Tangible HR Concepts That Make Agile Organisations Successful by Jesper Sylvest Sørensen

Working with Agile transformation and HR transformation I often witness smart HR concepts that are embraced and valued by the agile teams – but the concepts are rarely initiated or sponsored by HR. This article aim to share some tangible best practice on HR for Agile in the hope that it will inspire and enable more HR people to be part of the solution when agile capabilities are needed.

 Performance Management

One of the key pillars in agile frameworks is the concept of relentless improvement. In HR we have traditionally been content with getting people to complete structured target setting, evaluation and follow-up twice a year. Most agile teams do this of their own desire twice a month in retrospective sessions! Retrospectives is a dedicated session where the team focus on what is working well and what isn’t and what the team can do better next time. It can be done in several ways but seek to be structured, disciplined and based on data.

Capturing the output and developing learning and development interventions can be time consuming when the typical HR Business Partner covers more than 10 teams. Therefore, HR often miss out on this great opportunity to improve people performance.

Smart people have successfully solved this problem by deploying agile health radars that help the agile teams to gather data for their retrospectives. The output is used in the retrospective by the team and can also be aggregated by HR and business leaders to understand structural and individual challenges. If HR need more detail or want to test if an intervention matches the needs of the agile team, they simply join the next retrospective session.

Learning & Development

After a number of sprints agile teams pause to coordinate, plan, innovate and learn. In most agile frameworks this is known as “IP” (Innovation and Planning) or “PI (Program Increment) Planning”. This is the perfect time to address structural learning and development needs ranging from adoption of new technology to agile methods or team building.

When HR learning and development professionals use this opportunity to deploy focused interventions - based on things like the agile health radar - they build critical agile capabilities. In this way they deliver on the agile agenda and often the strategic goals of the business without derailing sprints and innovation in the agile organisation.

Collaboration Requires Co-Location and Stimulating Workspaces

Every successful agile organisation will tell you that creative collaboration requires an element of co-location and stimulating workspaces. This is normally an issue because it is expensive, requires increased mobility, is seen as preferential treatment and is in violation with existing policies. The best solutions I have seen require complex management of several elements that all involve HR.

In most companies, the people required to make up an agile team are not in the same location. Co-location is vital but to avoid high travel costs agile teams have to be allowed to work in several locations by using video communication. To ensure a reasonable work life balance it is furthermore important that most travel is made predictable by meeting on regular weekdays – say every other week Tuesday to Thursday. In this case HR travel policies can be a hindrance or a great help.

Enabling video communication and creating several creative office environments without causing spite is done by placing the agile teams in a different floor, building or location. Enterprise initiatives require executive support. However, part of the CxO team often see collaborative working spaces as an unnecessary luxury. Frameworks like the Galbraith star model can be used effectively to demonstrate that creative collaboration spaces are necessary to build the agile capabilities that are in turn critical to strategy execution. Brought to light in this perspective even leaders focused on optimization and reliability tend to see that collaborative working and co-location spaces are not simply luxury treatment for executive pet projects.

Facility management and HR policies are often a great hinderance. HR has to drive a change in policies and proactively address the differentiation with staff councils and unions. When done really smart staff councils or unions are offered to abandon traditional privileges to get things they perceive as similar to the agile teams. The best example I have seen was the choice of a café space with fantastic coffee and designer furniture over more traditional benefits like expensive Christmas gifts. The café served as a great place for cross functional collaboration and people from all parts of the company loved the place and proudly showed it to visitors. When embraced and proactively managed by HR this approach turns a potential industrial relations issue into a general improvement of the employee value proposition at no extra cost

Leadership Development and Decision-Making Processes

Increasingly executives need to assess quite diverse items in weekly decision forums. One item may require them to act as chief reviewer to asses risk management, scoping, planning and detailed business cases while the next agenda item require them to act as chief experimenter that pursue product testing with real customers, fast failure of flawed solutions and alignment of direction with the innovation portfolio. It is quite difficult to consciously change perspective and approach and unsurprisingly the failure to differentiate between operation and innovation decisions is reported as one of the biggest showstoppers to agile and innovation. I have seen two effective ways of dealing with this.

