Agile methods — the saviour of HR?

Rich Littledale
14 min readApr 13, 2018

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Agile lends itself to cool looking infographics. But this can mean it is only understood or embraced at the level of slogans.

The ideas behind Agile Software development are not new: iterative and incremental software methods have been around since the 1950s. The Agile Manifesto first appeared in 2001. The notion of applying Agile methods and mindset to HR is not new either: Josh Bersin has been sharing his ideas about the Agile Enterprise and Agile HR in particular since the turn of the decade. However, Agile — and Agile HR — are now having their moment in the sun, and are now key elements of the VUCA, Digitally Transformed world that thought leaders would like to tell us we are living in.

I am not going to attempt to describe Agile or Agile HR — that has been done well elsewhere. What I would like to do is offer an analysis of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of the Agile approach for HR. This is based on my own experience of attempting to apply Agile in a people/HR consulting context, conversations with those who are applying Agile to HR in their organisations, and also discussions with developers and product professionals who have been working in this way for over a decade.

A couple of disclaimers: I will be offering my analysis about Agile and Agile HR in a way that suggests it is one homogenous thing, and I know that this is not the case. However, to get into distinctions such as Scrum vs Kanban will be taking on too much for one article. I am also critiquing Agile and Agile HR as they are being applied as well as the principles behind them. A valid response to some of my points may well be “but they have misunderstood Agile if they are doing that”. However, they are still doing that, and the way Agile is being applied can create challenges for the method. My commentary in some cases applies to Agile overall rather than its application to HR.

And lastly, my own position is as a critical enthusiast. I believe that Agile methods have the potential to revolutionise HR and make it relevant after a period of time where we have been slaves to unvalidated “Best Practice” concepts. However, I also believe that it won’t have that effect unless we think about it critically. I believe that is what the writers of the Agile Manifesto would want.

Strengths

Agile makes you state your your assumptions and then challenge them with evidence. One of the core principles of Agile is that assumptions — particularly assumptions which are central to the success of a product or process — should be made explicit and challenged through evidence gathering. This the opposite of what happens currently in HR. Take the example of employee engagement. Employee engagement is a concept which has the following features: it has no one definition — it is different things to different people; it has not been shown to have any more explanatory power than other better validated concepts such as job satisfaction; there is no quality evidence to show a causal relationship between employee engagement and any aspect of performance. Yet, big budgets and endless emotional energy are spent on collecting data and improving these scores.

Agile drives — and needs — openness and accountability. In Agile, goals or tasks — and the amount of progress that has been made towards them — are shared openly. A Kanban board is made public. Product demos show off progress. Retrospectives encourage open discussion about what went well and badly.

Agile is at heart an egalitarian philosophy. In an Agile team there are roles, but responsibility is shared. There is also a looser hierarchy, which means that there is a focus on what needs to be done to move forward, rather than what needs to be done to make the most senior person happy. A symbol of this is the Standup meeting — one of the core ceremonies of Agile — where each person has their turn to talk about what they have done, what they are working on next, and what is in their way. Things that are in one person’s way are in everyone’s way, so the team works together to solve that problem. I have used Standups separate from the other elements of Agile simply to ensure that those who run projects — who can be younger, less senior, often less confident, and always less powerful than experienced consultants — are able to say what they need.

Agile fits culturally with technology led organisations. In organisations led by technology, Agile practices are often a core part of the culture, and when HR have the same culture and speak the same language that is a better fit. This was a key motivation behind Skyscanner “squadifying” their HR teams. Most organisations have their own “Digital Transformation” as they seek to leverage technology to provide better services and experiences, and in many cases that means adopting Agile. For instance Lloyds Banking Group will now be using Agile for all Change projects across the group. Many companies that are not led by tech now, will be in the near future, and the language of Agile is becoming more and more common.

Agile forces you to think from the perspective of the user or customer. Agile approaches are associated with wider range of techniques such as “User stories”, which speak to the real needs of users, and “Personas”, which seek to create archetypes to ensure that the needs of different groups are take into account. My experience of writing user stories has been that it is mind bendingly difficult at times, but that the pain is caused by my bad habits of thinking of the solution not the need. At its worst, HR Best Practice is nothing more than a bag of solutions to problems that are barely understood, and where the impact is rarely measured. For me this is the key opportunity for Agile HR: to ensure that HR processes and tools are geared towards real needs. HR has become too distanced from those needs and too tied up in best practice. Agile can help it get back to basics and add real value.

Weaknesses

For a methodology that prizes evidence, the evidence for efficacy is pretty weak. Prompted by a twitter conversation with Rob Briner (Psychologist and advocate for evidence-based management), I asked a group of my tech contacts a couple of questions: a) what is the evidence for the problem that Agile is supposed to solve? b) what is the evidence that Agile solves it more effectively than anything else? The response was interesting: to a man (they were all men — sadly) they were all believers in Agile. These are people whose professionalism and intellect I respect. Also, to a man, they could not provide satisfactory answers to the questions. This anecdotal survey is echoed in a systematic review of studies into Agile. So what to make of this? One of the key challenges for Agile in this respect, is its breadth. Agile is a philosophy, a group of methodologies, a way of thinking, a culture. It is very hard to pin it down to isolate the parts of it you want to test, and if you can’t test it you can’t prove it. There is evidence for some of the elements of agile, such as the role of autonomy when tasks are ambiguous, but a lack of evidence for the whole is a weakness, even if it is a weakness that most practitioners are not concerned about.

