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HR’s new priority: creating agile capability

Valerie Nichols

HR Directors have a responsibility to build agility into organisations. In today’s fast-paced, competitive environment, ‘more of the same’ is no longer an option, as yesterday’s way of working is unlikely to achieve the same results tomorrow. Article from Valerie Nichols, Executive Consultant at Hemsley Fraser.

Savvy HR Directors recognise that the best way for organisations to respond to ever-changing circumstances is to adapt and learn. As Bill Gates says: “Success today requires the agility and drive to constantly rethink, reinvigorate, react and reinvent.” Agility is the organisational capability to respond more effectively and more rapidly to the changing challenges, opportunities and emerging trends in the market. Partly a state of mind and partly a new way of working for employees at all levels, it can improve competitiveness, increase employee engagement, encourage innovation, create operational efficiencies and lead to greater customer satisfaction.

To achieve agility, leaders and managers must develop an ‘agile mindset’ and empower their teams to respond quickly to changing circumstances. An agile mindset is essentially a desire to learn and a willingness to change. It involves being curious about, and open to, new opportunities and new ways to improve. This creates a behavioural change that stimulates innovation and learning. An infrastructure and adaptable processes then need to be in place, so employees can take appropriate and effective action. As an HR practitioner, you have an opportunity – and a responsibility – to build this capability throughout your organisation. This usually starts with gaining the buy-in of the senior management team and their commitment to create a learning-centred organisational culture. If senior managers are unwilling to let go of the traditional command-and-control leadership model, agility will never be an option. They must become the catalysts for, and role models of, agile practice.

Assessing your agility
In an agile organisation, roles are more fluidly defined; the overall strategy may be clear but the tactics for achieving it remain loose and flexible; decisions are made more quickly because employees are more empowered; the culture is less about ‘judging’ people and more about encouraging them to be curious; new customer needs and requirements are more likely to be anticipated; people and teams bounce back faster from setbacks and multiple solution options can be developed to resolve any problems.

The level of agility in your organisation will be evident in the behaviour of your leaders, managers and individual employees. For example, do they:

– Encourage collaboration, autonomy and flexibility?

– Take considered risks and allow them too?

– Expect and accept mistakes?

– Accept and respond rapidly to change?

– Understand what skills their team will need in the future?

– Welcome and take onboard feedback?

Or do they:

– Hold on to information, rather than readily share it?

– Become defensive when their ideas are challenged or mistakes are found?

– Delay taking action until they’re absolutely certain of the outcome?

The answers to these questions will give you an indication of the challenge that lies ahead for you in developing the agile capability of your organisation. Intentional behaviour and formal and informal learning interventions can help leaders, managers and individuals to understand agility and how to incorporate it into their work practices. Coaching and face-to-face training can be provided for those who struggle to make the necessary behavioural and operational changes.

A new way of thinking and working
Adopting an agile mindset will help individuals at all levels to accept change, embrace opportunities and adapt better to new circumstances and situations. This mindset encourages employees to be more proactive, which not only helps them to react and adapt quickly to change, it also makes them feel more connected to the organisation and more valued. ‘Agile working’ involves empowering people, breaking down barriers, collaborating in self-organising teams, welcoming diverse ideas, encouraging mistakes, proactively making improvements and interpreting customer needs. To achieve this, HR teams may need to redesign aspects such as job descriptions, recruitment practices (to hire individuals with the desired attributes), reward packages and performance management processes.

Not every organisation is dealing with turbulent markets and unpredictable customer needs. However, all companies will benefit by becoming more flexible in their ability to react to changes in their environment. Those that fail to innovate and rely on the management style and ‘proven’ methods of the past will rapidly fall behind, because they won’t be able to adapt, make decisions, solve problems or break down barriers quickly enough to compete. Building agility into your organisation should be an HR priority because it can not only improve productivity, engagement, innovation, efficiency and customer satisfaction, it can enhance your employer brand and position you as a ‘great company to work for’.

*Hemsley Fraser has published a free white paper on improving organisational agility. Called Becoming an agile organisation, it can be downloaded from

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