Few years ago I started writing a blog (www.agilehrbp.com) and I opened an Agile HR group in LinkedIn. This was for me a way to share my thoughts, my read, my learning & experience with Agile and persuade others to start this journey by connecting people interested in growing the community. It was my first experiment. It didn't exactly go as I hoped for but I'm glad I tried. Below are the articles I wrote.
Fail Fast (try-try again-and again-success!)
I have recently read a lot about Squads and how this methodology has helped several companies to gain agility and improve cross-functional cooperation.
None of the examples mentioned the HR department. In this article, I’d like to propose a new org design model for HR to improve the connection with the business by envisioning HR organized in Squads. I’m not sure if this model already exists somewhere but I wasn’t able to find any information.
For those who are not familiar with this term, Squad is a small cross-functional, self-organized team, usually with less than eight members, that has enough autonomy and knowledge among its members to deliver a specific product. The team members have end-to-end responsibilities, and they work together towards their long-term mission. On Squads the key driver is autonomy. Autonomy to decide what to build, how to build it and how to work together while building it. However, the Squad needs to remain aligned with the company and product mission, strategy and goals.
Autonomy provides employees with a sense of collective ownership; it motivates people to build better stuff and faster, by allowing decisions to be made locally instead of by managers and/or committees. In order to achieve this autonomy, it must be a multidisciplinary team, with different skills and capabilities represented. A simple Squad, for example, can be composed of a Product Owner, responsible for understanding user demands, a UX Design, responsible for the user experience and the product interface, and five or six developers, who will turn the user's needs into reality. They may functionally report to different managers but the main focus is on community rather than hierarchical structures. This methodology has been introduced years ago by Spotify and today, several technology companies, whether large or startups, still use this concept to manage their technical teams.
Why am I thinking that this model could work in HR?
During the last few years, HR realized the need and urgency to reinvent itself to get closer to the business and play a key role in the organization. One of its attempts was the creation of the Business Partner model by D.Ulrich. Many years later, the figure of the Business Partner is still a mystery to several companies that often failed in their attempt to implement it.
By bringing HR closer to business, the intention was to strengthen the relationship between the two in order to translate business and people needs in good HR product and experiences. The reality was that this move often strengthened its operational support role, without effectively contributing to the organization's strategy. HRBPs were/are often seen as the go-to people for any people related matters and the implementers of processes and projects coming from the CoEs (centers of expertise). We can attribute this failure to different reasons but one thing is sure: pretending that a single person can effectively master such different topics as recruitment, compensation & benefits, performance management, business strategy, people engagement, coaching, analytics, legal and compliance, project management, internal communication and much more, and call this profession HR Business Partner, is very ambitious.
On the other hand, companies that do not have this role often complain about the amount of time they need to spend to find answers to even simple HR questions due to the fact that their different HR functions are not always aligned or responsive. It is common, for example, that Recruitment strategies are not linked to Performance Management strategies, which may not be linked to rewarding strategies etc. In addition to the waste of time, this lack of alignment results in the implementation of projects that are hardly being able to create the desired impact on the employee experience and create confusion for leaders as they need to have several different points of contact within HR to share their feedback and thoughts. This is one of the reasons why I do think that implementing a Squad structure in HR can help creating the desired alignment between the different HR functions and the business.
My idea of Squad in HR would be to split the HRBP role with a small group of people. Instead of having a HR Business Partner that serves the area of Technology, for example, you will have a team of 6 HR professionals who are experts in their fields (like recruitment, learning & org development, comp&ben, employee relations, people analytics, internal communication) that work together in projects that involve all these aspects of the employee experience. This squad can then behave as part of an established tribe within the business area. Thus, this team can fully understand the needs of this specific tribe or business area and can create products, standards, practices and projects that help them achieving their goals and objectives. Representative of the business should be regularly involved in the different phases of each projects and actively contribute to the successful implementation in their respective areas.
It is common that, in a traditional HR structure, the different HR functions are located far not only from the business but from the different HR functions too. In this proposal, the squad needs to be physically close to ensure the rapid exchange of information. For a squad to be successful it is necessary to reduce hierarchy and increase trust in the employees. Only in this way is it possible to build autonomy in the team. The decentralization and/or reduction of organizational lawyers can be perceived as a challenge in many companies where it is still common to see areas of “support” such as HR, Finance and Legal often operating in a hierarchical culture.
