Human Resource challenges in an Agile environment

Agile is pretty much the way software is built and delivered today. Agile is about iterative development with quick feedback loops and making use of Agile engineering practices like Test Driven Development, Continuous Integration, Refactoring etc. Agile is also about happy, empowered growth mindset wielding employees. The challenges in staffing an Agile-inspired organisation, in addition to rolling out flexible policies and fostering an environment where employees can deliver on customers’ requirements forms the crux of an Agile culture, which HR can help cultivate.

This article examines what role HR can play from an employee hiring and development perspective as the rest of the delivery organisation begins to go ‘Agile’. The HR team needs to play a different but supporting role to ensure that it helps meet the demands of agile which places the team above an individual and cares little for hierarchies, egos and company politics.

Hiring Right

Hiring an employee who possesses the right mindset and exhibits flexibility is the first step towards building an Agile organisation. The interview and questions need to be designed to discover a candidate’s inclination towards agile software development and the interview panel needs to comprise of existing ‘agilist’ team members to properly dig in, assess and provide relevant feedback.

When hiring, HR should focus on environments and cultures rather than an exact match of previous job experience. Candidate competency should go beyond technical/functional knowledge by being mindful of aspects like communication skills, hunger for learning, leadership quotient, creativity, inquisitiveness and so on.

Defining Roles and Responsibilities

The transition to Agile causes a paradigm shift in how HR practitioners make personnel decisions. Cross-functional training and multi-disciplinary skills are the norm in any Agile organisation as it facilitates quick responses to a variety of priority items. Rather than moving employees along pre-determined career paths and job titles, it’s important for the HR team to help establish a self-managed culture which allows the employees to take control of their own career development paths within the expressed corporate guidelines.

The job profile related definitions, need to be loose and flexible since mobility and empowerment are critical to Agile success. A learning culture needs to be promoted by HR wherein the employees are encouraged to stay “possibility oriented” and are comfortable with ambiguity. Leadership as an attribute is equally important to have within the employees which is irrespective of the ‘title’ that is accorded. This attribute along with the autonomous mindset lays the foundation for ‘Servant Leadership’.

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Servant-leadership is a feeling where the employee wants to serve first than be served. This feeling leads to developing a conscious choice where the employee wants to lead rather than a need to lead because of some power trip or ego drive. HR’s responsibility is to help create servant leaders and these leaders will ensure that the highest priorities will be served. The servant-leadership mindset ensures that those who are served grow optimally as agilists – more autonomous but team and delivery oriented.

Sustaining Motivated Employees

A traditional carrot and stick approach in employee management generally leads to less motivated employees. Creative ways to sustain motivated employees will encourage them to approach their work with happiness and enthusiasm. A few suggestions are given as a means to motivate employees below. Whilst most of these are for line managers, HR need to be aware of the needs here and ensure they have the right processes and mechanisms to support them:

  • Stress the importance of teamwork in performance management system and focus on rewarding the whole team as opposed to a standout performer.
  • Help managers share a constructive dialogue with the employee at regular periodic intervals. Staging monthly feedback may be overkill and may not promote excellence. On the other extreme, year-end feedback is too long a time period and is not frequent enough for the employee to implement changes and continually improve.
  • A bottom-up approach should be supported in which every employee can decide on self-competency building / career path progression as opposed to a top-down approach where say it is deemed mandatory to be certified on specific domains.
  • Motivate an employee to work on projects in different domains or technologies as this will ensure multi-dimensional skills in people, foster creativity and create excitement in the ranks.

As per above which stresses on the agile aspects, HR knows that they have to keep the employees motivated for the organization to flourish. They do not have to tell talented and driven employees to perform; they need to ensure that these employees stay hungry to succeed and that there are positive vibes around the workplace. If the organization becomes doggedly inward focused towards say its revenue targets and forgets that it is the people who produce good results, it may well struggle. The human resources team are therefore an important player in an organizations journey towards success in Agile adoption. The changing workforce expectations are important and it is HR’s role to find the sweet spot where value can be generated both for the employee and the business.

It may not be ideal to adopt an agile approach in every aspect of an organization, but continuous change has become normal and the ability to take quick decisions has become imperative too. It’s come to be known as a cliché to say that agility requires an empowerment culture where employees have authority and independence, but an organization aiming to walk the agile path will just not succeed if it fails to embrace change.


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