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Use Agile to Hire Agile - Part 1

7 October 2016

It’s easy to apply Agile practices to areas outside of software development to achieve a higher level of success. Observe the problem (process) you want to improve, overlay a basic Agile framework, and run with it.

Experiment. Fail. Experiment. Succeed!

Of course, it's more difficult to transmute Agile to some processes than to others. Like a manufacturing plant, some work needs to be completed in a serial process, one piece can only be installed after the prior has been installed. One not-so-easy “Agile transmutation,” we’ll call it, was the recruiting process at a global retail company. It was comical, if not tragic. From experience, recruiting, if not taken seriously, can negatively impact Agile teams’ performance and corporate cohesion on a single strategy.  

Let’s look at recruiting. The textbook example is “. . . the process of finding candidates, reviewing applicant credentials, screening potential employees, and selecting employees for an organization . . . [which, if done well,] results in an organization hiring employees who are skilled, experienced, and good fits with your corporate culture.” For me? This definition doesn’t hold water. The real-world definition of recruiting is more like, “Find someone — fast — who knows Agile, is mild-mannered in the face of ambiguity but confident in adversity, and is a persuasive communicator who won’t blow things up.”

Last year, I had to hire 10 ScrumMasters for a multiyear “Agile transformation” project. We had everything we needed: training, equipment, and executive support. But we had two major problems. We couldn’t hire qualified ScrumMasters (very tight employment market with a lot of new entrants, or “posers”, if you will.). And our talent management process was comically broken (queue Dilbert cartoon).

Funny? Not really. We were a Fortune 500 company with $16B in revenue and over 130K employees, but our process was too [bleep]ing long (often 60 to 180 days) and yielded painful results. To make matters worse, the quality of our hires was low. Recruiters were sending us anyone with an “agile” keyword in their resume, and some were slipping onto our teams. When we did manage to hire someone, the axe usually dropped within three months because they didn’t “fit.” (By some cruel twist of fate, I had the unenviable job of hatchet man. Sigh.)

After two months of research and design, we spent 14 days experimenting with a new approach we now call “Agile Recruit®” — a fully reworked process that used Agile practices to recruit ScrumMasters who had a focus on people and transparency. We tried it with live candidates and ultimately hired 10 top-notch ScrumMasters. We hired them 84% faster with a longer employment retention rate (12 months vs. 3). The following points form the basis for the process:

1. People over process.

Treat each candidate as a person. Each person has emotional needs, concerns, and ideas. Listen to them. Establish a feedback loop to funnel ideas into the process. One of the goals of the process is to reduce “stress” on the candidate by making the process fast and comfortable; 90% of the process is conducted from the candidate’s home.

2. Iterative and standard.

Each candidate follows the same process:= interview, questions, and evaluation criteria. At the end of each interview cycle, each candidate conducts a retrospective exercise on the entire process. Improvements from each retrospective are usually applied to the process before the next candidate’s interview cycle.

3. Behaviors.

Focus on agile behaviors and consistency with existing teams. Seek people with behaviors, thoughts, and actions considered important to that particular teams’ definition of Agile success.


While the process might sound amorphous and complex, it isn't. It’s agile.

Can you imagine describing your first Agile project to a waterfall-driven boss? Exactly! We worked closely with the team, management, and recruiters. We followed a standard process through the agile assessment and structured interviews. We targeted specific behaviors to watch for when speaking with candidates during each iterative stage of the process, and most of all, we learned which interview strategies were a waste of our time and which were useful.

In the next post, we’ll look at the research behind the Agile Recruit® process, how we carried it out, and why it worked.


Michael Birkhead is an agile professional with ten years experience working with software and infrastructure teams for startups and Fortune 100 companies. He has spent the last three years conducting research on agile behavioral hiring practices with distributed teams.

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