HR as Co-Creators of an Agile Organization

By Rose Bello

Summary: The pandemic has propelled organizations to think differently and swiftly. Transitioning to an agile organization is of utmost importance and developing ‘agile leaders’ isn’t enough to make that happen. Designing an agile organization means looking at the organization as a system—an interconnection of variables that when designed well, facilitates change and learning as an organization’s way of life that HR can co-create with the business leaders.

HR at the onset of the pandemic

“Challenged. Exhausted. Sad. Inspired.” These were the common responses I heard when I checked in with my friends in HR. I’m guessing that you also had your hands full thinking of ways to support your employees and business continuity. Employees’ well-being was likely at the top of your list and rightfully so. For business continuity, it’s likely that you’ve developed remote work guidelines; used the intranet as a source of information about the pandemic and the company’s state; offered essential home office accessories and broadband allowance; curated how-to materials on using video conferencing and learning platforms; and led virtual leadership engagement sessions with your employees.

And as the pandemic tested people’s resilience, the social issue triggered by George Floyd’s passing prompted organizations to reflect on its stand on inclusiveness, and once again, you had your hands full with reviewing policies and processes to ensure inclusiveness is upheld.

An invaluable opportunity for HR

HR has been at the forefront of response teams in helping businesses navigate through uncertainty. And as you do so, you may feel disappointed at times as things don’t happen as fast and efficient as you would want them to be. For example, getting approval on an interim broadband allowance or getting alignment and communicating adjustments on performance goals as it needed several approvals from your local, regional, and global offices. And you’re placed in an uncomfortable position as you could be perceived as being not as quick as employees would want you to be, but the thing is, other aspects of the organization (like a hierarchical structure or management processes) don’t enable you to act quickly. Sadly, that is not what is seen first.

But as all these things happen, as you connect with other parts of the organization, you get an invaluable opportunity to intimately know your business—its operations and management processes; what is happening in your industry, customers, and competitors; and the challenges of your employees. And you could use this information to help facilitate the necessary change in your company. There may or may not be another pandemic but there will always be another challenge or a new opportunity that will drive your organization to change, ideally, faster than your competitors. So how swiftly has your company been responding to challenges and opportunities?

Are agile leaders enough?

You’ve probably seen several articles about the importance of leadership in making organizations quick to change—that leaders need to be agile, adaptive, resilient, and innovative. Agile seems to be a top descriptor of leadership and that having agile leaders results to having agile organizations. All good and sure, leaders who are quick on their feet is important, but the proliferation of such articles could create an impression that focusing on leadership is already enough to develop an organization’s capability to change, to create an agile organization. Training leaders to think quickly and act boldly is important. But if leaders are not involved in discussing the business strategies and plans, if management processes require several approvals, if the culture has conditioned leaders for several years to just receive instructions, how can leaders think and act boldly and quickly?

Developing an organization’s agility requires looking at the company as a system—its parts and interrelationship and how it translates to how an organization behaves. At the risk of simplifying it, and by no means am I suggesting that creating an agile organization is an easy feat to accomplish, being an agile organization refers to its ability to change itself—adapt to its changing environment promptly as formal and informal structures and practices that enable change and learning, have been designed into how the company operates regularly, and so its change capability is strengthened. Change and ongoing learning seem to be an expectation and a way of life. And you’re in a prime position to help make it happen.

What HR Can Do to Help Create an Agile Organization?

Immersing yourself more and more on how to build change capability will make you view your organization and your role in a different way. You’ll work differently. You’ll inquire differently. You’ll look at your company more holistically.

But what should be looked into first?

Leverage on existing diagnostic data

Take advantage of any recent diagnostic survey you’ve done that involved feedback results on the organization’s ability and timeliness in making employees understand the company’s strategies and goals, plans, and business environment; in gathering and exchanging information and feedback; in experimenting, learning, and applying lessons learned; in making decisions and reforms. What is your organization strong at? What are its pain points?

I remember this feedback I came across as I was reviewing the results of an org diagnosis—an operator wasn’t able to attend her grandmother’s interment as her bereavement leave took too long to get approved, even if she requested it way in advance. Yes, the employee could’ve just missed one day of work, but she didn’t, as she feared a negative consequence on her performance evaluation. The leave application was a manual process that involved four approvals and is an indicator of how the company operates.

This is just one example but when complemented with other diagnostic feedback, you’ll have an image of the organization’s responsiveness in facilitating actions. You’ll have data points to share and to brainstorm with your business leaders.

