Agile HR: Fables and Fairy Tales

scrum-pigs-chickensWho doesn’t love a good fairy tale or fable?

As a child I had an affinity for Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Princess and the Pea” and Aesop’s “The Ant and the Grasshopper” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” Well maybe not that last one. My mother, on the other hand, liked to quote it a lot.

Then when I grew up and started to hang out with other HR ladies everyone seemed to love business fables like “Who Moved My Cheese” and “FISH! Philosophy.” I remember going to a conference/seminar where we tossed stuffed fish around the room. Yeah. Really.

But there’s another business fable – a cliché by now – that I’ve always enjoyed:

The Pig and the Chicken

A Pig and a Chicken are walking down the road.

The Chicken says: “Hey Pig, I was thinking we should open a restaurant!”

The Pig replies: “Hmm, maybe, what would we call it?”

The Chicken responds: “How about ‘ham-n-eggs’?”

The Pig thinks for a moment and says: “No thanks. I’d be committed, but you’d only be involved.”

It’s a fable often trotted out in the world of software development when teams implement the agile software development methodology. (note: the Scrum Guide officially discontinued the use of this analogy in 2011. I don’t care…I still like it).

Even if you don’t work in the IT world you may have heard of scrum; a framework that helps people and teams work through a complex project. Or, perhaps, you’re a rugby fan who likes the correlation between a scrum half (#9) who directs traffic and links the forwards to the backs, and the scrum master (development world) who coaches and coordinates and connects team members to ensure collaboration.

For me it’s always begged the question…can HR professionals play rugby? OK…I jest. But can HR pros be agile, fast and flexible? Can they “think” this way?

  • Roll out a product (an HR initiative) in incremental stages
  • Test it
  • Improve it
  • Repeat the process for continuous improvement

Are HR professionals willing to be the pig and sacrifice in their entirety? Seek improvement in order to work themselves out of their jobs? Do HR so well that the need for redundancy and layer-upon-layer of HR positions are eliminated? Outsource when it makes sense? Pass responsibilities on and empower both managers AND employees? Sacrifice unnecessary HR bureaucrats in order to allow the business to operate more effectively?

Or is that, perhaps, a fairy tale?


Jurassic World: Candidates Loose in the Theme Park

jurassic-world-chris-pratt-dinosaur-whispererAmidst all the information we read and see about the death of the resume and candidates being able to apply with the one-click sharing of a social profile here in Jurassic the real World job seekers encounter some decidedly archaic practices.

A friend recently alerted me to an organization’s career site and encouraged me to click the “Apply Online” button.
Doing so brought up a non-fillable 4 page PDF that needed to be printed out and completed with a pen. Or a typewriter I imagine; if anyone can actually find a typewriter in 2015.

I decided it might be fun to test this out to see if, perhaps, it might be a shorter or more pleasant process than some of the actual online applications with which employers torture applicants.

It was not.

Once I moved past the basics (name, address, phone, email address) I was asked for:

  • Spouse’s name
  • Spouse’s Employer and Occupation
  • If I own my home or rent
  • The year and make of my car
  • If I financed my education and, if so, what percent
  • Hobbies, interests and sports
  • My current (employer-provided) benefits and how much I contribute to the cost
  • How many scheduled days of work (not vacation) I have missed in the past 2 years
  • My educational goals for the next 5 years
  • 3 things I would change at my current job
  • My greatest strength
  • My greatest weakness
  • The primary reason I’ve accepted positions in the past and what must be offered to motivate a career change
  • 3 adjectives that describe me   –    (1) Annoyed (2) With (3) This
  • Words-per-minute speeds for typing, shorthand and 10-Key
  • Other companies with whom I have interviewed (space for five)
  • Other resumes I have mailed (space for five)


Look, I’m not trying to shame this particular company. Well…maybe a little; although you notice I’m not naming names. I will, however, let you know that this team of recruiters touts its specialized and comprehensive recruiting and screening process. For, believe it or not, technical positions.

But this, my friends, is the reality for numerous job seekers in small towns and big cities the world over.

When I get to contemplating such things I wonder why some organizations and recruiting teams continue to operate in such a manner?

Are they not paying any attention to research, insight and trends to get an understanding of how job seekers expect to apply for jobs in the year 2015? Do they not realize there are numerous inexpensive and easy to use cloud-based Applicant Tracking Systems in the market that will allow them to ditch the PDF application form? Do they honestly think it’s wise to gather, on an ‘official’ document, a candidate’s marital status? Do they even worry about the potentially stellar candidates who are dropping off as soon as they click “Apply Online” and are faced with this monstrosity of an application?

