Should HR embrace agile methodology?

Scrums and stand-ups are changing the way we do business, and people professionals are increasingly using them in their own work too

Three years ago, the HR team at multinational broadcaster Sky faced several issues. People initiatives would take months to see the light of day, a ‘sheep dip’ approach to learning meant many employees weren’t developing the skills they needed and there were siloes everywhere, even within HR itself. “Everyone was working on their own thing,” says Tracey Waters, director of people experience. “Opinions reigned supreme – whoever had the loudest voice had the most influence.” 

Waters knew she had to try something different, and tentatively suggested her team move to an agile approach; embracing a set of principles and ways of working that are well established in software development and are becoming increasingly popular across a huge variety of organisations and functions. 

“I had a feeling it was the right thing to do,” she remembers. “I suggested we try it for 90 days and if people hated it, we could go back. It was a risk being so honest, but it was liberating because it meant it didn’t have to be perfect.” The HR department took a ‘test and learn’ approach as it got to grips with the methodology, starting with two-week ‘sprints’ that focused on specific goals.

It appointed a ‘scrum master’ – an individual responsible for setting the pace and structure of agile interactions – to help navigate the rituals of agile, such as daily ‘stand up’ meetings and retrospectives, where teams learn from feedback and mistakes. 

One of the first targets was manager development and an active move away from instructor-led training. “We wanted to understand managers’ pain points and work out the smallest point-of-need solution,” says Waters. Over time, the team tested various tools including an app with digital resources, checklists, group workshops, nudge campaigns, videos and larger group experiences. 

Each time they had data to tell them what was working, which led to further iterations. Now almost all the products emerging from Waters’ team are developed in this user-focused, data-driven way.  

Sky’s experience is far from unique, but to many agile may still feel understandably alien. The movement itself began in 2001 in software development. It was central to the way many Silicon Valley giants built their products – the Facebook mantra of ‘move fast and break things’ is archetypally agile – but as its evangelists grew, it has naturally infused more ‘traditional’ areas of the business, such as marketing and, increasingly, HR. 

In essence, agile aims to ‘iterate’ new ideas quickly, produce results, get feedback and adapt, as opposed to the more usual project management approach where specifications and timelines are locked down, with testing often not happening until it’s almost time to deploy. Features of the agile approach include ‘scrums’, where teams are asked to deliver results in two to four weeks, flat management structures and a focus on continuous feedback. There are often visual planning elements such as Kanban boards, and everything revolves around the customer or user.  

Agile comes replete with its own terminology and mindset, but it isn’t hard to adapt it to business units where breakthrough innovation might be more sporadic, but the need to streamline processes or introduce improvements is equally vital. And in the current volatile business climate, agile’s adherents argue, taking months to develop a product or service that users may no longer desire or need by the time it’s finished is a waste of time and money. 

Melissa Boggs, chief scrum master with Scrum Alliance – the US non-profit that is the standard-bearer of agile methodology – says: “What resonates with leaders is that it minimises risk. We slice things up so we deliver something in a couple of weeks that delivers value to the customer or end user and they get to reap the benefits.” At the same time, teams develop deeper relationships with customers or users because there’s a constant (or ‘infinite’) ‘feedback loop’ – they feel what they’re doing matters, so they’re more engaged. 

With organisations undergoing periods of intense transformation – digital or otherwise – it’s crucial to build agility into the way things are done, argues Lucia Adams, a change consultant. “In the organisational development context, agile means working with people, co-creating a response and breaking things into more manageable chunks as opposed to a broad and wide process change,” she says. “We talk about ‘failing small’ – all organisations will have those skeletons in the cupboard of massive projects that failed. With agile, you discover in weeks that something’s not right.” 

Perry Timms, an experienced HR consultant and author who helps people professionals tackle agile principles, says it strikes a chord with organisations that have tried a few approaches to address an issue: “They want something less obvious, so they already have an open mind. We look at what didn’t work, and we give them the skills to empower them to work to a loose brief to find a solution. There’s still rigour and governance, but it’s less wasteful.” 

Leeds City Council saw agile as part of moving towards a new way of delivering its digital services, says head of digital efficiencies Jo Miklo. “A couple of projects have been run in this way and these are helping inform how we should deliver things in the future,” she says. “We want services that meet the needs of the end user, delivering a minimum viable product quickly and realising benefits early in a project. Key to how this will work is having a more user-centred design approach and tackling wider problems than just technology.”

Emma Browes, HR service manager, says the HR team has applied agile in various pieces of work: “It has allowed us to think differently about our approach to work and at times to keep track of who is doing what in a visual way, breaking things down rather than being overwhelmed by one big thing.”

