What HR Leaders Need to Know About Agile Thinking
Have you heard? HR is going agile.
I could have told you that.
I’ve spent the past 15 years helping people understand and implement software. That means I’ve had one foot in the high-tech software development world, with teams of developers working quickly and collaboratively, and one foot in the world of my customers, whether they’re HR leaders, operations managers or salespeople.
In my role at IA, I’m focused on helping HR leaders understand technology. I’m new around here, but I have a few tricks up my sleeve I’d like to share. After working for tech companies for more than a decade, I’ve learned how any team can embrace agile thinking to get work done faster and with better outcomes for everyone.
Got a Tough Problem? Bring It to the Team
One thing I love about working in an agile environment is the group approach to problem-solving. If a developer is building a new feature but can’t figure out how to fix a bug in the code, they don’t sit at their desk for weeks battling it out solo. If someone’s struggling with a problem, they bring it to the team. I love that feeling of camaraderie: No one’s stuck in a vacuum with a problem, no one has to bear all the stress and responsibility. Development teams meet every day to hash out tough issues as a group and share their latest questions and challenges.
I saw firsthand that when teams share their challenges instead of stressing out about them in a silo, work gets done faster — and no problem snowballs out of control. Plus, working together builds a sense of camaraderie.
Fail Early and Often
Let’s say you’re planning next week’s payroll. You could wait until it’s time to cut the checks to find errors. Or, you could get run a pre-payroll report to spot issues ahead of time. I prefer the latter, because it means you fail earlier.
That F-word is scary, especially in HR. HR teams do important work, and there’s not much margin for error. We can’t fail. Right?
People think they have to be perfect, but they don’t. Failing early and often means that you anticipate roadblocks before they happen and think about how to fix them and move forward. It’s much better to “fail” when you still have time to make adjustments. In the case of payroll, fixing mistakes in advance means that everyone gets paid on time and correctly, and no employee is scrambling to pay their mortage or student loan.
Break Down Big Projects Into Smaller Deliverables
Agile thinking is all about moving fast. For HR, that means tackling huge initiatives, like choosing a new payroll system, by breaking them down into smaller, more manageable tasks. Choosing and implementing that new system could take years. But what can you accomplish this month? What decisions can you make and what ideas can you test to move your overall process forward? Instead of assigning a large task like “recommend new vendor,” break it down into discrete actions like “assemble requirements.”
Think Like a Team
I’ve seen silos in every kind of organization. Humans are tribal, and we like to protect our own work and rally together with people who think like we do. But getting stuck in a silo has extremely negative consequences for HR. HR teams can do amazing work when they forget about what’s on their business cards and come together as a unified team.
Let’s say you have an HR team with payroll experts, benefits pros, recruiters and development managers. A problem comes up in payroll related to how people are hired. If the payroll team throws the problem over the wall to recruiting, the team doesn’t learn from the problem, and may never even hear about the solution.
Instead, why not think of your HR group as a collaborative team of experts who can combine their different expertise to solve big problems? If you build good working relationships across a team, when a problem comes up, you’ll be able to help each other quickly and learn from the outcome.
Solve for the User
Finally, there’s an important truth that tech teams often forget in the flurry of building and coding: all of your work affects a human being at the end of the line. For software developers, that’s the end user who’s logging into the technology every day. For HR, the end user is the employee.
On HR teams at big companies, it’s easy to focus on long spreadsheets of employee ID numbers while forgetting about the humans those numbers represent. Those are people, our coworkers. Even if you don’t personally know the person behind the employee ID, that person is a mom. A daughter. A person who’s supporting a family. Remember that they’re a person, with unique challenges and needs.
Any problem we solve or change we roll out will affect people on a very real level. Hopefully, updating HR processes and offerings will make their lives a little easier. Working in HR is powerful and important, because it’s all about people.
Suman Kamath is a senior advisor at IA. Suman has focused her career on helping customers implement software. Her experience ranges from gathering business requirements to leading voice-of-the-customer workshops to user acceptance testing. She focuses on project management, change management, and process improvement. She is an avid traveler (40-plus countries visited) and amateur photographer.