Agile could become a sacred cow. In the last paragraph I chose the word “believer” for a reason: Agile inspires a fervour which distinguishes it from other comparable approaches like Six Sigma or Lean, in which Agile has some of its roots. One additional thing I noticed in my questioning of my tech contacts was that my questions seemed to provoke a slightly prickly and defensive response. This troubles me slightly, and the reason that it troubles me relates to the concept of congruence and the way we form beliefs or make decisions. According to Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues, while we often believe that we make decisions based on weighing the evidence, what really happens is that we collect evidence until we can make sense of it — until the evidence feels congruent — and then we stop. Once we stop the decision is made, the belief is formed, and it is very difficult to shift. We may even start collecting evidence to support our existing position — confirmation bias. The polarisation of politics is a current example. My worry is that for those for whom Agile feels congruent it is an idea — or set of ideas — that they are unable to think about critically. This is particularly important when applying Agile to HR: there are real challenges to be overcome (measurement and capability being two key ones — see “Threats”) for Agile to achieve its potential. Uncritically hailing it as a messiah will not help overcome those challenges.

Short feedback loops and focus on experience could make HR prioritise the superficial. The tools associated with Agile — user experience mapping, writing user stories — are ideally suited to creating slick, friction free processes and customer experiences. Data on customer experiences can be collected quickly and fed into the design process with quick iterations. Applying these to HR could be hugely beneficial. However, there is a danger that using Agile process could cause HR teams to focus on quick, easy — more superficial — measures, rather than the longer term impact. Take the example of recruitment. Creating a process that feels great to internal clients and to candidates will win a recruitment team plaudits. And rightly so. However, the danger is that if that is all you are measuring, you may be creating slick processes but you are unable to answer one of the most important questions: am I picking the right people. Knowing that takes time, and even after time is difficult to work out (see the problem of measurement under “Threats”). To think of it in terms of validity — we must not let Agile methodologies make us focus on face validity (does it feel like it works) to the exclusion of criterion related validity (does it actually work).

Opportunities

Agile could make HR more evidence led. Back in the year 2000, when I was studying for my MSc in Occupational Psychology, our course Director had a mantra: “where’s the evidence?”. I left my MSc course fired up with her passion. The first time that I compromised her mantra was my first day working as a consultant, and I have compromised it regularly since then. Evidence is no longer the guide in the world of HR, it is so-called “Best Practice” and external benchmarks. Put another way, HR is led by what other people are doing, not what has been shown to be effective. However, now Agile presents a chance to use some of the concepts that I learned back then: developing hypotheses and testing them systematically. Agile is about how things work in real life, not in an experimental lab, so the evidence will never reach the highest standard. However, for the first time since I joined the ranks of Occupational Psychologists operating in business, there is a way of operating gaining traction that is close to the principles I learned all those years ago.

Agile can help make HR more effective, and thus reinvigorate HR’s reputation. In the late noughties I started a seven year stint working in an in house HR team. I worked hard and had some great results — including a complex, global job evaluation project — but when working with lawyers it always felt that I was on the back foot. They expected me to be hopeless, and were surprised when I wasn’t. Some of this was undeserved: the HR team contained bright, committed people who had a perspective that was worth listening to. However, some of it was deserved, as most of HR was clustered in the centre, removed from the business end of the firm. In the centre it often felt as if we were disconnected from the work that lawyers do, and this made it harder to help them do their jobs more effectively. Many HR departments are the same, running process upon process — applying HR “Best Practice” but without any way of understanding whether their actions and their efforts actually add value. For many of my current HR clients it is a source of frustration that their powers of influence are limited. Agile HR approaches are based around value, and value in the eyes of the user. If Agile HR is done well, we will be able to show that an HR intervention has made someone’s job easier or more efficient, and that will raise the reputation of HR. As importantly, it will show if it has not had an impact, and then we can stop doing it and waste less money.

Threats

Done properly, Agile can disrupt traditional HR practices, and this could be a threat to the professionals who make a living out of them. There is the potential for Agile to oust the cult of HR best practice and replace it with methodologies for which there is evidence. That is dangerous for traditional HR. Some HR professionals have made a good living travelling from job to job, doing the things that they “know” to “work”. Agile may take that away from them, and that is a change which is likely to meet resistance. As such, I think that it is unlikely that a change to the status quo will come from those who represent the status quo, even if they start to use the language of Agile.

