The term agile is defined as the ability to think and move quickly. In business, agility means having the flexibility to adapt and respond rapidly to market changes and customer demands.
An agile way of working means you don't get bogged down with planning and processes. Instead, you focus on getting things done. You're able to quickly pivot if something is not working for your business or your customers. If your organization is agile, you're frequently talking with your customers, so you're always aware of their needs and any sudden changes in the marketplace. By reacting early and quickly, you can make your customers happy and beat your competition.
When you're slow to respond to changes – you struggle to catch up with your competitors, or you may even get left behind. You will waste money on projects that will never be completed because the market changed, and your customers moved on to something new.
"Agile" was first used by the software industry in the 1970s and 1980s. At that time, just as now, software development was a competitive and rapidly changing industry. But it was also process-oriented with cumbersome rules and regulations. Once a customer need was identified, it could take software companies up to three years to complete a new project. By that time, it was too late.
This was not the best way to do business. It was frustrating for both developers and customers. Opportunities to meet customers' needs were missed. Internal development research and work went down the drain. Companies didn't have solutions for their customers' business problems. No one was happy, and no one was getting the wins.
Developers knew the process had to change. Products need to be developed, tested, and put on the market quicker. They came up with the idea of an "iterative" process. An iterative process is a series of repeated steps to test, refine and improve your product before moving into the next development phase. These phases were called "sprints." In real-life terms, you would take a large project, break it down into "bite-sized pieces" or sprints, test it often, confer with your customers, make changes, and fix bugs, then repeat. You do this until your team and customers are satisfied. Then you move to the next phase or sprint. And your team, by the way, is a multi-disciplinary team with members from across your organization. Everyone is involved from the beginning of the project.
Software companies that used the agile methodology avoided running into giant mistakes at the end of a project—the kind of mistakes that would send them back to the drawing board. Constant interactions with team members and collaboration with their customers meant they could pivot quickly to change to meet their customers' needs or market conditions.
In 2001, a group of software developers and thought leaders published a document called the "Manifesto for Agile Software Development." It consists of four values (stated below) and twelve principles. You can read more about the history and development of the agile methodology here.
For these developers, the goal is to get their customers what they need, when they need it. Following the agile methodology allowed them to innovate faster, streamline their development and manufacturing processes, and get their products to market on time without compromising the quality. Now they were able to take advantage of market disruptions instead of being crushed by them.
Today the customer-centered agile methodology is widespread and used in all industries. It's one of the most widely recognized project management methodologies around. In 2017, a Deloitte survey found that 79% of executives worldwide rated agile performance management as a top priority for their organizations.
Agile HR has gained more momentum over the past year due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The year 2020 brought about change faster than we could have imagined. HR professionals faced new challenges daily. Businesses pivoted from office-based work locations to employees working remotely. Some industries saw mass layoffs, while others had mass hirings. HR departments had to act fast, and to survive required being agile. Team members had to pivot quickly to respond and adapt to sudden changes, designing and delivering new HR initiatives rapidly.
What makes an HR department "Agile"? It's simple: HR is agile when it embraces and uses the Agile methodology. This means placing the highest priority on your customers' experience and satisfaction.
But who are your customers when your work in HR? Your customers are the organization's most important asset - employees, of course. If you don't think of the employees as customers, now is the time to start shifting your mindset. And it's all the employees – not just the C-suite, recruiters, or hiring managers but everybody, both hourly and salaried employees.
Being agile means more teamwork and collaboration with associates from across your organization. It means having the flexibility to do the right thing for your employees, your "customers." In the same way, your organization tries to please its external customers or clients, and win them from the competition, so should your HR department. It means you're placing more importance on their experience than whether they're following some rigid process or procedure.
This is especially true if it affects your workforce so that it creates an unhealthy work environment. If your processes slow down hiring and cause vacancies in critical positions or cause unhappy employees resulting in high turnover – you need better processes! If you're agile, you're doing everything you can to help your business thrive. HR touches every aspect of your organization. It touches every employee. This makes an agile HR department crucial to the success of your organization.
Think about your experiences during the pandemic. Everything in the working world changed quickly. What types of problems did you face? How about your workforce? Were you able to meet their needs swiftly, or were you slogged down by rules and regulations that you could not get out from under? How quickly could you change your policies and procedures to mirror your new reality?
Whether you were ready or not, your organization and your department were forced to make changes quickly to stay in business. This was a real-life sink or swim situation, and it pushed HR to the head of the class. Take this opportunity to entrench yourselves at the heart of your organization. This is where real change can happen.
Even if your organization, overall, does not embrace the agile methodology, you have the power to move your department in that direction. Start by making small changes inside your own department.
Agility is all about cooperation, collaboration, and engagement. Let your employees have the power to be responsive to your customers (employees) and make decisions independently. Let them take ownership of their work and learn from their mistakes. Give them permission to focus on delivering better customer engagements and satisfaction in the most efficient and effective ways possible. Meet regularly to assess how it's going and talk through changes they have made and whether to continue, stop, or go in a different direction. Slow down when it becomes overwhelming. Create teams to work on problems and be sure to include members from stakeholder divisions. Use small pilot programs to test your processes along the way. Remember, don't wait until the end – you're testing as you go.
Below is a list of areas where improvements can significantly impact your workforce, especially employee engagement and retention.
Your organization is constantly competing for top talent. Agile HR can help you gain a competitive advantage in talent acquisition. Use it to solve some of the challenges listed below.
The year 2020 saw unprecedented changes in the world of business. Everyone pivoted or tried to in response to a worldwide pandemic. Some organizations made it, some didn't. Those that were more agile were able to better handle the unforeseen changes that caused stress to operations, workforces, supply chains, and ultimately, the customer experience. Agility was needed to manage newly remote workforces as well as remote hiring and onboarding. HR departments that quickly changed their hiring processes were in much better positions to compete for talent.
Traditionally, HR is slow and bogged down in processes, procedures, and best practices. Agile HR breaks away from all that tradition and makes things happen at the speed of business. Being agile is being able to adapt quickly to sudden and unpredictable changes. Was your organization able to gracefully manage a switch to remote working or the disruption of mass layoffs?
Agile HR can help businesses evolve to handle the unforeseen changes that strain operations, stress workforces, and impact customer experiences. Agile HR is about enabling people and processes to act quickly to deliver better customer engagement and satisfaction. It's about adapting gracefully amid challenges, like seamlessly switching to remote working or handling the disruption of mass layoffs. To be a truly agile organization, you must be nimble and responsive. In other words, you are ready for anything.
As competition for top talent heats up, agile processes will help human resource departments gain competitive advantages in recruiting, developing, and retaining employees.
Just remember, the process is not the end goal. The end goal is a better customer experience and satisfaction. Being an agile HR department lets you deliver experiences that make your candidates and employees happy. Happy employees stay on the job longer, are more productive, and provide better customer experiences and all that leads to better business outcomes.
For further reading on Agile HR, check out these additional resources:
PMI Thought Leadership Series: Achieving Greater Agility, The Essential Influence of the C-Suite
SHRM: The New Rules of Talent Management: HR Goes Agile by Peter Cappelli and Anna Tavis.