The Importance of HR in Agile Adoption

9 January 2013

Ashish Mahajan
Ford Motor Company

Let's imagine an organization that decides to run projects on Agile, as it believes this will increase the quality of its products and shorten time to market. A pilot team is organized to implement Agile practices, and it gives excellent feedback on the process. The team members are thrilled with the new practices. After a setting up few more Agile teams and their pilot projects, the organization decides to roll out Agile in all the projects across the organization.

After some time, though, concerns arise among the employees regarding the transformation to Agile. These become the biggest force against Agile adoption in this organization. The concerns include:

  • Feeling threatened, as some of the roles appear redundant
  • Fear of breach of privacy due to the open work environment
  • Fear of loss of individual identity or the "heroism" factor that existed while working in silos

The Human Resources department of the company can play an important role in addressing these concerns. It can be a strategic, innovative partner in the company's Agile-adoption journey. To do this, HR needs to develop a model for developing and sustaining the Agile culture in the organization. Below is one such model, which starts the focus right from the hiring of new employees and goes through organizational restructuring, performance management, and retention of motivated employees.

Hiring the best

Hiring an employee with right attitude and mind-set is the first step toward building an Agile organization. The focus should be to get the right individual, one who fits the organizational and team culture. Hiring a good manager who has an Agile mind-set is as important as hiring an Agile developer. HR can help get existing team members involved in interviewing the candidates and providing feedback. The interview questions should be well prepared to help everyone get to know the candidate's inclination toward Agile software development. Pairing the candidate with existing team members to solve a small problem is a great way to learn about the candidate's competence and suitability to the existing Agile team culture.

Organizational restructuring

The role of HR becomes prominent in organizational restructuring, both in terms of redefining roles and creating open work spaces for Agile teams.

  • Redefining roles and responsibilities: With Agile comes flexibility in terms of roles and responsibilities. HR's task is to define the structure of the new, flexible roles and responsibilities and to address any problems employees have during the transition.
    • HR can promote teamwork and cross-functional teams by scheduling trainings/soft-skills courses for existing employees, and by setting the right expectations during induction for new employees.
    • For the roles that require change during an Agile transition, such as the role of the traditional project manager, HR can work with the management team to redefine the path to work as ScrumMaster, product owner, or another client-interfacing role.
    • HR can even think of creative ways of redesigning current employee titles, such as changing from "developers," "testers," and so on to more generic terms, such as "software engineer," to foster collaboration.
  • Creating open work spaces: Agile team members need to be highly collaborative in their day-to-day work. HR can help create an open work space where people can freely communicate to enhance this collaboration. For example: Remove cubicles, replace them with open work space, give each team a dining-table sort of set-up where they can easily work in pairs or groups. For teams that are distributed, HR can help set up collaborative tools such as video conferencing to bridge the distances.

Performance management

An employee will see no value in teamwork if the organization doesn't change its methods of assessment. The role of HR becomes highly important in changing the structure of performance management and supporting the management team in implementing those changes. Some of the key differences that can be put into place:

  • Stress the importance of teamwork in the performance management system, to boost and sustain self-organizing teams. The focus should be on recognizing and rewarding the whole team instead of the bright or "star" performer (who can be a team-killer).
  • Help managers become more frequently involved with employees and participate in some of their work, such as the demos and retrospectives, to get to know how the teams are performing.
  • Encourage managers to spend a fixed amount of time, once or twice every month, with each employee so they can engage in ongoing, constructive conversations to promote excellence, instead of staging year-end surprises and shocks that leave no room for the employee to improve or take action.

Sustain motivated employees

Studies have shown that traditional carrot-and-stick policies create poorer performance and less-motivated employees. HR needs to be creative in finding new ways to sustain motivated employees within the organization. The focus should be on providing an environment of autonomy and developing mastery, which will encourage employees to approach their work with excitement. Some of the ways that HR can contribute are these:

  • Encourage employees to develop their competencies in their domain. Support a bottoms-up approach in which employees decide on their competence, rather than top-down, budget-driven mandatory trainings that are, at times, difficult to get value from.
  • Support employees by arranging trainings outside the company as needed, or assist in getting a mentor to coach them.
  • Uphold policies that let employees choose a part of their time to work on the projects of their choice. This can be a great booster to creativity and motivation.

There are many other things that HR can do proactively to help the organization truly embrace Agile culture. Some HR departments have even renamed themselves, moving from "Human Resources" to "Human Relations," "Employee Relations," or the like, thus no longer calling employees "resources" and better aligning with the Agile philosophy: building projects around motivated and self-organizing people.

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