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Taking cover in Brussels Agile Tour 2014


Last week, I spoke at the Brussels Agile Tour 2014. It was an impressive event with great organisation and a few great things that should be kept as traditions. Firstly, the speaker teaser to introduce their topics is a really fun way for every one to decide which session to go to. Some of the teasers are so funny that I thought, I’d just cancel my session and go attend theirs. Secondly, I like the fact that we use our name tags to provide feedback. It’s a great to recycle and return the badges. I never know what to do with mine from all the different events. Finally, I enjoyed the pace. 30mins break in between has provided opportunities to exchange and catch up if previous sessions overrun. Bravo Team Brussels. #atbru

My session was the grave yard slot of 2pm. I was wondering if I’ll be speaking to a sleepy crowd or none at all. (The other sessions at 2pm sounded really interesting!) And I was greatly humbled with the presence of senior agilists and long time practitioners like Pierre, Yves, Jurgen, Patrick and others. (See Pierre’s blog on the event.)

It was a lively debate and I was challenged and also inspired. It was not easy and there were moments when I wanted to run for cover. But through all these, I deepened in my convictions and matured in my thinking on the topic of HR and Agile.

Agile is a culture but the building blocks of culture are principles. 

I used an example of a board game to explain agile to people new to agile. There is an objective to the board game and in designing the board game, we have rules to help us achieve that. Badly designed games have rules that conflict and not fun to play with. Great games have rules to promote the objective. Rules in agile world are the various tools we use. We have daily stand ups because that helps in collaboration. It’s well and good to say “Individual & interactions over tools and process”. If we don’t have events to promote interactions, then we leave this to chance. We talk about short release cycles and sprints because these increase the frequency of collaboration with our clients. It might not have been designed as such but without sprint planning and release cycles, clients collaboration will be up to vigilance of teams to seek communication. Stephen R. Covey says that habits need to be cultivated. I think of agile like wanting to be lean and fit. It requires exercise but if I don’t develop a healthy habit of exercising and eating right, then wanting to be lean and fit is a wish with no commitment.

“… values govern people’s behavior, but principles ultimately determine the consequences.” Stephen R. Covey

Organisation & HR is the set up of players

One of the biggest debate in the session is about competences and job descriptions. It’s a hard one to advocate because so many of us have been burnt by this. There is a legacy hatred towards people limiting our capabilities and using HR tools for that. Opponents of these will say, they are limiting and inaccurate. It creates boxes and people are not things to slotted into boxes. Especially in agile where auto-organisation and team work is a mantra. I’m in change management so my take on this is about point of reference and fair process. There are roles to play and agile falls apart if the roles are not taken care of. There is a concept of Forming, Storming, Norming et Performing (noted in Pierre’s blog). That is often used in team building and set up. For me a job description list out the possible things the person should be doing and the team will work it out and probably trade some of the responsibilities but the key function does not change. And in using it as part of change management discussions, it promotes involvement and facilitate discussion. In a high level of consciousness (Peter Moreno – who presented enneagramme –  puts it nicely), we probably don’t need these anymore. That is at performing stage. Personally, in the case study I presented, the job descriptions was mostly used in discussion and setting up the teams and recruiting. After that, I don’t think we ever refer to it anymore.

Competences however is another matter. I’ve advocated hiring by competencies AND potential rather than qualifications. And I’ve advocated hiring a super team and not a superman. If agile’s final mantra is responding to change and it’s principle in continuous improvement and seeking excellence, then personal development has to be an individual mindset and mantra too. I wasn’t very elegant in my explanation on competences vs skills. Competences is about behaviour, skills is about knowledge. We tend to hire by knowledge. Have you worked in this industry and this function? Competence will be about “Have you worked in this type of environment and how do you manage this situation?”

This is where I am convinced. We cannot let go of human resources practice because letting that go is letting down the human aspect of work. AND we cannot continue as we do today in human resources practice. Continuing to do so is the very definition of insanity and failure. HR needs to revolutionise in the way we operate and keep up with times. We have to unleash human potential and not limit human development. If anything, we need a spotlight on HR and forced through change.

Individual coaching is the 3rd pillar of a 3 prong approach

This is where I have developed in my thinking. I learnt so much in Peter Moreno’s presentation on enneagramme. He talked about the law of the 3. And I thought, yes, that’s it. In agile adoption, we have agile coaches to cultivate the agile practices. I also believed that we need organisation and HR for the structure and hiring and finally individual coaching to help in the personal transition. The most common is the obstacle of “giving control”.  A 3 prong approach will ensure the ways of working are in place, the people are in place and the heart is in place. In my case study, I had worked with an agile coach as the organisation and HR expert to coach in set up and work with HR. But I’ve always felt that we needed a coach to help the people overcome their own fears and queries. I am convinced of this but my articulation is at its infancy.