Agile is so hot right now: the perils of the zeitgeist. I am hearing Agile, and Agile HR, being talked about more and more. The Agile HR meetup I have been attending for less than a year has grown exponentially in that time, full of keen bright-eyed HR folk keen to learn about the next big thing. Agile is something shiny and new — or at least it feels that way — and people want to get involved. The danger is that in their rush to jump on board the Agile bandwagon they do so in a way that appropriates the language but without really understanding the principles — the intention of rigour and intellectual flexibility — behind it. Including a sprint in your project plan does not make it Agile. It is reasonable and sensible to use some of the tools of Agile in isolation — I have started to use Stand Ups for instance without any of the other aspects of Agile. However I worry that if people start paying lip service to Agile, it will become just another piece of business bullshit and the moment will be lost. Agile is a better class of business bullshit and does not deserve this. Another danger is that Agile becomes a giant beast to be “rolled out” across organisations. There is nothing Agile about that. How do you even know that Agile fits for your context? Where is the learning? And if there is no learning, there is no Agile. Using Agile for all change projects may be a sensible aspiration, but they best way to get to that point is start small and learn as you go.

Adjusting to Agile is hard. It requires a culture of psychological safety that allows constructive challenge and the possibility of being wrong. It involves senior leaders letting go of the illusion of control that their waterfall project plans gave them. It involves people thinking about problems conceptually in order to break them down into chunks. A contact at Skyscanner told me that one of the key challenges to applying Agile to HR processes was that it was forcing people to think in an entirely different way. It is incompatible with parochial — balanced scorecard based — thinking. It challenges the hierarchies are a key part of many organisational cultures. Getting the context right for Agile to have an impact is difficult and takes bold leadership.

HR has a measurement problem. As anyone who has ever attempted a validity study in the field will know, HR has a measurement problem. HR has plenty of numbers: engagement surveys, performance ratings, 360 surveys etc. However, when you try to piece that together to understand who is really performing or who is really productive, the answer is that you can’t. Part of the problem is the length of time between an intervention and effect. For instance, a graduate programme will typically focus on second or third year University students. The programme may last two years. So there is a wait of at least a year before any data is available, and three years if you want to know if you are selecting grads who will succeed beyond the programme. And in that time so many confounding variables come into play — different managers, different offices, different management trends — that it becomes impossible to isolate the effect of the one intervention you want to study. Part of the problem is that consistent measurement over time is not a strategic priority for HR. For instance, many appraisal processes have a forced distribution system, allowing the data to be pegged to reward in a way that can prioritise the top performers. However, in doing that the data becomes next to useless as a measure of performance. And businesses and HR teams don’t hold their nerve — systems of measurement are constantly being refined, tweaked and updated, so you are rarely comparing apples with apples. Without measurement Agile methodologies are hamstrung: if you don’t know what has worked and what has not, iteration is going around in circles rather than progress.

So where does this leave us? As I stated up front — despite my misgivings about Agile becoming a faith — I am a believer. What actions then should we take to give Agile the best possible chance of improving, or even saving, our profession?

1) Deploy Agile HR in an Agile way. Resist big bang approaches. Think carefully about what problem or problems you are using Agile to solve. Make sure that there isn’t a quicker or cheaper way of going about it. Collect data as a baseline to ensure that you can track change, and then start small. Unless you adapt Agile HR to your needs, and personalise it as you go, it is unlikely to succeed.

2) Start by using Agile to strip HR back to the bare bones. They key question that needs to be asked about any HR intervention or process is as follows: is this better than doing nothing? Use Agile to strip away the processes and interventions that do not add value, to give yourself space and resources to build activities that do.

3) Use the best available evidence to shape the hypotheses you want to test. When you are considering interventions to implement — or to drop — consider the best available evidence rather than best practice. When Agile is applied to products the tech industry tends to be quite impatient with academic research. I recently asked tech guru Marty Cagan about this and his view was that for them it feels that the cost of using the research — accessing it, making it relevant — does not outweigh the benefit. Tech firms, and particularly tech giants, can get away with this because of the sheer scale and speed of iteration. Even without theory or research to guide hypotheses you can get to great results if the system is efficient at killing ideas that don’t work. Look up at the cobweb in the corner of your window, or at the veins in your hand for evidence if what random variation can achieve given enough iterations. However, this does not work for HR, because ideas just do not get killed off quickly enough. Even if the data was there — which it isn’t — it takes time to see the impact of the decisions that you make. HR is full of bad ideas that have never faced evolutionary pressure. So what is good evidence? Rob Briner likes to show a pyramid of evidence, with systematic reviews and meta-analysis (studies which aggregate other studies) as the best evidence, and ideas, opinions and editorials as the worst. The Centre for Evidence Based Management has all sorts of information freely available to help with your hypotheses. And yes, this means that the article you are now reading does not constitute strong evidence.

4) Make measurement a strategic priority, and get creative. Make decisions that prioritise building up a body of evidence against which you can evaluate interventions. If you are considering a tweak to your appraisal ratings, maybe don’t do it. Use forced distributions if you need to, but be aware that what you are giving up is valuable. And don’t think that the data we already have is good enough. If your measure of whether an intervention is successful is its effect on employee engagement, that is not adequate. Think carefully and creatively about how you can use technology and other opportunities to create an array of measures that allow you to collect consistent data over time. And then hire people with the analytical capability to make sense of it it all.

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Rich Littledale

Psychologist in startup land, exploring the people side of technology and technology businesses. Consulting at www.peopleuphq.com, co-founder at www.supc.co.uk