Want to be more agile? PeopleOps is the key

Agility is essential in today’s evolving business environment. Position your organization for success by implementing a PeopleOps strategy
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Skill shortages and high turnover rates have made IT organizations realize that employees cannot be treated as easily replaceable resources. And Gen Z workers refuse to be treated as a commodity: they value work-life balance much more than previous generations, often even above pay. They also seek agency and expect to be listened to.

As the business environment becomes more unpredictable and the need for rapid innovation expands, organizations are seeking ways to increase their agility, including changing their culture and how they treat employees. They are making sure that the people and skills they need are in place when they are needed.

[ Also read Motivate your IT team using this leadership advice. ]

HR practices are also transforming, and agility is on the radar screen. Harvard Business Review reported that the use of agile is expanding beyond tech and that Fortune 50 companies’ HR departments are adopting agile approaches. In short, a new people-focused, agile approach is replacing traditional HR.

What is PeopleOps?

Agile HR is strategic, forward-looking, cross-functional, results-driven, collaborative, and technology-enabled. It embraces new approaches for a hybrid workforce and reimagines recruiting, how teams work, performance management, compensation, training and development, and especially employee retention strategies.

Agile HR is coming to be referred to as a People function, or a PeopleOps function, to differentiate it from traditional HR and to emphasize its increased focus on people as individuals rather than faceless resources.

To be successful, IT leadership should collaborate with the People function to:

  • Define and create the target culture, including recognizing leaders among staff
  • Implement practices and incentives to encourage engagement, performance, retention, and other desired behaviors
  • Balance short-term and long-term ways of applying and growing people, respectively
  • Encourage people to stay after you have invested in them, including identifying career paths
  • Provide coaching for work skills and leadership, including effective leadership styles such as transformational leadership

How to implement Agile HR

Agility is not a model, process, or framework. Agility is a byproduct of a constructive culture, appreciative communication, as-needed collaboration across functions, and effective behaviors.

Leadership is an essential element at all levels, from teams up to the C-level. Your People function needs to be versed in Leadership theory so they can help managers define strategies and resources that improve leadership at all levels.

Most managers, coaches, and team leaders have had limited training on leadership beyond the occasional one-day seminar. But leadership is a complex topic, and leadership style is arguably the highest source of effective leverage.

Leadership is a complex topic, and leadership style is arguably the highest source of effective leverage.

In their book Accelerate, authors Nicole Forsgren, Jez Humble, and Gene Kim present a statistical analysis of which methods make tech companies effective. They found that “high-performing teams reported having leaders with the strongest behaviors across all dimensions: vision, inspirational communication, intellectual stimulation, supportive leadership, and personal recognition.”

The leadership traits they describe are often referred to as transformational leadership. This is consistent with what Google has found and with what Kotter reported in his groundbreaking research.

Your leaders, at all levels, need to internalize and perfect leadership approaches. That requires experience, but experience greatly benefits from theory that helps leaders interpret their experiences.

Having a leadership coach is also beneficial – ideally, someone who has both leadership knowledge and experience and can guide you to think about things critically. A People function can help leaders by explaining why leadership knowledge is important, providing learning resources, and providing access to leadership coaches.

It’s also helpful for the People function to have training and a strong understanding of business strategy. This helps the People function to grasp business issues: Since maintaining an effective workforce is a key strategic enabler today, people and business strategies must be integrated. That means having deep discussions about strategy, in which the People strategy is treated as a component of the overall business strategy.

For example, if your company plans to enter an adjacent market to leverage existing customer relationships but that new market is very competitive, you can’t afford to launch a product that is poorly received, nor can you wait too long because the market opportunity might be lost. Having the right people in place is a critical precondition. Planning for people must start as soon as planning for the new product opportunity starts. You should not treat these as two separate issues.

The benefits of a more holistic approach to people are myriad: improved team and overall performance, higher morale, increased retention, and greater agility. Agility increases because a holistic approach helps to ensure that the people and skills are in place when they are needed, so the organization is not forced to recruit when the need arises.

Decision-making also improves because people are more engaged. If senior leadership partners with the People function effectively, leadership will improve because they have a better understanding of the organization’s people and needs. Stronger leadership leads to higher engagement and more effective collaboration. This has a ripple effect on decision quality, engagement, and performance measures like cycle time and product quality.

[ Leading CIOs are reimagining the nature of work while strengthening organizational resilience. Learn 4 key digital transformation leadership priorities in a new report from Harvard Business Review Analytic Services. ]

Cliff is Managing Partner of Agile 2 Academy. He co-founded the Agile 2 movement (agile2.net). He is a consultant who has long focused on combining Agile, organizational culture, and DevOps. He has been a DevOps trainer for O'Reilly Online and is a DevOps and Agile subject matter expert.
Stephen Villaescusa is a Partner of Agile 2 Academy. He is an experienced consultant, trainer, coach, and business development executive. For nearly 40 years, he has led Continuous Improvement, Supplier Improvement Lean, Six Sigma, and other transformation initiatives with hundreds of companies worldwide.