Impact of Agile on HR with Jon Ward

We conducted a Q&A interview with Jon Ward, Director of Agile Transformation at Beneficial Consulting, around agile transformation and it's correlation to HR.

Could you introduce yourself and what you do? 

Hello! I am Jon Ward; I am an agile catalyst.  What’s that – another buzzword? I hear you say.  No, I help organisations transform themselves.  Just as a chemical catalyst speeds up a reaction, I enable stakeholders in an organisation increase the speed of agile adoption.  I try to stop them from making mistakes, and I provide frameworks to assist their decision making.   

As the leader of Beneficial Consulting based in London, I write about, speak about and lead Agile Transformations.  I started with agile in software development teams now I work as an Enterprise Coach helping organisations increase their agility.  I have in my toolkit a range of theories, tools and techniques which help senior leaders and team members in their agile journeys. 

It’s a great job; I believe in Life-long Learning as Albert Einstein said “Once you stop learning, you start dying” – since I am not ready for the latter, I will concentrate on the former!! 


Agile transformations involve all aspects of an organisation, but how does it affect HR? 

Talking with Human Resource (HR) leaders, it’s apparent that global strategic imperatives are driving the need to develop enterprise agility.  Agility is not in itself a strategy; it’s the organisational strategy which demands agility.  Being agile is an enabler.   

Enterprise agility is the ability of an organisation to adapt its operating model while continuing to maintain highly satisfied customers consuming its products and or services.  I see agility resulting from taking lessons from agile software engineering and applying these to the enterprise operating model. 

If we consider Enterprise Agility and the HR function itself, most teams face the same problem; the need to alter their operating model radically.  Often the HR function is in catch-up mode when it comes to Agile.  

However, I think the HR function should provide transformational leadership.  Becoming an Agile Enterprise asks significant behavioural change questions of all levels in an organisation.  I see HR as a conduit of the transformation.  Behavioural change specialists on the inside, part of the “guiding coalition” rather than an impacted party on the outside.   


As agile involves people and behavioural change, what role can HR play in agile transformation? 

Enterprise agility is more than merely Scrum Teams delivering software.  It is a radical rethink of the Target Operating Model. 

Several management gurus but particularly John Kotter in his new book Accelerate, and General Stanley A. McChrystal in Team of Teams talk about a new organisational paradigm; an organisation based on a network of teams to create Enterprise Agility.  The new model is not about bolting something on to the side of the existing hierarchical structure, or about divisional P&Ls or cost centres.  The agile network is a competitive structure to the current functional organisation.  For example; a sales order processing agile team would be responsible for the whole value stream from customer order through to the provision of the product or service.  The network operates without functional handoffs seamlessly managing the end-to-end customer journey.  In creating agility, many operational responsibilities move from their traditional functional home to the agile network. 

To provide leadership HR teams need to quickly understand what Agile means so they can facilitate the organisational transformation.  Yet herein lies a rub, the HR function needs to apply the mindset to itself and realise that agile teams are self-managing.  The teams being self-managing requires the HR function to revolutionise its ways of working so that you can enable, coach and facilitate appropriate ways of working in the agile network of teams.  You may wish to consider that some areas traditionally seen as being the remit of an HR function may also move to the agile network! 


Agile requires a different set of skills, which not necessarily everyone within an organisation has, so how can HR help people adapt to this? 

Enterprise agility is about developing organisational capability.  Training and development is a significant component of the change management plan.  Some aspects of Agile need to be grounded in corporate reality.  For example; agile purists may argue that it is up to each team to define its training needs, and that’s true.  However, it would be senseless for an enterprise to allow each team to procure its’ own training. 


Can agile be adopted without using all the tools and protocols? 

Enterprise agility means that the Agile HR mindset is more than just Sprints, post-it notes, task boards and daily stand-ups.  It is about empowering and enabling teams in the performance of their responsibilities.   

It is about coaching and influencing skills.  It is about genuinely stepping out of the traditional HR best practice and embracing a plan-do-check-adjust approach to deliver value.   

Some aspects of empirical activity control in the way that HR provides support may help but to expand on this here would be to miss the point. 


How can HR work with an agile transformation to make organisations more agile in the long-term? 

We need to change our mindset.  HR is an integral part of an Agile Transformation.  In transforming an organisation, people are going to be displaced.  The transformation will create new career opportunities for some.  Some particular those in middle management may lose their power base.  Senior leaders are going to need to change for what will be some ingrained behaviours.  All of these scenarios will require pastoral care which in many organisations is provided by HR. 

A central tenet of agile is relentless continuous improvement, and this is an ethic.  An organisation needs to become comfortable with a rate of change which in traditional hierarchical organisations would become uncomfortable instability.  The agile network is designed to absorb change. However, this needs facilitation.  I think HR has a role here.  I see a proactive HR function creating the culture and practice of continuous learning and continuous improvement. 


How does agile affect typical HR processes like hiring? 

Some typical HR processes will require significant rework.  Hiring is probably one. Performance Management another, job families, skill sets, the promotion process all need to be reviewed and adapted.  This list goes on.  HR will need to embrace an Enterprise Agile transformation and adjust accordingly.   

It may be that HR should consult is customers and stakeholders and ask what they need from the HR team and then start from this point rather than using an existing service catalogue. 


What would be your final recommendations for HR people when their organisations are becoming more agile? 

In the words of Corporal Jones in Dads Army “Don’t Panic”!  An agile transformation is about an Enterprise becoming a learning organisation. 

Agilists believe in two things; life-long learning, and continuous improvement.  These concepts apply to individuals, teams and organisations.   

My recommendation is to anticipate, research and learn so that you can support long-term Enterprise Agility.


This interview is exclusive to The Business Transformation Network.


Jon Ward is an agile catalyst; helping organisations to produce improved bottom-line when adopting agile. 

A Change Management expert for over thirty years- Jon believes in contextual agile. Rather than using a single framework or set techniques, Jon introduces appropriate ways of agile working enabling organisations to achieve their strategic goals. For Jon, this contextual focus involves tailoring agile approaches and blending them sometimes with traditional techniques. For example; recently, Jon combined Benefits Management approaches with components from SAFe and Disciplined Agile. Consequently, Jon has a reputation as a pragmatist; and for implementing agile ways of working, which increase performance and productivity. Jon is a director with Beneficial Consulting based in London, UK.