Natal Dank, Agile HR Pioneer; Author and Keynote Speaker

New Challenges – New HR

AI, global pandemic and new ways of working; developing leaders for jobs that still don’t exists, and preparing organizations for new and changing contexts… HR has some great challenges. But are there also hidden opportunities, and some exciting times, as a silver lining?

After spending more than a decade working in senior HR positions, Natal Dank is considered a pioneer of Agile HR. The founder of PXO Culture, co-author of one of the most influential Agile HR books, “Agile HR: Deliver Value in a Changing World of Work”, she was a co-founder and director of the AgileHR Community and has helped numerous organisations achieve their full potential through this new way of approaching HR.

You’re seen as one of the pioneers of Agile HR, but how did you discover Agile and what attracted you to it back in the day?

One thing that Agile represents, for both organisations and HR, is the new way of working. I worked in senior HR positions for a number of years and started to recognise a need to work differently. We have a lot of businesses at different stages of this Agile journey, and I thought there was a need for HR processes to also get back to being both about the human and about what the business was trying to achieve.

I was in a large, senior HR role, and we were using a 25-box matrix to assess the talent. This is just a huge process and we were collecting all this data, but then we didn’t really do that much with this information, and it wasn’t really connected to making great decisions around developing people and building talent. So, I left that role a bit with where HR was at, and I was fortunate to work with a company that was very agile – they were originally a start-up, but they’ve grown bigger and most of their teams, especially in the tech area, were still working in a very agile way.

I was challenged to work differently – to work in a more evidence-based way, to experiment, test and learn, which are all themes of ‘Agile’.

The market is more complex, there’s more uncertainty and more disruption. Everyone is trying to find the answers to all of these problems, and Agile gives you a way to try to find these answers

What came out of it is that I found this was a much better way to create HR solutions, because you create them with other people, building the change together, and you tested that, listened to feedback (does this work or not? If it doesn’t, then don’t do it). This is also how businesses are working now; this is what you’ve got to do for your customers, and this is why some businesses are proving very successful by using this approach. Businesses have understood for quite a while that we need to be more collaborative, more responsive; that we need to be innovative. I realised that HR needed to update. We needed to update the way we work in order to get better results, but we also needed to update HR processes to support businesses in a new way.

Besides changing your professional life, did Agile also influence you personally, and if so how?

Definitely! A lot of people in the Agile world talk about Agile as a sense of being, it’s an all-life experience, so it definitely changes your outlook. From little things, like sometimes you work too long on trying to find a perfect solution, where actually you should just start somewhere, give it a go, and learn from it and then build upon it. You can do that a lot in your personal life; you can overthink and try to plan it all out, but it’s not until you give it a go that you realise what’s going to work out or not. I think I became more open to experimentation in general in that sense, that test and learn.

Natal Dank

In Agile there’s a way of working that’s about visualising your work and prioritising what you do on the basis of value. A great way to start with Agile is to use a Personal Kanban. Kanban is about visualising your work and knowing what’s the most important thing to work on, at what stage and why. And then it’s about not overcommitting – seeing how much work you have underway and what you can commit to. It’s very interesting to start bringing those methods into your own ways of working at a personal level, because that gives you an idea that there is so much that you want to try and get done in your life – whether that’s your personal life, work, or things you need to do with the family – and you’re never going to get all that done. By focusing on one thing and doing it well and getting that through to the ‘done column’, you can have a little sense of achievement around it. And then there’s also all those other things that you’re probably just not going to get to, and that’s okay. It gives you a better way of managing everyday life – Agile influences everything in many ways.

You’re co-author of the book ‘Agile HR: Deliver Value in a Changing World of Work’. For whom is this book intended?

The book is intended for HR professionals, professionals that work in learning and development, organisational development, organisational design, change management etc.; everyone who works in that area of people and culture. And it was intended to be very practical. I receive positive feedback that it is very toolkit-based, there’s a lot in there that people can go and apply immediately to their scenarios and roles, and that’s the way we intended it to be. The idea is: if I was starting again, and I was starting with HR, I’d need a book to help me do that, and this is meant to be that book.

I would encourage professionals to embrace this new way of working. If we start having that Agile, product development mindset in our HR teams, we will build an entirely different approach to how we do HR

And what would be the single major takeaway from the book?

I would stay it is: understanding the problem that you are trying to solve. In the world of HR, there are major topics that we are trying to tackle: we’re focusing on well-being – but what does well-being mean? That’s such a big and complex topic. We’re building a hybrid office for the future of work – that’s huge. We’re developing leaders for roles of the future that we don’t yet know… All of these topics are really, really big and complex, and Agile is about helping you break that down, defining the problem you’re trying to solve for your organisation and then going after that.

Basically: what problem are you trying to solve; why are you doing it; and then focus on that one thing first and get it done.

What is the most important thing to have in mind for HR to successfully embrace this Agile transformation?

A word of warning here: Agile HR is very contextual, so your context will influence your approach. If you’re working at a small start-up that’s being ‘Agile’ from where it goes and there’s a different kind of culture and values, you’re probably going to be able to do a lot more and maybe work in a different way at a faster pace.

Natal Dank

If you’re working at a more traditional company, more hierarchical, more bureaucratic, and there’s a bit more of a legacy, then the changes might be a bit slower; you might need to build change over time. Your context definitely influences your approach. I think it’s important to be very clear about your context and to just be quite realistic about it: where do I start and why.

Agile is something traditionally tied to tech, but more and more non-tech teams are moving towards the Agile way of working. Why do you think that’s the case?

The Agile mindset is about placing your customer at the heart of what you’re doing, and incrementally, bit by bit, slice by slice, delivering that value to your customer. What’s happening is that people are trying to do that everywhere in business. Everyone’s saying ‘we need to be more customer-centric, we need to innovate, we need to deliver value faster, we need to be more collaborative’…

We know that successful companies build their entire customer experience in a more holistic way. Netflix has changed the way we watch television, Tesla is changing the way we drive cars. These companies are coming to the market not just to disrupt, but they’re thinking about how to do it in a fundamentally different way. The market is more complex, there’s more uncertainty and more disruption. Everyone is trying to find the answers to all of these problems, and Agile gives you a way to try to find those answers.

Finally, what would your advice be for the younger people – who aren’t only new to Agile HR, but to HR generally?

Don’t even think about learning it in the traditional way (laughs). Like organisations, the HR profession is now composed of people who have worked for a number of years in a traditional way and want to change; people that are perhaps still working traditionally and a whole new bunch of people who don’t have any of that legacy, and that’s awesome. I would just encourage them to embrace this new way of working.

If we start having that Agile product development mindset in our HR teams, we will simply build an entirely different approach to how we do HR.

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