Do they just…not care?

So many questions. So many mysteries.


Here’s What Talent Agility Looks Like

rubber bandsMary managed a small team consisting of 3 employees. The positions they held were coveted jobs in a small but well-known company. With few exceptions these employees tended to be entry-level professionals who used these jobs to launch their careers – ultimately moving on to bigger and better things at other organizations. Even though salaries were below-market and there was limited career mobility due to the size of the organization, morale was high and the employment experience enjoyable. Tenure for these positions was in the range of 18 months or so which meant, as you can imagine, just about the time an employee became extremely proficient and productive, s/he opted to move on for another opportunity.

The department had numerous and varied accountabilities and deliverables over the course of any given year but core responsibilities could be boiled down to 6 primary areas:


  1. Make the widgets
  2. Market the widgets
  3. Sell the widgets
  4. Invoice for the widgets
  5. Ship the widgets
  6. Service the widgets

While all 3 team members needed to have some familiarity with all duties, the job descriptions looked like this for years:

  • Employee A: Responsible for 1 and 2
  • Employee B: Responsible for 3 and 4
  • Employee C: Responsible for 5 and 6

Stuff got done.

But then, one day, both Employees A and B tendered their resignations. The two-week countdown began as Mary realized it was going to be her and Employee C (who had been with the company for 6 months) running the show for the foreseeable future.

Initially Mary approached the hiring process as most managers (and HR professionals) do: she resurrected Job Descriptions A and B and set a course to hire employees who would perform function 1, 2, 3 and 4. After all, she reasoned, Employee C was slaying all the dragons with functions 5 and 6.

But then she stopped. Perhaps, she thought, if I provide a bit more variety and the chance for staff members to contribute in different ways, we’ll not only get the work done but reap the benefits of employees staying for longer periods because they’re continually learning and exploring. Maybe if they have the chance to do something new – something that builds on what they already know – we’ll all benefit.

So she talked to Employee C (who for 6 months had been responsible for shipping and servicing the widgets) and asked her “what would you like to do? What do you want to learn? What functional areas interest you?” Employee C said “I’ve always wanted to market and sell the widgets but I know those tasks are assigned to two different jobs. So I’m not sure what we can do.” 

But I’m sure you’ve guessed what they did.

Mary decided to be much more fluid in her operational model; versatility was in and rigidity was out. Rather than creating positions and praying-and-hoping that employees would stay long enough to develop deep-deep DEEP expertise she opted for a new model that encouraged the development of skills and the need for employees to tackle new challenges. She adopted a high-touch and constantly evolving approach that provided for task rotation every 6 months; this not only kept team members interested and engaged but insured cross training in a fully team focused environment.

While the jobs continued to be ones that young professionals used to merely launch their long-term careers tenure for the department increased from 18 months to close to 3 years.

I call that talent agility. I call that winning the battle.

After all…sometimes the “war for talent” is waged within.


Improve the system. Don’t overcomplicate it.

puzzle piecesI hate to cook. I can easily spend hours watching Giada or Ina or any other number of folks on The Food Network but will do anything and everything to stay out of the kitchen myself.

Fortunately Mr. S. not only enjoys cooking but does a damn fine job. While I lounge on the sofa and he rattles the pots and pans I remind myself, while refusing to feel too guilty, that I’m doing so because too many cooks spoil the broth.

After all, if I jump in to “help” I may merely end up adding unnecessary steps and confusion. My advice on how to stir the roux or in what order to chop and dice the vegetables may just complicate the matter. Right?

There’s also a lesson in there for HR.

How so you ask?

In HR we’re known for our propensity to create convoluted byzantine procedures for the simplest things. We add layers to processes without evaluating each component to determine necessity. Sometimes it’s because we see a predicament where none exists. Other times we add complexity in an attempt to demonstrate our worth and prove that we’re needed.

We stir the pot, add a pinch of this, toss in a dash of that…and spoil the broth.

When mired in a system rather than taking a step back and determining if more is better we tend to add (rather than subtract) in a misguided attempt to fix or clarify. A position requisition approval suddenly requires 5 signatures. Our onboarding process expands from one based on ease, simplicity, and common sense to one with flowcharts and multiple checklists.

Somehow, in the midst of all this, we lose sight of our end-users; employees, managers, candidates and other stakeholders. We forget to wonder if they want more for the sake of more or if, perhaps, they would prefer to receive less for better.

We need to stop, step back, and breathe. I like to evaluate every action, process or plan through the lens of continuous improvement by thinking in terms of the Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) Cycle (also known as the Deming Cycle after W. Edwards Deming).

