Agile HR: Leadership, System Coaching, and Large Groups Facilitation

Finally, as the last blog about the Agile HR in this series or talent management if you like, is focusing on the skills and experiences of good HR. Primarily it’s about the understanding of Agile mindset and ability to create an environment where Agile culture can flourish. Environments supporting collaboration, transparency, open peer feedback, trust, team spirit, ownership, empowerment, and responsibility. The more Agile your organization is, the higher the need for coaching and facilitation skills it creates. The role of HR is critically important to grow coaching and facilitation skills in the organization and support individuals and teams with education on coaching, facilitation and guide them on their journey.

Another fundamental shift is from management which is based on decision making and delegation into leadership which is not given by any position but is a state of the mind. Anyone can become a leader. It’s only your decision if you are ready to take over the ownership and responsibility and lead an initiative, team, or product. The peer feedback will take care of enough self-awareness so leaders can emerge through the organization. Very often we speak about emergent leadership as one person can act as a leader of one initiative while at the same time being a team member of another one. As the evaluations transform into regular peer feedback and coaching for development, the key goal of the leaders is to help other leaders to grow where again, the need for good coaching and facilitation skills is inevitable. 

The fact that HR changes the focus in Agile organization to the overall employee experience is only the beginning. So let me suggest another idea. The good HR shall act as an organizational ScrumMaster or agile coach if you like, operating at the third level of the #ScrumMasterWay concept, focusing on the overall system. At this level it’s not that much about coaching individuals but coaching teams and organizations as a system, leveraging tools from system coaching like ORSC. It’s not that much about team facilitation but the ability to facilitate large groups with 100’s people, leveraging tools like world-cafe and Open Space. It’s about being a model of an Agile leader growing the ‘we-culture’ and mentoring other leaders to grow to Agile leaders. In short, Agile HR is Agile leadership, system coaching, and large groups facilitation. 

Agile HR = Agile leadership + system coaching + large groups facilitation.

Agile HR: Career Path and Salaries

The third blog from this Agile HR series focuses on positions, career paths, and salaries. As I already mentioned in the first Agile HR blog about hiring, positions are not that important in agile organizations as people collaborate, take over responsibility and become leaders as needed, not because they have it in the job description. In traditional organizations, it’s all about the position. We hire to fill the empty position, it designs what people do and don’t do, it shows the potential of who employees might become if they got a good evaluation and are promoted. And last but not least the position defines a rank of the salary.

The whole concept breaks once you stop treat people like individuals and create a team environment where people self organize their work and collaborate based on their skills and abilities. Such shift quite naturally creates a need for fewer positions as for example in one Scrum Development team there are no roles, just team members. So your positions can follow the Scrum organizational design and instead of having the SW developer, SW tester, and analyst, maybe you can just have one position of SW Engineer. Or simply a team member. Every position potentially creates silos and gaps, dependencies, and the need for synchronization and hand-over. Nothing which would help you create high-performing teams. 

In more agile environments… 

If reading the previous paragraph hasn’t created too big shock in your mind, you are ready for step two. Teams members have the same goals they contribute to, they do frequent peer reviews and hold each other accountable to improve their skills. In such environments, the only reason for positions and career paths is the direct correlation with the salary. The solution is obvious – decouple salaries and positions. In such case, you don’t need any positions at all, as the team roles are emergent, same as leadership. Salary can be linked to the peer feedback and individual value to the organization as a team member. It’s a startup mindset. Imagine for a while that you are not an employee but entrepreneur and every day you need to prove that you bring enough value to get paid. Stressful? Maybe. So be aware that every practice like this needs certain culture and organizational agility. I would not start with it the Agile journey. However, you can take it as a next step and be ready to move there when your organization is ready. On the other hand, if you feel you are ready, there are two tips on how to start. First is a hard choice of two options to the employees: stay because they believe in the change and are ready to take over the ownership and responsibility to succeed and achieve the organizational purpose or take a leaving package of x salaries and go. The people who stay are those with the right mindset and any transformation will be so much easier. Second is gradual. Start with decoupling the salaries from the positions. Sooner or later the positions become irrelevant so no one would miss them anymore if you remove them. You must have the courage to choose the first way. On the other hand, the second way only make your journey long and painful. But it all depends on what you want and where you are. Agile is not about practices, it’s about mindset. And this is very true for Agile HR or talent management as well. 

In agile organizations…

The more agile you become at the organizational level, the more flexible and dynamic is the team structure and the more difficult is to say what is the position or role. The more agile becomes the way you work, the higher need for transparency is created at every level. We can see what every person is doing and can challenge them and give feedback. Any employee can join any initiative but with all responsibility towards the organizational purpose. As nothing is hidden, it’s in a way controlled by everyone. Emergent servant leadership is the key part which links everything together and makes sure it creates harmony instead of chaos. Such environments are ready to make all salaries transparent and let employees be part of the decision. To be fair, not many companies got there, so you don’t have to do it all tomorrow. But you can still bet inspired 🙂

Agile HR: Evaluations and Performance Review

The next topic in my Agile HR series focuses on evaluations and performance reviews. Once you hire the right person to the team, it’s time to start thinking about evaluations and performance reviews. In a traditional organization, it was pretty simple. Each employee got a task assigned, each task can be evaluated and linked to particular KPI. In Agile organization, it’s not that simple as multiple people collaborate on the same task and even if you try to set some KPIs at the beginning of the year, they mostly become irrelevant somewhere on the way so there is nothing to evaluate at the end of the year. 