And the public sector in particular can benefit from ‘short circuiting’ to the nub of the problem it needs to solve, rather than becoming paralysed by analysis, argues Timms. “Lots of these organisations are cut to the bone so they need something they have capacity for; otherwise, the problems stack up and they struggle under the weight,” he says. 

There’s little doubt, however, that misunderstanding agile or applying it halfheartedly can be damaging. The journey towards working in this way needs to happen in smaller chunks. Bosses who go in all guns blazing can end up turning their teams off the idea altogether, says Adams. “You hear of organisations going all-out on the language and holding stand-ups for 200 people looking at a PowerPoint. It’s not just about adopting the artefacts and the language, it’s about understanding the mindset. Applying it where it’s needed, not as a dogma.”

In fact, a ‘pick and mix’ approach to adopting agile principles may help HR get things moving before it is used more widely. Boggs adds: “I know of an organisation that started using scrums in recruitment, then the rest of HR got interested. Storytelling is important – there may be pockets of agility that no one knows about but, if teams are thriving and telling their story, other teams are inspired to change for themselves and feel safer.” 

There is also a healthy scepticism about applying agile outside a tech environment. Some feel there simply isn’t enough evidence that agile itself – rather than the environment that created it – delivers results. Others are concerned that functions and sectors with different cultures and processes cannot simply adopt a new way of working en masse.

“If you think about the evidence base in the HR context, there’s little to show agile can lead to the outcomes we need,” says Ed Houghton, head of research and thought leadership at the CIPD. “It’s very much been dragged and dropped from IT, and I question whether it’s appropriate, and whether we’re rigorous about the measures we use to see if it’s working.” 

Houghton says that many of the pillars of agile, such as innovation, iteration and co-creation across multiple teams, are to be welcomed in HR, but adds: “There’s an emphasis on pace above all else, which is a real risk when applied to HR programmes.” Even fans of the agile movement concede there could be elements of HR where it might not be as effective, mainly in areas where rigour is non-negotiable; for example, in selection interviews, TUPE transfers or employee relations. “There are processes and projects in HR that are repetitive and structured for a reason,” says Houghton. “And they might not benefit from a left-field approach.” 

He also questions whether there is a risk organisations could see agile as a silver bullet to replace rather than complement existing project management approaches. “The language doesn’t feel inclusive and it feels as though it’s an alternative way to run a project,” says Houghton. “HR struggles to quantify the impact of projects anyway. Of course, we can experiment with it, learn from it, but we have to make sure we have the right measures in place, rather than applying it wholesale off the shelf.”

Jo Tolland, from consultancy REDD, experimented with a lighter approach when she introduced agile at social housing organisation Blackwood Group. “Our CEO asked us to run an agile-based session without even mentioning the word agile if possible. It was a challenge, but we used live scenarios to apply the agile techniques without using too much terminology, and it’s worked a treat,” she says. “It was almost agile by stealth as too much terminology can get in the way for some people.” 

As well as helping the organisation develop a major strategic initiative, the approach has been used for a review of communication processes and a series of service improvement workshops. But Tolland adds: “This less traditional approach can trouble people who are used to a more command and control method. It can be unsettling from a status point of view and, for some organisations, quite a leap for the leadership team.” She also stresses that agile won’t necessarily work for every initiative: “I think it’s great for developing ideas from concept to product, but agile is not always suitable for all phases or types of project.” 

At HSBC, the original agile manifesto was written in IT, but it has slowly been adopted more broadly, says Stephanie South, global HR business partner for IT. The IT HR team used agile to deliver its 2018 people strategy, working in cross-functional project teams that comprised an HR business partner, an HR consultant, a business sponsor and a relevant centre of excellence. “One key learning was that we should have involved an end user of the product in the project team if we wanted to be more ‘agile’, although we did utilise people in the IT function to help. For example, when we built a technical interview toolkit we asked IT to provide these questions rather than try to write them ourselves in HR,” she says. Recently, the team delivered HSBC’s graduate programme in four ‘agile’ sprints, using complementary tools such as Kanban and holding regular retrospectives.  

It would be easy to decry agile as yet another fad – after all, it has all the hallmarks, from its curious terminology to the evangelism it inspires in some. And it’s certainly not a panacea for a broken organisation (as Waters puts it: “Unless you know what the problem is, the answer’s not agile.”) For all the caution, however, it can’t hurt HR professionals to think more innovatively or to question how they work. And even if agile is another flash in the pan, following ‘lean’ or Six Sigma into the bargain bin of business ideas, at its heart is a concept everyone can get behind: it’s often better to try and fail than stick with the same old ideas.