As the digital age pressures organizations to rethink the way they design talent solutions, HR teams have begun adopting new, leaner practices already in common use in other business functions. The “agile” methodology, pioneered by software developers, is a highly iterative approach to design that relies heavily on end-user feedback. This approach can be successful in HR as well, but applying it requires functions to change not only their processes, but also their mindsets.
Most HR functions have traditionally designed HR solutions using the “waterfall” method, which includes an extensive requirement-gathering phase, after which a design team creates and implements the solution. A small group of users typically tests the solution only at the very end, shortly before wide-scale deployment.
The waterfall method (and the mindset that accompanies it) has historically served HR well because it’s ideal for an HR function aiming to solve as many employees’ problems as possible, for as long as possible. However, many HR functions are finding that their solutions aren’t as adaptable as they need to be to keep up with the rapidly-evolving demands of their end-users: i.e., employees. Employees want assurance that HR systems and processes will be personalized to fit their needs and will evolve as those needs change, but they’re also willing to supply detailed feedback to get there.
Enter the agile approach, which has gained traction thanks to its efficiency in responding to change. The workflow in an agile project draws a stark contrast from the waterfall method in that end-user feedback drives every aspect of the process. Whether an agile HR specialist is addressing issues in a payroll process, designing a new training series, or implementing a new HR information system, they collect employee feedback at every step along the way to guide their continued iteration, then continue refining products between design cycles until end-users are satisfied.
Of course, making the transition to an agile HR function and an agile mindset can be challenging. Here are six changes HR leaders can make to help embed the agile mindset in their teams:
Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck, the pioneer of mindset theory, has long argued that people’s belief in inherent, unchangeable abilities and traits holds them back from personal growth and professional development. If you don’t believe you can become good at something unless you have a natural aptitude for it, her research finds, you’re unlikely to try it, much less succeed at it. In her influential book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, first published in 2006, Dweck calls this belief the “fixed mindset,” in contrast to a “growth mindset,” which believes that abilities can be developed over time through diligent work.
Recently, Dweck teamed up with her Stanford colleague Greg Walton and Yale University psychologist Paul O’Keefe on a paper that applies the same theoretical framework to passions and interests—things we are often told to find and follow, but which Dweck and her colleagues argue are developed, not discovered. In fact, Dweck and her co-authors told the Atlantic’s Olga Khazan in an article published earlier this month, the suggestion often heard by young people to find what they love to do and then do it for a living may actually be bad advice, as it discourages them from pursuing careers that don’t elicit love at first sight. In other words, it promotes the fixed mindset:
“If passions are things found fully formed, and your job is to look around the world for your passion—it’s a crazy thought,” Walton told me. “It doesn’t reflect the way I or my students experience school, where you go to a class and have a lecture or a conversation, and you think, That’s interesting. It’s through a process of investment and development that you develop an abiding passion in a field.”
Since 2015, when Volkswagen’s emissions cheating scandal cost it billions of dollars and severely damaged its reputation, the German automaker has taken some major steps to clean house and reform its corporate culture, including several rounds of management shakeups and the resignation of its head of US operations. Late last year, VW revealed that it was making some other changes like speaking English instead of German at management conferences and creating more opportunities for women to advance to leadership roles, in an effort to bring more diversity and international perspective to its leadership.
Shifting cultural paradigms at large, legacy companies is never easy, however, and Volkswagen is no exception. In particular, the company has had a hard time convincing managers of the need to change, CEO Matthias Mueller, who took the helm in the aftermath of “dieselgate,” said on Monday. Reuters reports:
“There are definitely people who are longing for the old centralistic leadership,” Mueller said during a discussion with business representatives late on Monday. “I don’t know whether you can imagine how difficult it is to change the mindset.” Before “dieselgate”, there was an extreme deference to authority at VW and a closed-off corporate culture that some critics say may have been a factor in the cheating.