5 important lessons Talent Managers must learn to be Agile


Agile is the hot word in corporate life. Everyone is looking to be more Agile, have Agile people and we even come across "Agile" as a corporate value.

There is a simple idea behind this. In markets where consumer tastes, competitors and technology appear to be changing faster than ever, we need an organisation that can shift at a faster rate - be agile.

What Agile has achieved in the world of Software?

Agile with a capital “A” is also a specific approach from the world of software development[i}. Initiated in the early 2000s as a response to the ongoing failures of large software projects, Agile was created as much as a philosophy to reset the world as a set of techniques or tools.

The insights behind it, came from years of practice in succeeding and failing at software. It was a successful attempt to get beyond corporate machoism and to get back to a more real world where we do not promise what we can not deliver, do not pretend we know what is unknowable and are focused on delivering value through things that really work.

And it has worked, transforming how software is delivered and the day to day experiences of the people who deliver.

A useful concept of Technical Debt which Agile is designed to overcome?

One very useful concept from software development is Technical Debt

“the extra work that arises when code that is easy to implement in the short run is used instead of applying the best overall solution”

Agile is focused on not building up Technical Debt through clever organisational mechanisms a few of which are listed below

  • The idea of done - done – done – done for all work to be considered ready. Where the 4 “dones” are coded, verified, validated, production ready[ii]. The insight is that there is no value until a piece of code has passed the 4Ds test. Up to that point it is just work in progress and a cost

  • Short 1 or 2 week sprints to deliver done work and the constraint that work has to be broken into a small enough useful chunk that a user will value and it can be delivered within a sprint

  • Sprints are sacrosanct. Once you start a sprint the work priorities can not be changed for that sprint - only for the next sprint. This allows the team to focus on delivering value not worrying about changed priorities

  • Multiskilled, highly skilled teams where people flow to the highest value work based on customer value rather than their specialism and they work together to learn as they go

  • Tracking velocity to publish how much value the team is delivering each sprint and how that is changing

What can Talent learn from Agile?

We need a similar concept to Technical Debt, lets call it "Talent debt".

We only need to switch in the words “people decisions” for “code” and the challenge is clear and we get a useful idea.

“the extra work that arises when people decisions that are easy to implement in the short run are used instead of applying the best overall solution”.

Examples of Talent debt are easy to find in most organisations

  • People in the wrong jobs with the wrong skills just because they were available

  • Unfinished training programmes

  • Progression promises that have not been fulfilled

  • Recruitment processes that lack rigour or are using outdated selection measures

  • New leadership teams who don’t know how to lead

The 5 lessons from Agile?

The disciplines that Agile has given to software to design out Technical Debt could equally be applied to HR and Talent to design Talent debt out.

  • A "done - done – done" equivalent for Talent activity. What are the "dones" for Talent?

  • Working as teams in 1 or 2 week sprints delivering measurable value for the users. How does this work with the challenge of business as usual support?

  • Sprints are sacrosanct. How to stop reacting in the moment to the urgent from senior leaders and use the idea of sprints to protect work on the important whilst allowing new priorities to be added?

  • Multi-skilled, highly skilled teams where HR professionals work together as teams to deliver significant chunks of value to the customer, learn from each other and drive progress as a group. Can we stop working in silos?

  • Tracking velocity of Talent Value delivered by the team. Why not?

All these concepts need fleshing out and more detail as the work that Talent delivers is different in nature and most Talent professionals have both support and “development of the new” responsibilities. But if we could start to track Talent debt and pay it down we would be a lot closer to adding the value that organisations seek.

And Talent debt is a useful communications tool as it speaks to the emotional challenge that we see in organisations where people feel underinvested in or feel the investment in talent is off track.

[i] The Agile Manifesto http://agilemanifesto.org/

[ii] Dr Dan Rawsthorne https://blog.3back.com/scrum-industry-terms/done-done-done-done-in-scrum/

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