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AGILE HR: Resources for Humans (NOT Humans as Resources)

I have been working in various aspects of Business Agility for the better part of the last 20 years. From eCommerce to Systems Engineering; Marketing to Product Development; Product Management to Strategic Planning; Corporate Finance to Sales; and maybe most importantly, HR.

UPDATE: Check out the Agile HR Manifesto.

Since the authoring of the Agile Manifesto in 2001, organizations have been conflicted in their journey embrace an Agile mindset, at odds with many of their policies and evaluation mechanisms. With the broad-based adoption of Agile principles in product development, the ever-intensifying rate of change in a 2018 business environment, and record-low unemployment rates, the time has come, for Agile HR.

HISTORY How we got here Modern HR policies were mostly born following the end of World War II in an age where pensions, manufacturing, and long-term forecasting, forecasting were status quo.

Organizations planned career paths for employees based on multi-year milestones whose accomplishment would advance their development, and earnings, up the next rung of the career ladder. Companies utilized a rules-based approach to talent similar to the methods they used to project business growth 5, 10, and 15-years in the future.

The 90’s The 1990’s brought many changes to the business environment which made it infinitely less predictable. With new global competition, the dawn on the technological revolution, and entirely new skills that were required to remain viable in the new economy, HR began to shift.

Where HR had once planned for the long-term sustainability of a business through the development of people, they were now tasked with rapidly finding people to fill holes (the advent of “Humans as Resources”), and largely abandoned the professional development practices of the earlier generation. HR was forced to treat people as disposable commodities in the shadow the organization’s inability to accurately plan, leading to layoffs, reduced benefits, and career paths which were mostly nonexistent.

2018 In 2018 we see a systemic shift, a transformation, in the way HR approaches their discipline. But, why now? Because quite simply because the pace of business has increased to a point where we no longer have the runway to shift our staff and hire new talent to address market needs. For companies to thrive in 2018 (and beyond), they must embrace the start-up philosophy of merciless pivoting and constant reinvention. HR must learn to apply the rapid prototyping principles of product development, and be prepared to shift on a dime. It is time for HR to become Agile.

AREAS FOR CHANGE Let me be clear on one of the most critical learnings that I have had during my time working with Corporate Human Resources teams: they are not near as scary as you probably think they are. Through the damage done in the 1990’s and early 2000’s from annual RIFs (reductions in force), the mass layoffs of 2008, and the general fear of corporate policy, we must remember that the number one priority of the folks in HR is to assure the happiness of the staff (employee engagement) and that the team stays intact (retention.)

Experience Architecture Have you seen the photos on LinkedIn posted by HR teams welcoming a new teammate to the organization, complete with a picture of a well-organized workstation including a configured computer, a welcome card signed by the team, and a few pieces of schwag?

Let me assure you that the scene was not the result of an overly ambitious recruiter. This is the byproduct of a carefully documented journey through the employee acquisition pipeline, that had a curated peak as the new teammate sits down for the first time, and extends through separation.

Compare that experience and moment to the first day at your current job. Was it a positive memorable moment? Or, were you confused by where you were supposed to be, what you were supposed to do, and even with whom you were supposed to talk?

The practice of Experience Architecture is rooted in Design Thinking. Or, the practice of being intentional of what you do, how you do it, and how others will perceive it.

Through Experience Architecture is nothing new to many product development organization and customer interactions, the concept is entirely new to how we interact with our employees.

The first step in becoming an Agile HR is to understand the experience your employees have from the moment they first interact with the company to the day they leave. HR needs to be sure that each journey is consistent and reflects the values of the organization.

Performance Evaluations We can all agree that traditional performance evaluations are horrible. Not only is the feedback stale, but performance management processes force stack ranking of employees and strict adherence to a bell-shaped curve.

I am a firm believer that is a people leader gives a teammate a negative performance evaluation, that it is a failure of leadership, not the individual. If a leader recognizes for a full year that an employee is struggling and does nothing to address it until the annual review cycle forces the conversation, the leader failed the employee.

What we owe our employees is the opportunity for fast, objective feedback, on a near real-time basis. A leader must recognize each employees’ strengths and weaknesses, as well as understand the goals of each teammate, and co-create a plan to assure the employee’s success.

