Are You Ready for an Agile Future at Work?

An Agile Organization Embraces Change and Continuous Improvement

Sprinting Employee

sesame / Getty Images

Agile, nimble, and resilient are words that describe the people you want to hire, retain, and develop in the future. They describe the organizational cultures that will thrive in times of intensely competitive, rapidly changing markets, customers, products, delivery systems, and services.

These words describe you if you value your career and your contribution to the competitiveness and success of your organization.

What Is an Agile Organization?

An agile or change-ready organization is an organization that can quickly adapt to changing circumstances; it is ready for anything. It can respond instantaneously to changing customer demands. The agile organization innovates rapidly and immediately tailors products and services to new customer needs.

It shares information with suppliers and customers in unprecedented ways. The agile organization integrates employees, contractors, customers, and suppliers to share knowledge and skills.

Examples of Agile in Workplaces

In a healthcare center, agile might mean scheduling same-day appointments for all patients who want them. In a manufacturing company, one basic product is shipped 10 different ways to match how the customer uses the product when it is received.

In an HR office, a temporary help company representative might work at your site to screen, interview, and hire employees. Your employees can enter benefit information and changes directly into a website that is provided by the company to whom you’ve outsourced benefits management.

In a manufacturing company, you might go to a supplier to participate in a kanban (continuous improvement) event to improve the work process that delivers your raw materials.

In an insurance company, all independent brokers, who sell your products, might enter and have access to all information in a networked database. In a bank, every front-line employee is cross-trained to do every customer service function including accepting deposits, doing loan application reviews, and investments in certificates of deposit.

Human Resources and Agility

Think about this world. Is your organization already on this path? Or, do you need to help nudge it in this direction? Think about the people who will work most successfully in this environment.

As an HR professional, how do you ensure that your organization can attract and retain resilient, agile, nimble, adaptive people?

Beyond managing change, this article will begin to explore how you can help your current employees develop this capacity. We'll take a look at the work environment, organization, and climate that will enable you to contribute to the workforce needed for the future.

Richard A. Shafer, Associate Dean and Executive Director of the Center for Leadership in Dynamic Organizations at Cornell University's Johnson Graduate School of Management, challenged traditional HR organizations and structures. He says:

"This move toward agility will create a new role for the HR function. In many organizations, existing HR systems are major impediments to creating agile workforces. For the most part, HR systems are designed to reduce variability and to standardize behavior, not to promote flexibility and adaptive behavior."

He also predicts that HR organizations will become smaller. “Hiring criteria and processes will be altered to reflect agile attributes… Job descriptions will be eliminated and compensation systems redesigned to pay relatively more for enterprise-wide results and relatively less for individual outcomes.”

As a professional, your job is to create an organization that constantly builds its capacity by building the capacity of the people you employ.

Management In an Agile Organization

Multiple layers of management that separate people from information, customers, and the ability to make knowledgeable decisions won’t work in your agile future. Neither will people who want to do one job, make limited decisions, take no risks, and pass each challenge to their supervisor.

As a manager in the desired environment, every time you make a decision that could be made by the individual who knows the proximity to the situation, and the need, you deprive that person of the opportunity to grow. You destroy employee empowerment.

In this environment, direction and focus is provided by leaders who drive and communicate the organization’s strategic vision throughout the workplace, daily, incessantly, and consistently. People internalize this vision and perform their work to maximize their attainment.

Furthermore, if you are still focused on meeting customer needs by providing a quality product, on time, that meets requirements, for a price your customer is willing to pay, you are lagging behind the learning curve.

According to Daryl R. Conner, CEO of ODR, Inc., “The defining moment for customer service will be not when established needs are expressed, but will be when the unexpected requirement materializes overnight."

Conner cites three critical characteristics of the nimble organization. These organizations:

1. Hire only agile employees. Conner believes that whoever is on your team is more important than how the team is structured or its assignment.

“When staffing your organization for nimbleness,” he says, “80 percent of your resources should be directed toward hiring people already prone towards the desired attributes, and then training and coaching them to expand their capabilities even more. No more than 20 percent of your resources should be allocated to assisting those who say they are willing to work against their instincts and biases and try to develop completely new propensities…” to become nimble and resilient.

2. Understand the interaction of control and resilience. When change is introduced, it is typically better handled by resilient people. It is better integrated by people who are used to constant change, and who are not taken by surprise by the announcement or request.

3. Build a core competency around handling ambiguity. People who handle change most effectively recognize that change can be scary, perhaps unpleasant and that it always requires something different from them. Despite this, they continue to rise to the occasion and effectively perform their job responsibilities.

HR's Contribution to Agility and Managers Doing the HR Function

The contribution of the HR function to the hiring and development of agile, nimble, resilient people is critical. You design or administer most organizational systems that contribute to agility.

  • Create selection, testing and hiring criteria that identify diverse, resilient, nimble people.
  • Provide orientation that emphasizes the organization's vision and expectations for agility.
  • Assist, and coach leaders to communicate the vision, and design a work environment that removes barriers, de-emphasizes hierarchical control, emphasizes empowerment, and puts people directly into contact with customers and suppliers.
  • Create flexible job descriptions that change regularly to meet organization needs. Consider using a job plan approach, so employees are in charge of monitoring their core job functions and goals.
  • Provide opportunities for people to work on cross-functional, even virtual, teams, that solve a problem or approach a new opportunity.
  • Create an environment in which diverse ideas, training, and education that develop individual capacity, and reading are the norm.
  • Hold people accountable for their results. There are consequences for met and unmet goals.
  • Push decision-making down, across, and throughout the organization, so people are not waiting for decisions before taking action.
  • Design a feedback system that provides ongoing, daily feedback, so people always know how they are doing. Invest the time to create a competency-based, individually planned and negotiated, results-based performance feedback system. Eliminate the traditional performance review.
  • Reward people who produce results that have a wide-ranging impact on the organization. Reward results and impact, not longevity or seniority. Reward at least quarterly. Consider sharing profits.
  • Base promotions on contribution and impact.
  • Encourage intelligent risk-taking and open discussion, and even some conflict over diverse ideas and viewpoints. Avoid groupthink to maintain relationships.
  • Coach managers to handle their own people issues, instead of handling them for them. You build their capability and thus that of your organization as a whole.

HR Benefits From Their Contribution to Agility

The rewards for the HR manager who builds this workforce and work environment are immense. You directly impact the organization’s bottom line and can expect to influence the overall strategic vision. You are valued on a par with the people who manage line functions.

The HR world is changing. In a job description for an HR Director in a Detroit, Michigan paper, it stated that HR traditionalists who viewed their work as administration and policymaking need not apply.

The company wanted applications only from candidates willing and able to advise the corporation at the highest, most important strategic level. Are you ready to take your place at this table? The future is now for all those willing to apply.

Article Sources

  1. Shafer, Richard A. "HR Magazine." Volume 44, No. 11. Accessed March 30, 2020.

  2. Conner, Daryl R. "How to Create a Nimble Organization," published in the "National Productivity Review" (Autumn, 1998). Accessed Nov. 5, 2004.