Can HR Be Disruptors?

“Human resources are like natural resources; they’re often buried deep. You have to go looking for them, they’re not just lying around on the surface. You have to create the circumstances where they show themselves.”

– Sir Ken Robinson

It was a Monday afternoon when I received the invite from my manager for a meeting. A last-minute one-on-one for that afternoon. As I approached the meeting room, I noticed my manager was already there. But, so was HR. I had seen this picture enough times from both sides to know what was happening. I was about to get fired. I’ve been fired a number of times, but I’ve also done my share of firing. What goes around comes around.

This picture will be familiar with some of you as well. In fact, I would wager that for most of us, the only time we’ve interacted meaningfully with HR is when we were hired and when we left or were fired.
For many, that’s the prevailing perception of HR. On-boarding and off-boarding. “Welcome to our company” and “Best wishes on your future endeavours”.

In between, all we see is administration of our basic needs including:

  • Salary
  • Benefits
  • Employment standards
  • Performance appraisals
  • Rewards and incentives
  • Learning and development

Am I wrong?

When was the last time you had a casual coffee with someone from HR for no reason other than enjoying each other’s company?

As a people manager, I’ve worked with a variety of HR business partners. I could always count on any of them to provide timely advice and guidance on compensation policies and managing poor performance. Through it all, they always appeared objective and even-keeled. Never letting their emotions leak through. Even when I’ve been fired and my manager was sweating bullets not knowing what to say, the HR person would always maintain that monotone voice of the company. Calmly laying out my options, rights and next steps.

On the other hand, the HR people that stood out for me were the ones that always showed and shared their humanity.

Question: How can you tell if your HR department will ‘get’ Agile?

My Answer: When they’ve obliterated the word “Resources” from their department name and vocabulary.

The best name for an HR department that I’ve worked with is “People & Culture”. This name conveys two principles for me.

  1. People are individuals with feelings and desires not faceless, fungible resources.
  2. HR people play a key role in the culture of the company.

I wish more HR departments could be like this. It would make our purpose as Agile practitioners so much more impactful. How many times have you wondered,

We’re changing the way people work and interact. So, why isn’t HR more interested in what we’re doing?

Is there hope for increased engagement from HR? I believe there is for three reasons.

First, HR thought leader Dave Ulrich is encouraging HR professionals to think differently about their role and contributions. In his book “HR from the Outside In”, Ulrich notes several waves of HR evolution.

HR Waves

Ulrich summarizes each wave as follows:

  • Wave 1: “HR effectiveness is doing more with less… HR credibility comes from flawless administration of transactions.
  • Wave 2: “HR effectiveness is from innovating and integrating HR practices… HR credibility derives from delivering best practices.
  • Wave 3: “HR effectiveness creates a line of sight between business strategy and HR actions… HR credibility comes from being at the table to engage in strategic conversations.
  • Wave 4: “HR effectiveness will show up in customer share, investor confidence, and community reputation… HR credibility will be drawn from those outside the company as well as from those inside.

In the first wave, HR is an internal service provider delivering administrative transactions involving people such as on-boarding, employment standards compliance and off-boarding. This is what most of us think of when we think of HR. What’s less visible to most of us is how HR has evolved beyond an “administrative and transactional utility” to being a valued strategic contributor with a seat at the executive table. What I’m really excited about are the possibilities with the latest wave – what Ulrich calls “HR Outside-In”. In this wave, HR will focus its role and contributions on the company’s customers including thinking horizontally across silos to do what’s best for customers. Sounds a lot like our purpose as Agile practitioners doesn’t it?

Second, a group of HR professionals got together to author the Agile Manifesto for HR. Here are the values they espouse,

  1. Collaborative networks over hierarchical structures
  2. Transparency over secrecy
  3. Adaptability over prescriptiveness
  4. Inspiration and engagement over management and retention
  5. Intrinsic motivation over extrinsic rewards
  6. Ambition over obligation

My favourite is the value #2 – Transparency over secrecy.

Third, I recently attended an amazing HR event called DisruptHR Ottawa – The Rebellious Future of HR. Over 400 HR professionals gathered for good food, an open bar and to listen to 18 awesome speakers from all walks of life. The speakers each had 20 slides, 15 seconds per slide for a total of 5 minutes to wow the crowd. Think TED Talks lightning-style. The talks created an infectious level of high energy in the crowd. Many had creative titles including,

  • “Administering CPR. Keeping the Employee Voice Alive.”
  • “Busy is Overrated”
  • “Your Acting Sucks”
  • “Throwing Manure At Flowers Doesn’t Make Them Grow”

There was nothing monotone about the audience. The excitement was authentic, palpable and very human.

So, how could we amp up our engagement with HR?

What if we were to start with coffee and questions?

Here’s a sample list of questions that I’ve heard over the last little while. Questions bubbling up from Agile ecosystems. Questions that would pique the interest of any HR professional.

  • What training do people leaders in Agile environments need?
  • How do managers assess and evaluate Scrum team members?
  • How do you tell the CTO that he’s a lousy interviewer?
  • How can team members learn to give and receive feedback with each other?
  • How can team members learn to negotiate with each other?
  • Should the members of a Scrum team report to different functional managers or to a single cross-functional manager?

How would this compare with your list of questions?

I look forward to the day when my colleagues on “The Team formerly known as HR” engage heart and soul in pulling and offering answers to these questions.

Some have already started. Perhaps they were among the audience at DisruptHR.

In the meantime, for the rest, we can start by pushing and sharing our questions with them over a latte, cappuccino, espresso or tea. Maybe we’ll find some budding disruptors amongst them.

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