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Q&A on the Book "Agile People"

Key Takeaways

  • Existing HR practices and processes are preventing organisations from ataining the benefits of organisational agility
  • Organizations need to prioritize and balance different elements such as network - hierarchy, transparency - secrecy in order to be more adaptable instead of prescriptive
  • Managers need support and HR often have the people skills that many managers lack
  • Performance ratings are degrading and judging, and both the employee and manager find them useless
  • The team who will be completed with a new team member should have a say regarding who should fill the empty spot in their group

Pia-Maria Thoren has written a book in which she challenges the role of Human Resources in organisations, identifies where the current approaches are not working and why they need to change to support modern organisational thinking. Titled Agile People the book offers ideas about how to structure organisations, how to recruit, motivate and lead people in the modern business environment. She draws on ideas from Agile software development and shows how they apply far beyond just the IT department.

A sample chapter can be downloaded here, and the book is available here.

Pia-Maria Thoren spoke to InfoQ about the book.

InfoQ: Why did you write the book?

Pia-Maria Thorén: HR is stopping agile transformation with rigid and outdated HR processes and are not aware of how to change to support organizations to perform with the help of an agile mindset.  The way HR is working in most organizations today will not be successful in a future where we will need empowered co-workers with another mindset and decision making possibility instead of micro-managing. Organizational culture and structures need to be designed to meet future challenges in a balanced manner where they support instead of contradict each other. HR has the power to change those deep structures that stop change.

InfoQ: Who is it for, who is the target audience?

Pia-Maria Thoren: The target audience is HR and management in every company who realize that the environment inside the company must change as quickly as outside company borders, for the organization to stay competitive. It's also for change management project managers and agile coaches of IT-teams who don't understand HR terms and concepts and how to support HR in the change of the business. It doesn't matter if you are an agile beginner or if you have practiced agile principles for some time; there are advanced advice for more experienced agilists as well.

InfoQ; Why “Agile”people? What is the influence of agile software development on your ideas?

Pia-Maria Thoren: Because "People" is at the core of agile and the value system it represents. It's people who have the power and the ability (and the responsibility) to change companies into engaging and purposeful places where co-workers can be happy and perform within given frames and goals. I see agile not as something that is only for Software development and IT, but for the whole organization, starting with HR and management.

InfoQ: What are the key elements of the Agile HR Manifesto?

Pia-Maria Thoren: The agile HR manifesto is an effort to try to translate the original agile manifesto into HR. It was developed by a number of people who engaged in the topic and we had a few meetings where we discussed what was most important. The outcome involves how organizations need to prioritize and balance different elements like network - hierarchy, transparency - secrecy and be more adaptable instead of prescriptive.

InfoQ: What should the purpose of an HR group in an organisation - why do we need them?

Pia-Maria Thoren: We don't necessarily need a department called HR, there is no purpose with the name in itself. It's about people and helping people be happy and creating prerequisites for joint performance. However, we do need to perform the work that HR is doing today. We could outsorce parts of HR (like salary payments) and delegate a lot of the remaining HR-tasks to management. It all depends on how you see the role of managers, as specialists or people managers. But managers need support and HR often have the people skills that many managers lack. So, it's more of a coaching and supporting approach that is needed now, where HR and the managers of the business work together to create value. HR can also take more of a specialist role when it comes to recruitment, learning, compensation etc. and provide recommendations and simple tools for teams to take more responsibility for these areas.

InfoQ: What is the fundamental difference between todays working environment and that for which most organisation’s HR practices were designed?

Pia-Maria Thoren: Today we work with a lot more flexibility and agile approaches are increasing everywhere. There is no longer any need for a typical 9-box grid where you judge people as a means to connect the grade to a salary box. It's just demotivating and a complete waste of time. There are modern ways of finding the right salary level that does not involve degrading and judging performance ratings that both the employee and manager find useless. When innovation and continuous learning and improvement becomes the only remaining competitive advantage, there is no room for year-long, rigid HR processes that are full of control and follow up steps.

InfoQ: What are some of the ways that our HR practices and policies inhibit or prevent effective collaboration and teamwork?

Pia-Maria Thoren: Well, what I think about immediately is the use of individual bonus systems as a way to motivate co-workers. It leads not to motivation, but to decreased collaboration and teamwork, as people will chase the reward and sub optimize and compete instead of prioritizing teamwork and helping each other. It also leads to lower performance as it's built on a goal that is attainable instead of aspirational. HR need to involve management and teams in the value creation process and delegate decision making and support solutions that are happening naturally when teams take more responsibility because they want to. Motivation is when people do what you want, because THEY want, and it starts in the basic needs of every person. In a perfect team, each person bring their personality and everybody is respected for who they are and for the differences they bring in skills and values. When people become aware of how they can respect and use each others differences, we can reap the benefits of real teamwork. Instead of yearly performance reviews or employee surveys, HR can gradually coach teams to run retrospectives and give feedback to each other.

