What can HR learn from Agile methodology?

Agile has been in existence as an approach for decades in software development but is spreading through organisations as they realise that all teams would reap the benefits of operating less rigidly.

To thrive in today’s environment, companies need to adjust quickly to market or industry change; something which often indicates a fundamental transformation away from long planning processes to become more agile. Those who make a successful cross over have the opportunity to realise a raft of benefits which includes performance improvements, development, better customer satisfaction and enhanced employee engagement.

In software development, agile is well established as an approach. Thousands of software teams worldwide have broadly adopted the agile manifesto. And it’s easy to see why other areas of the company want to follow suit – agile working has the potential to support organisations deal with fast change and become more customer-driven. It can help us navigate tough, complex choices in a very rapidly changing environment which must be a win-win for each business function. Even so, people working away from tech can frequently struggle with cultural change.

Unlike in software development, generally, there isn’t a manifesto on how to apply for agile work in the rest of the business, so it often leaves HR departments with the challenge of creating a new policy. This might mean updating company values and means training mangers to assist their teams in making the switch. How can HR help managers and their teams embrace an agile mindset?

In its 2018 report The Five Trademarks of Agile Organizations, McKinsey suggests that as opposed to being a machine, an agile organisation is more like a living organism. Viewing your company as an organism means lowering silos by getting rid of some of the hierarchy and centring on the action as opposed to reporting. The good news for HR is that this means concentrating on people over process. Borrowing from the original agile manifesto is a great starting point, meaning: individuals and connections over processes and tools; customer focus over internal management; and responding to change over following a plan. So how does this translate practically in the workplace?

Aligning vision and values

Agile organisations tend to be powered by a compelling purpose, and the most successful transformations occur bottom-up with top-down support. The role of a CEO, leadership team and HR is fundamental for setting the clarity of purpose. But without managers re-enforcing that vision, it will not stick. It’s a skill to translate purpose and values so they are meaningful to the team. Virtual coaching could be a way of translating a company vision into a meaningful team purpose, for example.

Goal management

Equally, in an agile world, the expectation is that goals are not simply cascaded down.

Managers should be given the context of the organisation or department goals, but it’s their job to decide – with their team – how their work fits into that broader objective.

This includes managers and HR taking a step back to enable the team to achieve its goals without controlling the way they work.

Iterate and learn

The agile world is about iteration and learning. According to Simon Hayward in The Agile Leader: “To be effective leaders in a digital world, we need to be both an enabler and disruptor.”

On a practical level, this means a push and pull from HR to enable teams to make fast progress by centring on a result (a minimal viable product). HR needs to improve learning agility by facilitating frequent check-ins to share progress, solve problems and ensure alignment.

This could be in the form of employee and manager one-to-ones, learning in the flow of work or regular pulse surveys. The annual performance or learning cycles aren’t developed for agile work, so becoming more agile as an HR function will have a huge positive impact on an agile business.

Again, manager coaching is essential at this stage. Encouraging and enabling them to lead through disruption and teaching them to make quick choices in short learning cycles means they can verify assumptions and move forward as quickly as possible.

Client focus

A ruthless focus on the customer is critical for an agile company. For customer-facing teams, this may come naturally. But, if not, can HR encourage the use of techniques such as hackathons, crowdsourcing and virtual collaboration spaces to get their teams as close to the customer as possible?


Reflection will help transparency and continuous improvement of products, services and work methods. It helps build psychological safety, so team members feel more comfortable admitting failure and learning from mistakes, which potentially has a more substantial influence on team performance than anything else.

Team retrospectives are commonplace in agile software development but used less often in the wider business. Taking time out to reflect can be a problem for busy managers and teams, but HR can support here by providing tools that can help form the habit.

Tools are available that can supply regular nudges to make reflective notes in which can end up being added at any time ready to review in retrospective meetings. They can be scheduled either by the team or automatically if there’s been much interaction.

Moving towards agile work might feel like a huge change, but simplicity should be your guide. Little steps and quick changes are the first steps toward agile; you don’t need to change everything at once.

Making a start on your agile journey means becoming more adaptable and customer-focused, which is a good start to the year for all.

Want help making your people function agile in 2020? Get in touch with Beagle HR to find out how we can help your business thrive.