In a Squad, the role of the leader is to point out the objective and the problems to be solved, and let the team find the solution in the way that makes more sense to them. In this methodology, you have a matrix management structure, where members report to the “technical” leader of their specialty while dotted line reporting to the leader of Squad. For example, the recruiter will report both to a Recruitment Manager, for “craft” matters, and to the Squad Lead (ex-HRBP), who will be responsible for directing the projects to be delivered to internal customers and ensure alignment within the squad.
In my opinion, this type of structure reduces the chance of HR to create projects disconnected from the needs of their internal customers or create programs that hardly connect to the companies’ objectives. After all, how many of us in HR have not received feedback that we are "too procedural, un-flexible and far from being close to the people needs" or that we are "imposing meaningless projects and programs" to them? It is also common for HR to receive criticism related to the speed of its deliveries. Many leaders point out that their needs are not met within the expected time, and when they are not always meet all the necessary requirements. This is common because, in HR, we are used to the cascade model of project management, a sequential model in which the process is seen as a constant flow forward (like a cascade) through the different phases. In this model, for a new stage of the project to start the other must have been finalized.
These criticisms play a role in the disengagement of HR professionals too. When you delay delivering a project, it means that you put a lot of effort and time into this project, and if it is criticized or no longer makes sense for the company, you may feel demotivated and reluctant to start a new project. From the Squad model will become easier for HR to start using Design Thinking and User Experience tools to validate projects hypotheses and A/B testing, pilot projects, MVPs to test the project in a controlled reality and thus understand their possible problems and correct them way before gaining scalability.
Certainly, the process of implementing Squad in a support area is a big challenge. More than just a new process or org structure introduction, it is a mindset and cultural change in which several factors play a key role, such as having the right people on-board, leadership& company buy-in and sponsorship, investing in people new skills development. However, I strongly believe that the autonomy of a Squad will bring immediate benefits to the company. With a deeper and more integrated business approach, speed in the implementation of projects that cover the full spectrum of the employee experience, reduction of errors and increase in clients usability and satisfaction, I can only anticipate a greater potential for business impact. Last but not least, the deserved recognition of HR as a strategic area for the organization.
The world has become more “instant” every day thanks to the seamless integration of human and digital workforce. In this “new” environment, managing changes correctly is crucial for an organization that strives to continuously respond to the needs of customers. The increase in volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity means that leaders of any organizations must look more critically at their operating model, seek new orientations and take a fresh approach to leadership and organizational wellbeing. Experiences, dogmas and paradigms must all come under scrutiny, it is no longer a case of finding the One way or the One management recipe.
In a VUCA world, the most important thing is to anticipate the future and to strengthen cooperation in companies with modern solutions. Decisions and connections are success factors for shaping the organization common cause. Agility requires a culture of empowerment where everyone in the organization have the authority and independence to make decisions, and this of course, requires people with a flexible and adaptable mindset who are keen and willing to embrace change continually. Human beings do not naturally resist changes but they do accept them when they believe that it is in their best interest to do so. In other words, when people resist changes, it’s because they see some aspect of what the organization wants to do as not being in their best interests (i.e. loss of status or job security in the organization, surprise and fear of the unknown, fear of failure, climate of mistrust, peer pressure, organizational politics etc). They could be mistaken in this belief or they could be correct. Either way, however, their resistance makes perfect sense to them.
Managing changes requires preparation and appropriate support especially in terms of communication. To gain more cooperation and support from colleagues, leaders should learn how to spend quality time with their people, to understand their perspective and clearly explain why the change effort is beneficial to them as a group and as individuals. When people don’t understand why and how company decisions are taken or they don’t know where they stand or what are they contributing to, they start to feel demotivated and disengaged and this can have an impact on their wellbeing. With no acknowledgment of what they are doing well or what they need to work on, people can be left anxious that they aren’t good enough or that they aren't valued. In recent years, there have been increased levels of absenteeism in the workplace and factors like mental health, motivation and stress levels seem to bear a direct correlation to it.