As Pierre says in his blog, we have work to do.

So for now, I ask my colleagues in agile to keep an open mind and an open heart. Don’t treat HR like enemies but think of us as willing comrades. I’ll admit there are not many of us yet across the river. But with help, we can bring more to us. I’ll put on my change management hat and say, it’s like reversi. The pieces are there, just waiting to be converted to white. The first step is conversation.

The link to my presentation: http://www.slideshare.net/JasChong/agile-tour-v-english

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HR Transformation – Improvements Just Won’t Do It


Dali Atomicus

Photography by Mike Stimpson. Dali Atomicus.

“When you ask a person to jump, his attention is mostly directed toward the act of jumping, and the mask falls, so that the real person appears.” Philippe Halsman

I don’t know of any young people who wants to be in Human Resources. Then again, I don’t know all the young people in the world. I don’t know of many companies who have Chief HR or People officer. The again I don’t know all the companies in the world. So, is this indicative of HR today? That our young people are lacking aspirations in this profession and companies do not reply include HR in management boards? 

Management committees and boards today are typically made up of CEO, CFO, CIO/CTO, sometimes COO and CMO. They advocate for different interests of the company. The CEO is concern with profits and growth of the company. A CFO on cash and financial stability and investments. CIO/CTO looks at technology, infrastructure and innovation in these areas. COO considers operational efficiency and CMO on branding and marketing. While this is a simplified view, their key interests are in their area of expertise and they advocate for it. However, a lack of HR representation means that there is a lack of advocacy for the people.  Interests of people becomes sidelined and at the mercy of the people management skills in C-Suits. In good times, people are important to serve the purpose. In bad times, people become an overhead costs. People need a better advocate in management and it is not union or employment laws. HR needs a voice to represent the people and shouting won’t do it if they are not in the same room. 

When HR is invited into the room, it is often to support strategies. As a support function, HR provides value if they can support their colleagues’ strategy. It could be when CIO/CTO embarks on digital transformation where new headcount or skills are needed; CFO leading a merger and acquisition plan where restructuring and streamlining is required to reduce or reassign workforce or COO needing to improve efficiency through skills upgrading, training and development. In good times, HR is involved early. In bad times, HR is called in after plans have deteriorated and union concerns require management. When the value of HR is how well they execute the plan and assist their colleagues, they can only meet expectations and the alternative is failure. HR has a voice but singing in the background or back up won’t do it if it it is only to harmonise. 

When HR has a place in the room, they are on the starting line as their colleagues. They can advocate for people development, talent management strategies and seek support and investment in the people. Their success, as their colleagues, is how well they can execute the plan, bring return to investments. Traditional IT and Finance functions have undergone much change due to the changes in the market place. Digital transformation and changing customer behaviour online and offline has propelled changes in IT and marketing to work together for integrated sales. The recent crisis has forced finance to rethink financial modelling, regulations, cash-flow management and short cycle budget planning. Operational efficiency has since adopted lean and worked with other functions on outsourcing, offshoring, integrated supplier chains. In people management, there is no lack of tools to support, 360, People Management Programs, competency, profiling, tests, assessment centres and balanced scorecard. But these are continual application of traditional practices and often in silos. HR can sing beautifully but when it’s not in synch with the rest, then the best classical singer has no place in a jazz band. 

Whether HR has a place in the room or not, improvements is not a game changer. The practice of HR has to modernise to keep up with the times or be obsolete as a profession. It will require value creation and not just added value. And considering the changing parameters will be an important consideration. 

Total Talent Management 

Legally, employment laws has an imposing influence on HR practices and thus orientate them towards compliance. It also meant that HR considers only salaried employees of the company. In this HR, interim and part-time agencies have clear mandate to manage their staff. And employment laws forbade HR from over involvement for fear of being sued for employment benefits and employment. It’s all understandable when the laws are meant to protect workers’ rights and prevent foul play. However, most companies today have a large mixture of interim, independents, part-time staff in addition to full time employees. On top of this mix includes external vendors are who are working onsite. Globalisation also meant that employees in another geographical jurisdiction has management jurisdiction in another geography. While these seemed a form of complexity for HR practitioners, these practices are actually enriching the workplace and are required strategies for the company to excel. HR has to act within the bounds of employment laws but has active contributions outside of these boundaries. They have to consider that a company is no longer a stand alone nucleus but an ecosystem of talents that will contribute to the success of the company. 