InfoQ: What are some alternate approaches to organising for effective collaboration?

Pia-Maria Thoren: The balancing act that comes with realizing that it's not top-down OR bottom-up that is the answer, but both. We also need to balance between specialization and generalization as well as centralization and decentralization. We need people who function as communication hubs between different parts of the organization, and loosely formed teams that organize people with similar interests. Value creation flows should drive work forward and a continuous improvement spirit needs to govern product improvement. A flexible and adaptable, less rigid structure that can change as needed with the right amount of structure, given the circumstances and environment.  

InfoQ: Organisations like McKinsey and others have abolished performance reviews -why and what should they be replaced with?

Pia-Maria Thoren: Performance managements purpose is to increase performance, however, this is not what is happening in the usual case, where an old and outdated performance process is used. On the contrary, the way performance reviews are carried out, they tend to decrease performance by demotivating and limiting co-working. Judging others and then linking that judgement to your salary is not a good idea and the large consultant firms have finally discovered that as well. Instead, you can for example use OKRs that would enable collaboration, learning and a common direction, to increase performance. Read more about it in the book.

InfoQ: How about performance management and rewards - do we simply leave these to the team, how do we make decisions about who to reward and who to remove?

Pia-Maria Thoren: Teams can play a part in decisions regarding rewards. The principle in agile is that the people with the best knowledge should make the decision, so regarding what co-workers should be paid, it's probably the people who work more closely together who knows something about peoples performance. It could of course include the manager, if the manager is also working closely with the team on a daily basis. But I think that should only be the case for variable pay, that has criteria that is changing, like performance, behavior and engagement. Regarding the base pay (the usual salary), it should be based on more objective criteria that is easier to establish, like experience, education, level of responsibility, role etc. It should be the same for everybody that has the same criteria, as this would be perceived as the most fair option (and fairness is the most important thing when it comes to salaries). The variable pay, on the other hand, would change with a persons motivation, performance and ability to contribute, depending on private engagements, children etc. Team rewards are fine, as long as they are also perceived as fair by the team. Delegating what to do with the team reward to the team can be a good idea, as long as it works for them.

InfoQ: Does this require changing our approach to recruitment, how?

Pia-Maria Thoren: Recruitment is best performed when it's a team effort consisting of HR, marketing and the business, and the team who will be completed with a new team member should also have a say regarding who should fill the empty spot in their group. Values are becoming more important and the expression "hire for attitude, train for skill" has never been more true! Use a digital Kanban like Trello as a simple tool for moving the candidates in the recruitment flow. Or a cloud based solution for employee branding that will facilitate reaching the right candidates with a superior candidate experience and an easy-to-use tool for applying for a position. Recruitment may be the most important HR process for the long term success of the organization, so please, don’t outsorce recruitment to some agency who do not know the value structure of the company.

InfoQ: What about career advancement and learning?

Pia-Maria Thoren: Career planning becomes less important when the value structure changes and when it’s not about you, but about the team. However, every person in an agile company needs to be seen as a talent (instead of a few high performers) and should grow and develop all the time, maybe by using OKRs or some other framework for continuous improvement. When it’s about personal growth instead of climbing the career ladder for a better title, focus is on creating value and being a part of the success of the whole team instead of competing with your peers for that promotion or title. When titles are removed, there is nothing to fight about.

InfoQ: These seem like big changes - where should we start?

Pia-Maria Thoren: Start small and take steps in the right direction. A regular, honest retrospective and more daily standups are great places to start, increasing communication and thereby trust between people, as you ask for help every day and get to know your peers either you want it or not. Also, it’s not so much about starting things as it is about stopping things. The rigid HR-processes need to disappear and if we start to remove some things that we don’t have very good reasons to do, few people will probably miss them.  Experimentation becomes something that increases learning every day and when we see that the things we thought were absolutely necessary are not missed by anybody, we can introduce new, less rigid habits in line with company values and culture. Continous improvement becomes the road to a successful agile transformation where people are happy and are given prerequisites and trust to perform. This will lead to more profitable companies that in the end can reach their vision.

About the Book Author

Pia-Maria Thoren is the founder and owner of GreenBullet, and specialize in Agile HR, Agile leadership and Motivation. She is a People management consultant and devoted change agent with an enterprise perspective. Her main focus is to contribute to creating organizations where people perform better and feel engaged. Agile leadership and agile frameworks are the best ways to create successful change, in her opinion. Pia-Maria is the founder of Agile People, which is a network and a conference with the purpose of spreading the agile mindset in organizations. Her main drive is to see the movement from one state to another in a company, contributing by making that change successful both from a financial and human perspective. Her vision is to create customer value and have fun at the same time! Special focus areas: Management 3.0, Performance management, Employee engagement & motivation, Talent management, project / program management, change management, agile leadership & HR, workshop facilitation, IT support for HR.

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