The stats below show the serious impact poor wellbeing can have on productivity and job satisfaction:
Many organisations are now choosing to adopt practices and initiatives to improve the wellbeing of their people, and concepts like self-care, mindfulness, and gratitude are hot topics. And positively, we are talking more openly about mental health than we ever have before. A good company wellbeing strategy should focus on creating a healthier working environment and this starts with encouraging more supportive relationships, clear communication, and high-quality feedback.
Creating a healthy working environment should be the primary goal of any organization and the link between good leadership and wellbeing is well known. It is scary but at the same time encouraging to see that the role of a leader is crucial for running a successful and sustainable organisation. If people are happier at work, they are more likely to thrive and stay, and this will have a positive impact on the entire business. A recent government study, for example, recognised feedback as one of the key factors for improving wellbeing in the workplace. Other factors highlighted included clarity of employee expectations (i.e., clear goals, objectives and standards), opportunities to grow and develop new skills, positive interactions with managers and colleagues, as well as a sense of job security and well-defined career prospects. If one of the easiest wellbeing initiatives to implement is to recognise people for their effort and achievements why not to invest heavily in fostering (or creating) a culture of regular feedback and recognition? People who feel appreciated at work tend to have a greater sense of emotional wellbeing, and feedback is essential to helping people feel valued and engaged.
Gallup has been measuring employee engagement for nearly twenty years and has highlighted that only 30% of people are nowadays engaged at work. What does this mean in practical terms? That 70% or more of employees don’t really care about the success of their organisation? It could also mean that if you try to get things to happen there is only a 30% chance of success. How can we change this and help leaders to succeed in this environment?
The first vital step will be to help leaders to improve their leadership style and concept by looking at leadership in a total different way.
The prevailing image of a leader is of someone stoic or cheerful, someone that projects confidence and have the right answer to everything. But that goes against basic biology: all healthy human beings have an inner stream of thoughts and feelings that are not always positive- they include fear, doubts, criticism, sadness. Effective leaders are those who don’t try to suppress their inner experiences but instead they approach them in a mindful and productive way. This is called emotional agility.
In our complex and fast-changing knowledge economy, this ability to manage one's own feelings or thoughts is essential to business success. Numerous studies form the London University show that emotional agility can help people alleviate stress, become more innovative and improve performance. When unhooking yourself from difficult thoughts and emotions, you expand your choices and you can decide to act in a way that aligns with your values. The mind’s thoughts stream flows endlessly and emotions change continuously but values can be called on at any time and in any situation.
Companies should consider reviewing their leadership programs, with primarily focus on people and organizational wellbeing than financial or strategic business acumen. You don't change culture through emails or mission statements. It takes more than some appealing phrases to create a great culture. You can only change it though healthy relationships, one conversation at a time. Relationships are based on reciprocation: knowing that your manager has your interests at heart creates the neurochemical oxytocin, which makes us feel good and more enthusiastic to give our best and collaborate with others. This is why it is so important to change the leadership mindset: understanding how to be aware of what is in the hearts and minds of people and unifying, aligning those values into actions will motivate people to follow.
I find that there is a strong connection between the 3C’s of Agile Leadership outlined by the Agile Business Consortium and the image of the “ideal leader”. To me, it’s clear that these principles offer a holistic approach to make things happen, through communication, commitment and collaboration.
The main role of a leader is to “inspire people to give their best”. What people really want from work is to do their best and to grow and develop. The emotional relationship is what powers people giving their best. We focus too much on the rational but any rational thought starts from a subconscious belief or emotion. This is important to understand in order to be able to inspire and develop others, to make people feel valued and fairly treated.
Organisations have a responsibility to protect and nurture the wellbeing of their people, including and starting with their leaders, and where they are able to raise wellbeing they are most likely to see improvements in the performance of individuals, teams, and the organisation as a whole.
*Companies with high engagement scores improved operating income by 19.2% compared to a decline of 32.7% in those with low scores in a 12 month period (Towers Perrin). *High engagement can halve days lost through sickness (CBI)