hr innovationInnovation and agility are critical to thriving — or even surviving — in today’s fast-changing world. Balancing speed and quality is now a vital leadership skill.

First used in software development, Agile is an approach now spreading to other functions. Its main principles are focusing on people more than process, using pilots and prototypes for quick experiments and learning, responding rapidly to change rather than rigid adherence to a plan, and collaborating with internal/external customers to help them achieve their evolving outcomes.

HR leaders have come under fire for their lack of strategic focus and slow response to organizational needs. Some experts have said it’s “time to blow up HR and build something new.” This month’s issue of Harvard Business Review features an article on “HR Goes Agile.” Professor and Director of Wharton School’s Center for Human Resources, Peter Cappelli, and associate professor of human capital management at New York University, Anna Tavis report, “HR has not had to change in recent decades nearly as much as have the line operations it supports. But now the pressure is on, and it’s coming from the operating level, which makes it much harder to cling to old talent practices.”

Cappelli and Tavis document a range of HR services and approaches where leading companies are making big changes. The practices that stand out in leadership/culture development are:

Performance Appraisals – Agile HR leaders are moving away from annual appraisals to more frequent assessments to deliver more immediate feedback so that “teams can become nimbler, ‘course-correct’ mistakes, improve performance, and learn through iteration — all key agile principles.” (See Performance Management for more on the big changes happening in this area).

Coaching – “The companies that most effectively adopt agile talent practices invest in sharpening managers’ coaching skills.” (See Driving and Directing to Coaching and Developing for a chart on the coaching shift needed).

Teams – many companies are now organizing work by projects and teams. Agile teams have frequent “scrums” (as in rugby) to refocus and adapt quickly to changing conditions. High-performing teams need multidirectional feedback (especially from peers and upward to leaders), frontline empowerment and decision making, and helping supervisors to manage more complex team dynamics.

Learning and Development – more personalized and individual development plans aligned to the person’s experience, interests (we’ve found the very best approach comes from finding the leadership/career sweet spot).

We continue to find stark and sharp contrasts between those HR professionals who are strong strategic leaders and those who are tactical HR administrators. The best HR leaders think strategically, are system-oriented, deeply understand and serve operations, personally model strong leadership behaviors, and have built their credibility, relationships and courage to push back when executives or the team is veering off track.