. More broadly, agile feedback processes facilitate timely pulse checks to gather real-time feedback on how new initiatives are being experienced on the ground.

If you're looking for ways to kick off an agile experiment, Monique Hughes, Senior Customer Success Coach at Culture Amp, compiled ways to use agile to act on employee feedback. She suggests choosing one or two new approaches during your next post-survey action planning period. "Maybe it’s applying an MVP and sprint concept, or maybe it’s creating a diverse forum of people to co-design the actions that will be taken," she explains. Most of all, she advises that when you experiment, you also carve out time to reflect and learn. 

3. Validated learning

Agile thinking is fueled by science and technology. The tool here is often the "minimum viable product" (MVP), where the minimum is done to satisfy a customer requirement or meet a specific outcome. Then, over time that product is improved based on feedback from the market. 

In HR teams, it works the same way, except your "customers" are your employees. Your MVP can be thought of as a new HR initiative, like a trial learning and development program, which you launch, collect feedback on, and iterate over time. 

4. Trust and collaboration

Putting feedback results directly into the hands of managers and teams helps create the high levels of collaboration and trust essential to a thriving agile environment.

Jason says, "An agile feedback approach builds trust and collaboration, not only because the process itself can be run in-house, but because results can immediately be put into the hands of leaders at all levels of the organization, from the CEO through to front-line managers. It gives teams across the business a chance to analyze their results, see what they’re doing well and prioritize the changes that need to be made."

Getting ready for agile HR

HR departments are ready to adopt an agile hr strategy. Eline van der Maas, a member of Aegon’s global HR team, also leads their "Future Fit" program, an answer to how to be an agile HR team.

She says, “Embedding an agile way of working in HR business processes meant we needed to change some of our practices as well. And one of the first things we did was to change how we surveyed employees. We used to do the traditional survey once a year with a consulting firm, and it took a very long time for people to get their feedback. When you want to be agile, you need to have instant feedback. And you must be able to react very quickly to the feedback that you get.”

All of this preparation and adjustment can take a toll on your HR team. To keep them in good mental and physical health, be sure to invest in your HR team's self-care. It'll ensure they're ready to implement an agile HR strategy with ease.

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