Culture and Ways of Working

While HR cannot legally advocate for employees outside of the company, they have to ensure that the ecosystem works for performance. The selection of vendors and actors in the ecosystem becomes important. Traditionally, independent contractors and vendors are selected by functional requirements and competences. The way they work has lower bearings in the procurement exercise and choice of onsite staff from vendors are left to vendors. Yet, these often have direct impact on outcome of the partnership. If a vendor has a very different culture from the company, employees on both sides will have a steeper learning curve to work together where productivity will dip or not realised. HR can help to:

  • set guidelines on ways of work
  • introduce vendors and external teams on company value and mission
  • conduct team building exercises to enhance understanding and working relationships 
  • assist in vendor selection and exit to find continual improvements in ways of work. 

Adapt & Innovate

There are innovation in many different areas that can borrowed and adapted. Chinese has a phrase: “融会贯通”(rong hui guan tong). This means understanding the principle essence of something and apply it. In agile, there is a Japanese phrase “守破離” (she ha li) and it means learning in 3 levels, learning and applying, breaking the rules and departing into new practices. HR can keep themselves updated on management innovation and innovation in other areas to find new practices and logics. The application of theories in consideration of contexts is where execution will be enhanced and change is powerful. Consider:

  • technology can improve communication and ways of working
  • agile deployment methods can be applied to deploying HR policies
  • capital investment can apply to people investment and measuring return of investments
  • digital marketing can also be applied to recruitment practices and promotion of company. 

Social Responsibility & Global Advocacy

Employment laws and workers unions were established to protect the rights of workers. Yet, are these laws updated to protect today’s workforce? HR can play an active role updating and modernising legal practices with local governments. They can also be global advocates to eliminate slavery, child labour and exploitation of workers. Working hand in hand with supply chain units, they can also ensure that their supply chain, partners and vendors are held up to highest integrity in employment. HR can work and walk out of the office:

  • talk to colleagues and business units regularly to keep up to date on hiring trends.
  • work across the aisle with HR of vendors, partners and suppliers to ensure integrity of supply chain
  • participate in government boards and work with ministries to update employment laws. 

I don’t think there are easy answers nor convenient steps. As I reflect on Philippe Halsman’s quote, I think it requires a leap into the air, see the real person behind HR and create a ripple in the calm. It’s not about running faster in the box, it’s about thinking and operating out of the box. And who’s to say if enough people jump at the same time, the ground wouldn’t shake?

Talking about HR in Agile Meetup


It was 29°C outside, 7pm in the evening and one of the 2 days in between the world cup matches. I thought everyone would be off somewhere in a bar, movie theatre or somewhere cool. But it was a full turn out. And it was in front of some very lovely and patient french people that I presented a case study on Agile in HR and HR in Agile.

To begin with, it was based on an project I was involved in. And to be honest, before this project, agile was really just an adjective. It still is but there is so much more depth to the agility used in software development. And this group of people I was standing in front of were all practitioners of agile methods for many years.

Agile, whether referring to being flexible and adopting to circumstances or tied to a whole library of terminologies like scrum!, kanban!, XP programming!, burndown! or for that matter burnup! (all terms that made me stopped in my track at one point or another to say huh?!), is irrevocably, undeniably, incontestably about people.

So it was to great wonder why there haven’t been much talk about HR in agile. And even more curious is how the basic principles of agility can be applied to HR? Because, how can an arm in the company (usually IT department) be agile whilst the rest of the company be fat and heavy?

And so it was, after reflections on that project, the hits, misses and the “je ne sais pas quoi” that I attempted to be honest in this sharing about my involvement, my learning and most of all, why if we want to talk agile, we should talk people and if we talk people, we can be agile too.

With or without the library of terminology tied to agile, most business leaders today have to battle with rapidly changing consumer behaviours, disruptors from non-traditional competition, globalisation and accelerating innovation. Thus, being adaptability as Darwin first proposed is really the only contant and means of survival. And so agile or capital A-gile is a logical response.

This is the case for the example I provided. The company had to be quick in time to market, they had to deploy digitally sound solutions across various parts of the customer journey. And they had to use a combination of acquired expertise and in-house capabilities simultaneously across various markets covering different technology platforms.

The example I presented was on a part of the project where adapting agile methods cannot be independent of helping people adopt the change. And where adopting to this change cannot be done through traditional HR means.

The challenge was to condensed it to 1hr 30mins and respond to any questions from the floor. I think we did well as a group, 29°C and hungry to share on a hot July evening.

The english version of the slides are now available on: http://www.slideshare.net/JasChong/agility-in-hr-hr-in-agility-july-2014

Oh did I mention that it was in French, a first for me in terms of public french presentation.