Hold dialogue sessions with multifunctional teams

At this point, you are likely to be even more attuned to your company’s strategy because of your recent participation in multifunctional response teams (e.g. BCP teams). These teams may have heightened awareness of your environment—knowledge about the actions and the state of customers, suppliers, and competitors. It’s likely that these response teams talk a lot—make comparisons and create assumptions of what your company should be doing.

Facilitate a dialogue with these response teams. Gather their feedback. Formalize it. Share it with your executive team as input to reviewing your organization’s strategy. Complement this with what you know about your employees’ challenges— it becomes a rich source of feedback as input to your executive team’s review of company’s strategies. The more information you know about your environment, the more data points you can use in creating assumptions on what strategies to alter or new ones to pursue.

Take advantage of the response teams’ awareness now, their interest, and their participation. They may have had a different objective for why they were put together in the first place, but they have new perspectives now that could benefit your company. You have feedback as input to strategy and employees’ involvement as a driver of employee engagement. The more aware and involved your employees are, the more appreciative they will be of change initiatives.

In an energy company that I worked for, it used various channels of communication to let employees know the external environment and internal state of the organization— via intranet, email from the GM, townhalls, team meetings, one-on-one performance management meetings. As a result, employees were aware and understood whenever a change needed to happen.

Co-design your organization

Yes, it’s about the org’s structure that supports the strategy, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of designing organizations. But let’s talk a bit about it. As you may already know, there are many types like product-based, service, functional, and matrix. A structure that exposes many employees to its customers is beneficial to building change capability and one that can leverage existing knowledge and cultivate new ones. For example, one professional service organization that I know is structured based on services offered. There is one group that helps clients with strategy and business development (awareness of trends of various industries is high) and one focused on org diagnosis, leadership development, and HR reforms. Combining these two groups or creating a new group with members from both teams can leverage the knowledge of the specialists, develop new skills, create synergy, and develop new holistic org development services.

Equally important as getting the right organizational structure in place, is the design of processes and practices that affect change capability, several of which are within HR’s function—talent management, performance management process, reward system, learning and leadership development, culture.

Are the competencies and behaviors used in hiring and developing employees aligned with the current and future capabilities needed for strategy implementation? Is the performance management process designed to help employees truly understand the company goals and how they contribute to it? Are skills development and performance rewarded over seniority? Are the learning programs aligned to current and future needs of the individual and the company? Is there a structure that enables multifunctional collaboration so that issues are analyzed in a broader scope? Is open communication encouraged? Feedback and learning too? Does the performance management process support ongoing coaching and feedback giving such that employees learn timely?

In all of the org diagnosis survey results I’ve worked on, several focus areas were on the performance management process— for example, there was a need to cultivate a sense of autonomy and involvement of the employee in setting goals and evaluating performance; to receive timely and regular coaching and feedback; to develop leaders’ ability to understand and implement the entire performance management process—especially in using it as a platform to communicate the organization’s goals, develop employees, and to convey the link of rewards to performance. All these are important in building change capability.

Revitalize the organization with shared meaning

With all the disruptions that the pandemic caused, it also led all organizational members to share a common experience—of making adjustments and moving forward together, of experiencing a new way to balance work and personal time, of sharing tips on how to use Zoom or Microsoft Teams, of helping each other cope, of treating each other with a little bit more kindness and understanding. What do you think all these meant to your employees?

Capture this new shared experience. Capture its shared meaning. If new helpful behaviors surfaced, communicate it to everyone. Use all these to operationalize, reinforce, or revitalize your organization’s purpose and values. Use it as a leverage point to set an expectation about making change and learning as key enablers of your company’s performance and purpose.

Continue to advocate for change and learning

You could be wondering if you’d still have time to do all these change initiatives, given your other increasing deliverables. It need not be additional work; you could start reviewing the processes that you oversee. And you need not work alone. Enlist others into multifunctional task teams who will help in gathering feedback, making sense of it, and designing practical interventions aimed at building your organization’s change capability.

Simultaneous change efforts will likely happen in your company. I hope you will be part of the central group that oversees, aligns, monitors, and evaluates all the change initiatives as it will help you continue to strengthen change capability—for you and the organization.

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About the Writer:

Rose is an Organization Change and Learning Consultant and a Leadership Coach. She specializes in developing companies’ change capabilities in the following areas—culture, organization design, talent and performance management, learning, and leadership development. She operates Actualizing Possibilities—a management consulting company providing services to local and international clients.

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