This first way is expensive but also massively effective. It is best described by the following example: INSEAD and professor Nathan Furr ran a tailored enterprise training program where 200 executive teams attended F2F tuition at INSEAD and an additional 1000 people received online training. While costly this rapidly achieved a shared frame of reference and real changes in behavior and differentiated decision making. In country organisations this meant face to face training for the CxO team and online training for 50 people and could be done in 3 months time. (more about the example here: https://www.telenor.com/expert-speaks-why-telenor-can-make-this-transfor...)

The second and complementary way of addressing this is the adoption of a differentiated decision-making process. Most companies have a weekly forum where enterprise resource allocation decisions are made. It is likely to be named the investment or project board meeting or simply the CxO meeting. The trick is to separate or split meetings like this in two parts. The first part covers regular investments like the upcoming SAP upgrade or building a new production unit. The second part cover innovation like developing a new product or software. For the operational part of the meeting the normal investment template and decision criteria focusing on profitability, risk management and resource allocation is used. Resource allocation is based on standard funding from fixed budgets. For the innovation part of the meeting there is a different template with different criteria focused on achieving innovation fast. In the innovation part resource allocation is based on separate enterprise investment funding to ensure that a pre-defined balance between innovation and regular operations is met. This may sound cumbersome, but it is much easier to apply the relevant decision-making perspective and it allow leaders a much better chance at making well informed and coordinated decisions.

Cross-Functional Teams & Talent Management

Most agile teams and especially teams working with business development and customer centricity rely on end-to-end business insights. This is best obtained by placing people from the business lines in cross-functional agile teams for 6-12 months. From a talent pipeline perspective this is also a rare and important opportunity to help future leaders and senior specialists develop an ambidextrous mindset and understand agile innovation.

There are two major obstacles. Firstly, the business does not like to release their best people and they often have no spare capacity. Secondly, to the employees in question there is a real risk that there will be no attractive positions in the business line upon their return.

I have seen two good solutions: 1. Agile experience is stated as a key requirement when recruiting for senior positions. People with experience from an agile team hence have an increased chance to get promoted to prestigious jobs. This works well as long as the agile teams are looking for people with an ambition to climb the ranks and when HR has real influence on recruitment decisions in the business lines. 2. Backfill the specialists with temporary staff while they are working with the agile teams and provide additional budget / headcount for this from investment funding. Often the temporary staff become valued employees and are employed. As such there is no risk to the specialists and the talent pipeline improves in the business lines.

What About the Team Leaders?

Agile organisations have people guiding the teams, however, a key concept in agile is self-organising teams that do not have Team Leads. (See the inserted example from SAFe).

This can cause a bit of a dilemma because many organisations gain a fair part of their coherence and sustained performance from Team Leaders that are great at people management. On top of this most agile frameworks have not matured to the point where they describe how to manage and develop people long term, thus creating a demand for the exact skills at risk of being lost. It will be attractive to transition some Team Leaders to roles like Agile Coaches, Scum Masters and Product Owners, but sometimes the good people managers do not match those roles. Therefore, there is a real risk of making great people managers obsolete despite a demand for their skills. A solution to this dilemma is to apply concepts from the project organisation. It is a relatively well tested and robust structure that works well for organisations delivering research and innovation and it is often seen in consultancy houses and life science R&D units. The relevant part in relation to Team Leaders are the People Managers in project organisations. They manage a skill pool of 30-50 people and are responsible for performance and development of those individuals but are not accountable for functional delivery in teams and projects.

By adopting people managers, the risk of losing critical people management skills can be mitigated by dividing traditional Team Lead work into four roles1: People Manager, 2: Scrum Master also known as Agile Coach 3: Product Owner and 4team members. Allocating traditional Team Leaders to those 4 roles allow for a transition to agile without losing critical Team Leads.

Every organisation is unique and organisation architecture require bespoke design, but this article provides some tangible building blocks allowing you to start crafting solutions that deliver agile capabilities. Let the iterations begin!


Jesper designs and executes organisational changes, delivers HR transformation, builds transformation teams and certifies new Organisation Designers. This is founded on a decade of experience across sectors and countries and a deep passion for building organisational capabilities that make a difference.