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Does Agile HR really work?

Mary Faulkner, IA
Mary Faulkner
Mary Faulkner is a principal with IA, working with clients to help them get "unstuck" and move toward their ideal outcomes. Prior to joining IA, she spent nearly 20 years as an HR leader, gravitating toward organizations in multiple industries looking to make major changes across all areas of human resources. Having served has served as both a people manager and key project leader in tackling some of the challenges associated with complex transformations from within organizations, Mary is thrilled to have found a role that allows her to help multiple businesses through their evolution toward their ideal future state.

The evolution of how we talk about work is fascinating. From the early days of agrarian life, the focus on manufacturing at the start of the Industrial Revolution, and the emergence of the corporate office and beyond, people have tried to find a framework that reflects both the work being done and the changing world around them.

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Some groups adapt faster than others—technology often dives headfirst into new ways of working, be it coding languages or methodology. It was tech that gave birth to the Agile Manifesto, a methodology that has been embraced in one way or another by 71% of companies. Pure Agile is less common than a modified approach—one that mixes the core principles of Agile philosophy with the realities of how an industry works. In the right company, under the right circumstances, Agile allows teams to move quickly, failing faster and learning from those failures to iterate with a new approach.

Given the reported success rate of Agile, it’s no wonder that human resources is interested in getting in on the action. Agile HR has been gaining popularity in recent years, and many organizations have reported success with the methodology. However, like any approach to human resources management, the effectiveness of Agile HR will depend on a variety of factors, including the organization’s culture, leadership style and the specific implementation approach.

Before going too far down the rabbit hole, let’s provide some context to the conversation.

Agile HR is a methodology that applies Agile principles—a project management approach that emphasizes collaboration, flexibility and continuous improvement—to human resources management. Agile HR uses sprints, prioritization, experimentation and continuous feedback to adapt, which in turn allows HR practices to be more responsive to changing business needs, more focused on the needs and desires of employees, and more collaborative across different teams and departments. It’s a relatively new approach to what has historically been a fairly rigid department, and many in HR are excited about the potential.

But is it the right choice for you?

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See also: What’s keeping HR from being seen as a true strategic partner?

Why Agile HR might be the right approach

While Agile HR gives HR teams the ability to completely rethink their way of working, it doesn’t require an organization to completely overhaul its entire operating model. It demonstrates HR’s desire to find new ways to help the business. It also looks different, and sometimes rebranding helps outsiders see a department in a new light, thereby allowing HR a little space to do what it does best without fighting outdated opinions about what the team can do.

Some additional factors in Agile HR’s favor:

Flexibility. Agile HR is highly adaptable and can be quickly modified to meet changing business needs. This allows HR teams to rapidly respond to changes in the workforce or market. This is particularly attractive in highly volatile industries, or in organizations where acquisitions are fast and furious. Some of our clients have chosen to move towards Agile HR in response to the ever-changing landscape in which they operate.

Collaboration. Agile HR emphasizes collaboration and communication between HR and other departments. This helps to break down silos and encourages teamwork and knowledge sharing, leading to better decision-making and faster problem-solving. Because we advocate a true end-to-end approach to process optimization and system design, we appreciate the importance of ensuring nothing is done in a vacuum and that all the right stakeholders are consulted as part of a strong governance process.

Focus on people. One of the age-old complaints about HR is that it focuses too much on policy and handbooks. Agile HR puts the focus on the people within the organization, rather than on processes or policies. This helps to create a more human-centered workplace, where employees are empowered and engaged. Creativity is celebrated, encouraging new ideas and approaches to come from anyone, regardless of title.

Continuous improvement. As you know, we at IA are champions of having a continuous improvement mindset, and Agile HR encourages this, challenging HR teams to constantly look for ways to improve their processes and practices, which can lead to better outcomes for the organization. This mindset—coupled with that all-important governance approach, will benefit the organization and help make Agile HR a reality.

Where Agile HR could be a challenge

While there are several advantages to adopting Agile HR, the truth is that it’s not the ideal approach for everyone. And it’s also not something that works all the time. Making the choice to bring Agile HR into your organization means considering some potential headwinds:

Resistance to change. HR has gained a reputation for being stuck in its ways, and while many in HR want to innovate and move the profession forward, there are still those who find comfort in structure, rules and repetition. This can cause significant friction when Agile HR is rolled out, especially if the rollout is not managed well. It’s not enough to simply say, “We are now Agile HR!” Good change management and training are needed, not just for HR but for the customers they serve. Without it, there can be a lack of buy-in, making it difficult to implement the new methodology effectively.

Lack of structure. There is comfort in repeatable, task-driven work. People often like to know that when they do X, Y will occur. Agile HR is not built that way, and from the outside, it can look less structured than traditional HR methods. This can be challenging for some employees who are used to a more rigid approach to HR management. While Agile does have structure inherent in its systems, it’s a different kind of structure and it can take time to learn the rhythm to make it work. And some organizations just won’t get there.

Time-consuming. There’s no way to sugar coat it: Agile HR requires a significant amount of time and resources to implement properly. We have seen organizations try to implement Agile HR by sharing a slide deck, mailing a book to everyone and hoping for the best. And yes, an overview of the methodology is helpful, but there needs to be a lot of work behind the scenes to make sure the infrastructure has been built to support a new way of working. This can be a barrier for smaller organizations or those with limited HR resources.

Limited applicability. Earlier, I hinted that Agile HR may not be suitable for all situations, and often it’s inappropriate for entire organizations or industries. Some highly regulated industries may require a more rigid approach to HR management to ensure compliance with laws and regulations. In other situations, HR may be ready to work Agile … but the rest of the organization is not. It’s important to know your culture and know your business.

So, what’s the verdict?

Well, ultimately that is up to you and your leadership to decide. While organizations have found that Agile HR can lead to increased employee engagement, faster decision-making and improved business outcomes, other organizations have found that Agile HR can be challenging to implement and maintain effectively. Each organization must do the work to determine whether or not the metaphorical juice is worth the squeeze.

Overall, while there is evidence that Agile HR can be effective in some situations, its success will depend on a variety of factors. Organizations considering Agile HR should carefully evaluate their own culture and readiness for change, and work with experienced HR professionals to develop a customized implementation plan.