  • Plan: identify a goal or purpose, formulate your theory, define the metrics to measure success and put a plan into action
  • Do: Implement the components of your plan
  • Study: Monitor outcomes to test the plan’s validity; look for signs of progress and success while also watching for problems and areas for improvement
  • Act: Bring together the learning acquired from the process and use that to adjust the goal, methods or even the theory

Adding approval steps to your procurement process for contract staff? Define the why (Plan), try it out (Do) and check to see if it’s working (Study). But don’t get stuck in study mode for months or years; monitor, evaluate and adjust quickly. Act. Don’t hesitate to act. That’s important.

Then repeat. Over and over.

This doesn’t require a chartered project team with spreadsheets, charts and dashboards. You can start thinking this way for every action you take and for every process you touch.

I once worked with an organization where the PTO approval process went like this: (1) employee completed PTO request to schedule a day off (2) routed to their manager for approval (3) routed to 2nd level manager for approval (4) routed to HR Department for approval (5) employee received approval/denial from HR Department to schedule the PTO day

What the what? Why in the world was the HR Lady part of this process? Why, for that matter, was the 2nd level manager getting looped in to this? Surely, I asked, managers had the ability to plan and coordinate scheduling for their own departments? Upon investigation I found, as is often the case, this process had steps added over time for reasons ranging from “Acme Corp does it this way and they run a tight ship” to “remember that one time when Joe took PTO time and he didn’t have a sufficient PTO balance?”


Improving something does not include adding additional intricacies or replicating what we’ve heard is a “best practice” at another organization.

Let’s stop overcomplicating everything.

Let’s review…think…improve.

Let’s refuse to get bogged down in the bullshit.


“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

Leonardo da Vinci


Guess What HR? You Don’t “Hire & Fire”

MalcolmLife2If you work in human resources what follows is a pretty common exchange.

Random Guy You Just Met: “What do you do?”

You: “I work in human resources.”

RGYJM: “Oh. So you hire and fire.”


Right? Am I right? If I had a nickel…. well, you know the rest.

So how do you respond to RGYJM? I surely hope you don’t answer “Yup. That is, indeed, what I do.”

I’ve got a bit of news for you my dear HR professional (or HR student looking to enter human resources) – unless the candidate or employee in question is your direct report you are not the one hiring or firing.

So why does this continue to be the primary concept of HR in Joe Public’s brain? Why is this the automatic go-to-thought of the average dude on the street when he thinks about what his company’s HR lady does?

I mean really… this is what is said all the time. I’ve had this phrase tossed at me hundred – no…thousands – of times over the course of my professional career. Never once did a RGIJM say “Oh! So you’re a partner in strategy execution and are responsible for delivering results in all areas related to the human capital of the organization.”

Nope. Not once.

  • CEO of a local (large) insurance agency who I met at a networking event: “Oh. You hire and fire.”
  • Regional Manager of a national retail chain deployed to town for a start-up who I sat next to at a luncheon: “Oh. You hire and fire.”
  • My mother: “Oh. You hire and fire.”

Oh mom.

There are lots of reasons folks the world over seem to think HR hires and fires. It’s Jeff Goldblum/Dr. Ian Malcolm writing a manifesto on Chaos Theory in a weird alternate HR universe:

  • Company owner/CEO puts pompous HR goon in charge of all employee matters. This is often memorialized in job descriptions and company handbooks and, to a lesser extent, in SOPs.
  • Domineering HR practitioner assumes complete control over all actions and activities that should be in the domain of managers; it’s at this stage that Carol in HR decides she will be the one issuing PIPs to transgressing employees rather than letting that responsibility reside with the managers.
  • In an attempt to bring order back to their domains managers assert their rights and attempt to gain control of hiring, performance management, and terminations for their own staff members. Citing policies, regulations, and frightening edicts from various-and-assorted governmental agencies, Carol denies their request with a firm and final “no.” (note: ever mindful of the fact that she went into HR because she’s a ‘people-person,’ Carol presents this by saying “I’m here to help you. Let me assist.”).
  • Carol develops more convoluted and cumbersome processes designed to preserve her own job whilst simultaneously relegating managers to minion status.
  • Employees, managers and leaders began to believe that nothing related to hiring, compensation or culling-the-deadwood could ever be accomplished without the totalitarian rule of Carol and her crew.

And this is repeated over and over in organization after organization as people continue to ask (and try to answer) “what does HR do?”

Until and unless we break this cycle we will never – I repeat never – have someone think HR is a partner in strategy execution. Or change management. Or whatever. HR will forever be considered the “hire and fire” department.

Oh…and the “people who enroll us in our benefits” department.

But that’s a post for another day.


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