Agile in Organisation Transformation


MetaRecently I was involved in a project that uses agile methodologies and gave me the opportunity to deepen my understanding and see agile in action. Agile methods originated in software development.

“It promotes adaptive planning, evolutionary development and delivery, a time-boxed iterative approach, and encourages rapid and flexible response to change.”

In agile, I found a practical companion to change management.

In the organisation transformation and change management, I had often advocated for the importance of step-change to increase adoption and to ingrain change. In many instances however, I had seen organisations embarked on change programs with lofty ambitions only to let it frizzle out or stopped midway due to lack of funding, buy-in and/or change in focus, typically after spending a lot of money with no real evidence of benefits. And this is largely due to a lack of detail application of step change.

Take for example, implementing a personal development program. An organisation had decided to overhaul the people management program through its HR department. Once the team set out to shop for toolsets, it encountered a large variety of choices and methodologies. In an effort to create a holistic approach, the team worked on a blueprint of requirements that may include competency framework, balance scorecard, 360 feedback, review process and etc. Typically, it is followed by numerous RFP process to select the right vendors and consultants. Before long, it had become a huge project with large financial investments implications that would require further board and management approval who would raise concerns on benefits versus cost, investment timing, impact to share holder value. While the efforts were plagued with indecision and continual budget revisions, the next economic cycle would have hit and a new recession in sight., thus further pushing out the decision to more “suitable” times. Sounds familiar?

Perhaps the story is too simplified and a stretch from reality. Reality may not be far behind. In the best of instances, an organisation came out of a transformation process full of fatigue and unable to leverage on the changes for positive impact. In others, an organisation is so scarred by the process that any future change efforts is viewed with cynicism and resistance where necessary change do not happen until too late while more adaptable competitors change and overtake in market position.

It is easy to understand that step change is important, it is quite another to build out the details behind it. This is where I borrow some key terminologies in agile to lend some insights into the practicalities of step change.

Commander’s Intent – The objective of the organisation is expressed as its vision. This vision does not include details in “how”, it is only a view of the future state. In the example of a people development program, the intent should be what the company is trying to achieve and not the specific toolset. And perhaps, the program is only a building block and not the intent itself.

Minimum viable product – MVP is about creating the smallest product that is operable to test a hypothesis and learn from it. In the same example, it is important to define a problem statement that is top priority in achieving the vision. Then create the smallest potential solution that can either prove it is the right solution or if the problem statement is the accurate. There are 3 key steps in the process: build-measure-learn. It is important to decide early the KPIs and the intended learning.

Pilot or Prove of Concept – Both are ways to implement the MVP. In a pilot situation, the solution is deployed in a real scenario with a small set of users and prove of concept is where no real users are involved. Let’s say a competency framework is identified as key solution to assess accurately and create focus in personal development. An MVP is a small set of core competences and it can be piloted with a selected team or a specific group to test out usability. Alternatively, a proof of concept can be used to compare the competences with vendor options prior to purchase committments.

Short release and frequent release cycles – Shorter release cycles meant that the scope is reduced to MVP from idea creation to initial release. Small frequent releases follow for continuous build on the MVP or create other MVPs so that multiple products are released to complement each other. In the same example, the next release could be an extension of the framework to the pilot team and the MVP to other teams and continue simultaneously until the framework is being rolled out.

Feedback loops & Retrospective – Learning from the process is important for adaptive planning and evolving solutions to fulfil the vision. In some instances, the feedback is also used to converge initial ideas. Feedback loops complete a release cycle prior to the next release where KPIs are measured and applied. Retrospective refers to a critique on the process of roll out and people involved. It is key to ensure all environmental factors like buy in, communication, business readiness are reviewed and to provide learning required for continual process improvement.

Fair process – All change efforts have a people impact for success. Fair process ensures that all parties involved have a chance to learn about the intent, provide input and ask questions. Whilst the solution is not a patchwork of individual intents, the process allows for communication, creates understanding and encourages innovation in solution creation. It gives appropriate time for people to debate, question, consider and ultimately accept the changes to come.

Most recently, I had used the above in creating a new team including job profiles and competences necessary to build in-house capabilities to delivery a solution. It helped me frame the process to create a small enough team and feedback loop to add resources as required. The organisation chart was reviewed and built out through feedback and provided me with opportunity and time to coach and integrate new additions to the team.

A suitable consideration in using agile in organisation design is that whilst building a software where codes can be erased and redone, hiring and firing is not as easy. Thus, it is even more important to ensure the right team is created and built on without unnecessary expansion. Using options such as contracting, 3rd party becomes important, a topic I will discuss in the next post on Total Talent Management.

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