Agile methodology is increasingly embraced by a wide variety of organisations in different contexts and competitive situations.  Its roots, as a movement, go back to the creation of the Agile Manifesto in 2001 by 17 thought leaders from software development.  Agility is characterised by speed, adaptation to external changes, multiple iterations and fast and direct communication with the user.

Agile practices have repeatedly proved effective at fostering high-performing teams and organisations regardless of their industry. According to the Project Management Institute, more than 70 per cent of organisations have incorporated some agile approaches. Recent studies suggest that agile projects are around 30 per cent more successful than traditional projects.

Agile is both an operational and a cultural challenge. Managers with functional responsibilities — divisional or departmental heads — have tended to take the operational lead while senior managers are often the champions of the cultural changes required by agile.  In the companies we have worked with, we have seen that the HR function can be marginalised, becoming an administrative spectator to major change. And yet, it seems obvious that HR should be at the heart of the operational and cultural demands of corporate agility. After all, HR promotes the company’s values, mindset and behaviours. It ensures people have the right skills. It provides the entire motivational infrastructure of rewards and remuneration and career development.

How can HR be a credible agent of change if it continues to operate in the traditional way, with a typical functional mindset and siloed organisation? Only by mastering their own agile ways of working can HR managers be perceived as role models in leading a company’s agile transformation.

Agile HR

Pioneers of agile transformation learn this lesson very quickly.  For example, BBVA, a multinational bank with 130,000 employees, realised after several pilot programs that to successfully scale agile to the entire company it needed an agile HR function.  And so, BBVA shifted its HR model – which was structured around the traditional three legs of business partners, centres of excellence, and shared services — to a squad-like structure of autonomous multidisciplinary teams working end-to-end.

The re-constituted HR function at BBVA now uses agile techniques following an iterative process and learning from internal customer feedback. People in the HR teams are assigned quarterly to fit in with evolving strategic priorities. At BBVA the transformation started from the top. The HR leadership team now works with Kanban and visual management tools and meets in a designated “agile room” to review progress in the prioritised initiatives. A visible change in the HR leadership’s way of working, practices and routines was important to get the buy-in from the rest of the HR organisation. Today, BBVA has more than 2,000 HR employees in 10 countries working under a fully agile organisation and governance model.

At B. Braun, one of the world’s leading providers and manufacturers of healthcare solutions, HR was chosen as the first area to kick-start and lead the agile transformation. In 2017 B. Braun initiated a change program (called “Tasks & Teams”) to introduce agility in the company. The HR department was the pilot to establish the new way of working. Next to the existing structure, cross-functional and self-organised teams (called “circles”) were introduced. In the circles there are roles such as facilitator (akin to a scrum master or agile coach), documentarist, representative (like a product owner), and expert.

We are working with a multinational gaming company to build a HR-led community of practice for agility to scale capabilities. It consists of a small dedicated HR team of agile experts (scrum masters or agile coaches) which is open to members from different areas of the company. The goals of the community are threefold. First, it designs a learning architecture and delivers training to members (assigning different levels of proficiency). Second, it curates the knowledge management system including lessons learned from pilots run by other functions and units. Third, it provides guidance and methodological support to agile projects in the company.

By going agile first, HR teams develop the initial pool of resources and skills that can be leveraged to play a fundamental role in enabling the change. These examples and other best practices show important lessons for HR to take into consideration when starting a company-wide agile transformation journey:

  1. Start the agile journey at HR or, at least, have HR as one of the initial pilot areas. In this way HR will be fully knowledgeable and credible in leading the change and supporting the organisational transformation;
  2. Make sure that HR team works in a truly agile way and becomes a role model, including HR leadership;
  3. Set-up a Community of Practice for Agility managed by agile-certified HR people and joined by members of other functions and business areas.

More and more companies are transforming into fully agile organisations and reaping the benefits of higher speed, adaptation and responsiveness. But, the journey to make a company fully agile is not a quick one and requires not just a set of new methods but, above all, a new mindset, behaviours and capabilities. HR departments need to be ready to deal with the pressing issues that will inevitably arise from throughout the organisation. Only by embracing agile principles and practices with passion and experiencing the challenges and learning first-hand can HR teams win the hearts and minds of employees and be the true catalyst for change across their organisation.

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Notes:

  • The post gives the views of its author(s), not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
  • Featured image by skeeze, under a Pixabay licence
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Gabriele Rosani is a senior manager at ECSI Consulting Milan. He has 15 years of experience in strategy and innovation consulting. In 2013 he joined ECSI Consulting, managing international assignments for large corporations in the area of business model innovation, platform economy, innovation management and organisational agility. He has co-authored several articles on innovation. Email: grosani@ecsi-consulting.com Twitter: @GabrieleRosani