The move towards Agile

Agile methodologies are transforming management and organisations. It involves new values, principles, practices and processes and are a radical alternative to command-and-control style management.

As Pia-Maria Thoren says in Agile People: “Agile is a way of moving forward and creating value. It’s a mentality that allows people and groups to meet challenges, learn quickly, and respond to change. It’s a different and new way of managing teams, individuals, projects, and development… Work is completed in small batches of sprints, and then evaluated and tested. The method is collaborative and allows errors to be fixed or feedback to be taken into consideration as you move forward.” 

Originating in the software development world Agile is now spreading across a broad range of industries, functions and disciplines, including HR. Companies such as GE, Johnson and Johnson, John Deere, Gap, Cigna, P&G and even the big four accounting firms are working hard to become Agile organisations.

What does it really mean to be an Agile organisation?

The difference between traditional and Agile organisations can be summarised as follow:

In a Harvard Business Review article: Embracing Agile; Rigby, Sutherland and Takeuchi propose six crucial practices that leaders should adopt if they want to introduce and capitalise on Agile:

1. Learn how Agile really works 2. Understand where Agile DO and DO NOT work (see below) 3. Start small and let the word spread 4. Allow “master” teams to customise their practices 5. Practice Agile at the top 6. Destroy the barriers to Agile behaviours.

The bottom line is Agile is about people over procedure and tools…. It’s about responding to change rather than following a plan… Working prototypes over excessive documents… Customer collaboration as opposed to rigid contracts.

What are the right conditions for adopting an Agile culture?

Bain & Co. suggest the following guidelines: 

HR and Agile

In order to change from a traditional to an Agile organisation, HR has to play a critical role. That calls for redefining and instilling an Agile culture, reorganising into self-directed Agile teams, focusing on collaboration and innovation, being customer-centric, transforming performance reviews and reward systems, focusing on developing knowledge workers and moving towards a continuous learning culture. 

It also necessitates the training of leaders at all levels of a company to act as hands-on coaches, not managers. Also, it involves focusing on intrinsic motivation as opposed to extrinsic. As Daniel Pink shows, once people are paid sufficiently, knowledge workers are motivated by autonomy, mastery and purpose.

The diagram below summarises the differences between a traditional approach to HR versus an agile approach:

The new disruptive world calls for quick change, innovation, experimentation and therefor new organisational structures and work practices. In other words, the Agile way. In making this transformation and maintaining it, HR needs to practice Agile throughout its various functions. The alternative? HR as a function will become obsolete.

We at KR are very excited to have secured international author and Agile expert, Pia-Maria Thoren, to host an Agile Certification Workshop on 15 and 16 November in Cape Town. Become one of the first people in the world to hold the ICAgile Certified Professional – Agile Talent (ICP-TAL) Certification - learn about this workshop here.

In Thoren’s latest book she challenges the role of HR in organisations and 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.


Cappelli, P., & Tavis, A. (2018, March-April). HR Goes Agile. Harvard Business Review, 46-52. Darrell K. Rigby, j. S. (2016). Embracing Agile: How to transform the process that's transforming management. HRB.Org, 41-48. Rigby, D. K., Sutherland, J., & Noble, A. (2018). Agile At Scale: How to go from a few teams fo hundreds. Harvard Business Review, 88-96. Thoren, P.M. (2018). Agile People: A Radical approval for HR Managers. Sweden: Lioncrest & Knowledge Resources South Africa .

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