The most simple practice used in agile environments is to set a team goal instead of an individual. There is still risk that the goal becomes obsolete during the year, but at least you support the team collaborative culture. The slightly better option is to break the year cadence and create shorter goals. After all, there is no magical on the year cadence when we deliver product regularly. A good practice is to let teams design their own goals, but you need a high level of trust in order to be able to move this direction. Some companies like OKRs, however, I see them too close to the traditional KPIs. Those were still traditional mindset practices spiced by little agility.

A good step on the way is replacing evaluation part by coaching conversation focused on employee development. As every coaching conversation, it is not about the coach but coachee (employee in this case) and is focused on raising the awareness of the person about themselves and their abilities and potentials. When done well, it can skyrocket people performance. But here is the downside – unfortunately, not many managers are good coaches which is a limit in most organizations.

Finally, if you are ready to be truly agile, how about if you do it in an agile manner and run regular frequent retrospectives instead of any form of evaluation. Together with radical transparency, it will create enough clarity about performance towards the Sprint Goal, product vision and entire organizational purpose so people can adapt in a very efficient way. Simple and powerful. Indeed we talk about not only team retrospective which brings so powerful peers feedback but also overall retrospective as it is designed for example in LeSS and organizational retrospective which can be facilitated for example in a form of world cafe or open space. All together it will engage employees in solving team, cross-team, and organizational issues, and increase their motivation to come up with creative and innovative solutions how to be better in delivering value and achieving the organizational purpose.

The frequent retrospective cadence brings regular feedback that allows fast changes and small improvements on day to day basis which as a result prevents big disappointments and surprises of traditional performance reviews which often brings demotivation and stress. Issues got solved sooner, before they are too big and poison the team or department and people get help to work on those issues early, ideally from their peers. You might not be ready for that tomorrow, as the culture of transparency and trust is not there yet, but you can go step by step until no-one misses any KPIs, performance reviews or any formal evaluations and frequent feedback, inspection, and adaptation become the regular way of work. 

At this stage, we often stop using the name of Agile HR and change it to Talent Development where the entire focus of the HR is changing to support overall employee journey and development. Supporting coaching and mentoring programs, and creating an environment for effective peer feedback are just a few ideas about where to start. 

Agile HR: Recruiting

The more organizations shift to Agile, the more they need to redesign how they work with the employees. During this series, we focus on different functions of HR in Agile organization and explain the fundamental shift HR need to do in order to support agility in the organization. 

Knowledge and skills are not anymore the key factors of what are we looking for. Agile organization builds on top of the collaboration, encourage innovations and need high flexibility. Experiences are also applicable only to a certain extent. It’s more about having an open mind, being able to learn new things, and collaborate with others to deal with complexity and unpredictability then being an expert with deep but narrow specialization. If you don’t think so, have a look at your own career. How many of you are still having in the same specialization? Most of the people changed their career more than once. And it’s getting even faster. So would you still care about hiring experts with particular specialization? Not really as they create silos and prevent your organization from changing a direction of the business. Agile organization needs people who are ready to learn, inspect and adapt. People who are not afraid to take over responsibility and run experiments. People who are not stuck with one way of working often saying “we always did it this way” and are ready to change their way of work as the business needs it. 

Skills are easier to be learned then mindset.

If you think about it, it’s very hard to create a traditional job description based on skills, and experiences as those are soon to be irrelevant. The new advertisement for an open position can say instead:

“We are looking for an enthusiastic, flexible, and open-minded person, who is ready to take over responsibility and collaborate with others on achieving the value. We are a team-oriented organization with a flat structure, which will support you in your personal growth. Join our team for a day to experience our culture. Together we can [achieve the vision].”

Quite different, right? When we tried it, no recruiting company was ready to support our needs. How many years of Java experience they need? What is the position description you are hiring for? No matter if you were looking for developers or new CEO… Quite a mismatch. Eventually, we realized that hiring new graduates is easiest for us. They were flexible, had ideas and be ready to be learned. All we had to do was to create a team learning environment based on pair and team working where they can get things fast. We realize that learning is easier than unlearning old habits, so very often, to get fresh graduates up to the speed was easier then hire Sr. Employees with individualistic habits which were creating more harm than help for the team environment. And that’s a hard message for all people who believe experience years count and shall result in a higher salary. Maybe if you are working for the government, but in Agile space, not necessarily as the recruiters may not care about your traditional company experience years at all. 

Unfortunately, a similar experience was with executive search companies, no matter how ‘big name’ of recruiting company you choose. They often had no idea about what agile is, so they are not helpful assessing the candidates, nor finding relevant people either. If you are looking for a leader with an Agile mindset, they are hard to find. Most of the executives are having bad habits acting as directive managers from hierarchical traditional organizations and again, it’s easier to grow leaders from your organization then hire externally. 

So if we can’t measure experience and skills and count working years, how shall we find out if the person is the right match? The same as in every other relationship. Let’s start ‘dating’. In this case, it’s about meeting team members at the interview. To be able to talk about the usual day, see if candidates feel attracted and also talk about candidates dreams and visions, to see if there is a match. Once they pass, they can go with the team to lunch. Informal conversation is critically important to learn about each other. And finally, it’s a good practice to offer a candidate one day at the company. To try and feel how it’s gonna look like. 

Hiring is more about creating relationship then assessing skills

If you feel uncomfortable with having interviews just like that, and feel a need for more formal assessment, you can try to role play some situations. Again, it’s not about correct answers as there are no correct answers in the complex world, but seeing the behavior and reaction when the candidate is surprised. Those situations are great to know how the candidates react when things go unpredictably. Again, it’s more about personality, approach, and mindset then skills and knowledge. 

That’s it. Forget experiences which are mostly irrelevant and skills which are soon to become irrelevant and focus on the relationship and employee experience. That’s the only way how you can be successful in finding the right employees and truly supporting the culture of the organization.