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HR Struggles With Agile Principles for Good Reason

December 01, 2020 Leadership
Lance Haun Reworked contributing writer
By Lance Haun

Is your HR function agile? That question may be harder to answer than you think. 

When many people think of an agile HR function, they may be thinking of a department that is more flexible, fast-moving and innovative. But that way of operating this critical function may also come off as less strategic, directed and compliant. 

The reality is that while many organizations have taken half steps toward being more agile, a vast majority of HR leaders don’t have a strategy or defined outcomes to apply agility in their operations. Let’s start by defining what exactly agile HR truly is.

Defining (A)gile HR

Informally, agile can simply mean moving quickly and flexibly through work. When applied to HR, agile could be a function that is more oriented toward speed and flexibility. For organizations that may be growing quickly, this can mean a consistent re-prioritization of tasks to meet the needs of the organization and more collaboration among the HR team. 

There is also a whole field of Agile HR — with a capital A — that follows something closer to the software development version of Agile. In short, Agile HR tries to get the same advantages that its software development peers get through:

  • Embracing a mindset of delivering value to your employees and the organization.
  • Finding new ways of working iteratively and cross-functionally, with transparency.
  • Using evidence-based experiments and approaches to test new ideas.
  • Reducing risk through constant validation on iterations and experiments.

Making Agile HR formal is, in the best case, embracing a new way of supporting the organization and matching fluctuations in the business. 

But agile HR functions can meet the needs of their organizations without formal Agile. And Agile HR departments can be less flexible than functions that haven’t followed true Agile principles. 

Whether the principles of agile have positively influenced your HR function is more important than what you call it, though. That’s the struggle many HR leaders are facing today. 

Related Article: Digital Transformation Came for HR. Where Do We Go Now?

HR Is Challenged By Agile

This summer, agile advocates celebrated a headline from Gartner in the midst of the incredible organizational transformation driven by COVID-19: A survey found that 63% of HR leaders are taking steps to be more agile.

The survey of 253 HR leaders found that a majority of respondents reported already using some variation of agile methodology or principles. HR, often unfairly labeled as stuck in their ways, was finally taking action to move at the speed of business.

Unfortunately, that’s where the good news ended.

“While there is a growing consensus among HR leaders that HR should become more agile, there is an overall uncertainty about how to effectively apply the principles to HR,” said Caroline Walsh, a vice president in the Gartner HR practice, in the release. She pointed out that 78% of HR leaders had neither a defined strategy nor outcomes to guide their application of agile. 

Some other core principles of agile, like reallocating resources dynamically to meet employee support needs and pausing or stopping projects that were no longer deemed valuable, were followed by about a third of organizations surveyed. 

Other researchers, like analyst Josh Bersin, have pointed to the increase in interest in applying agile to HR, yet can point to few instances of it working smoothly. Many HR departments try to copy agile techniques and tools like daily standup meetings and SCRUM boards without fully understanding the philosophy of agile, Bersin said.

Related Article: What Games Like Minecraft Can Teach HR About No-Code Automation

The Agile Struggle Is Real

In reality, the transition to agile for any function is difficult. This is especially true in HR, which is divided up into functions that can encompass everything from project management and technology implementation, to planning and support.

For the project management function, where short-term and long-term initiatives such as evaluating and implementing new software or processes are the norm, agile can feel like a natural step forward. For those in planning and forecasting, agile can feel like an unnecessary complication to a function that already works. Those on the front lines of employee support may never see long-term benefits from a shift to agile workflows. 

With more formal Agile HR, an investment in episodic planning, transparency and constant reprioritization is intentional. What can seem chaotic from the outside is the result of a surprising expense in organizing. That requires a deep understanding of how your function runs and how agile can help. This is why nearly four in five of the leaders Gartner surveyed didn’t really have a guiding outcome or strategy for their own application of agile, even as they pursued trying to implement it.

This is not to say that motivated and capable HR leaders can’t successfully implement true proper-noun-and-all Agile HR. The focus on planning, organizing and investing the time on talking through priorities in a transparent and cross-functional way across the entire team is an approach that takes some political capital in organizations to pull off. 

Rather than look at agile as a shortcut to a faster moving, more innovative HR function though, HR leaders have to look at agile as a larger transformation exercise. That means accounting for both the challenges and the long-term investment required for a shift like this to stick.

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