Performance management is a rolling event focused on the embodiment of Lean Leadership, and a commitment by all to relentless improvement.

Management Style Let me be the first to say it: resource management is dead.

If your career aspiration is to be promoted to management so that you can control people, delegate work, and further climb toward your ambitions, I am happy (note, HAPPY) to inform you that you are ten years too late.

In an age where knowledge work is king (read: Deep Work, by Cal Newport), the techniques needed to support the people doing the work are much different than those which were required to assure plan adherence. We are moving away from management, and to a world where people leaders embrace Lean Leadership, and become Trusted Advisors (read: The Trusted Advisor.)

Team Performance In the early days of Agile where teams were created from the resource pool and asked to perform as a unit, many of the coached team behaviors were in contrast to the mechanisms for stack-rank performance management. Managers and individual contributors were left wondering how to promote team performance when each person on their team was rated based on their contributions. This gap led to many toxic antipatterns within teams as the individuals tried to secure their raises and advancement.

What we want to focus on now are individual development and team performance. In that, the development of the individuals on the team is as much the responsibility of the team as it is the people leader. It becomes in the best interest of the whole to assure that the individual components are growing and are optimized. Lifting the individual lifts the whole.

As it relates to performance evaluation, leaders will rate the effectiveness of the team in accomplishing their goals, behaving as a team, and improving their area of responsibility.

Compensation As the organization changes, so must the way it compensates.

The first step is to level the current pay structure to assure that it is free of bias (gender, racial, etc.)

The second is to make pay adjustments much more pragmatic and frequent. To retain talent, HR should constantly monitor industry salary trends for its knowledge workers, and adjust their salary on the fly to remain competitive and fair to their staff. Salary adjustments should also be made as employees learn new skills, or take on projects of increased complexity and value.

The third step is to reconsider the bonus structure. Instead of the annual bonus program, which, usually among management, promotes heroics and toxic politicking, organizations should adopt methods for more frequent merit bonuses.

Many years ago, when I worked in sales, bonuses were given based on the ability to make a deal above a certain threshold or move a specific aging product. The bonuses were used to incentivize behavior that made the organization better. Similar models can be used among knowledge workers (though, be careful not to promote heroics.) Consider bonuses for teams who can show incremental improvement in operational efficiency integration-over-iteration or rewarding marketing teams for achieving certain customer engagement thresholds.

The point is to use bonuses as a reward for making the organization a little better each day. Not for year-over-year heroics or political savvy.

Recruiting I can say with relative certainty that your companies hiring process is (entirely) horrible.

How much information is required to be re-keyed after a resume has been uploaded? How many hours are spent applying for a job, only to hear absolutely nothing back? What is the average time from application to first contact? To the first interview? To final interview? To offer? To day-one?

For most of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, the answers to the questions above is probably fairly embarrassing. Beyond embarrassment, you’re losing great people. Tons of them (because your process has been built by the system, not for the applicant.)

We must improve the process. In 2018, nothing takes as long as the hiring process (unless you’re working with the government.)

Learning and Development What happened to L&D? Most organizations allocate line items in the budget for professional development, but when was the last time you were able to use that money for its intended purpose?

Having sat in more than my fair share of mid-year planning meetings, I can tell you that professional development budgets are treated much the same as the US government treated the Social Security Trust: as one giant slush fund.

No more.

Did you know that many of the tools that your organization will need for success a year from now will not be invented for another six months? How will you hire someone who has a skill that has been barely invented? You won’t. You need to build it among your existing team.

As we plan Learning and Development programs, we have to be great at identifying people today who have the aptitude to learn the skills of tomorrow, retain them, and train them as soon as the need surfaces.

The world is changing fast. Is your L&D plan healthy enough to keep your business competitive?

CONCLUSION In conclusion, I could not be happier with the direction that HR and organizational behavior is moving. Big business has learned a few hard lessons but has come to realize that no matter of planning or betting will guarantee long-term profitability, but it’s people will.

It’s TEAM of highly trained, well-compensated, engaged, loyal PEOPLE who have been given proper FOCUS will do everything in their power to assure organizational success.

Let’s give them the tools they need, the direction they deserve, and watch as they shine.

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