Innovative HR

Yuliya Rak: Agile experiences of an HR manager

So, I am called up for a feedback session with HR. As far as I understand, someone in my team has reported on me. This conversation is supposedly going to ‘help’ me understand the way they do things over here. It is my second week at a new job.

As I am sitting on the old leather couch in the corner of this huge open space office, I feel the irritation boiling up inside of me. I sink deeper into the softness of the couch, trying to find the angle which would shade my face from the daylight. I know I look angry and frustrated. In my ears I hear my heart beating…

Finally, my HR comes. She says my team complaints they lack the big picture on where I would like our function to develop. And they need more autonomy to choose the things they do day-to-day, she says. Big picture?! Are you kidding me, it’s my 10th day in this company! What are you talking about? I need more time to create any kind of vision or a big picture, guys. Autonomy? During the last 10 days I have spent here, I have observed people signing up for all kinds of funky stuff, like doing meetups and arranging photo sessions… but no one was half as fast to finish the by-standing ‘boring’ stuff, like calculating the effect of an event, gathering analytics or checking up how the participants’ time was reflected in time reporting sheets.

I was just softly indicating to my team that besides the fun things, there is necessary bureaucracy to be done, and I was simply asking them to take care of it… And I was confident that I was doing the right thing… But instead, I am called up for a conversation with HR. Gosh, I am just not getting it!

What I just described is probably the brightest memory from my first days in a new role, as an Academy Head with one of the mid-size IT companies in Lviv, Ukraine – a tech hotbed city of Western Ukraine. Symphony Solutions is a Cloud Transformation Company, headquartered in Amsterdam with delivery centers in Ukraine, Poland, Macedonia and the Netherlands. Founded in 2008, Symphony Solutions now employs 600 people and has over 35 international clients, primarily in Western Europe and North America. Symphony Solutions embraced the Agile Transformation three years ago. We are agile-driven throughout all development teams and support services.

Symphony Academy is an umbrella organization that manages employee learning and development in spheres of Language Training, Technical Upskilling, Professional Certifications, Soft Skills and Agile Teams development. We consult, design and deliver solutions to employees in line with their professional development plans. For that we use such tools as face-to-face, virtual training, team and individual coaching, communities of practice, mentoring of junior experts by seniors, tech hubs, as well as a wide variety of self-development offerings to our communities.

Now, after spending 8 months here, I might say that it has been the most memorable, yet not the hardest moment to challenge my assumptions as a leader, and as a professional.

The company I work for has gone through Agile transformation 3 years ago. I joined the company in August 2019 assuming the role of an Academy Head. I joined an Agile team of 9 people. This was my very first experience working with Agile and in an Agile team.

I would like to share 3 insights from my journey to Agile – important ideas that helped me understand, cope with and love Agile. By no means, I count these to be major cornerstones of the Agile philosophy and culture of my new company. Neither of my observations are well-rounded explanations of how Agile philosophy gets implemented in a business environment. My insights are not instructions for making Agile work for you. They are rather the brightest impressions (and struggles) that ran through my brain and heart, while I was learning Agile by practicing it.  

Insight 1. I am not the leader that I used to be.

From the very first day in my new job, my team challenged my decisions. They still do. When I came in, I thought that I was expected to bring in the list of things to be done. Not at all. What I ended up doing was collecting the ideas, projects and initiatives that were already out there in the air, and prioritizing them. My people did have ideas before my arrival. The majority of ideas on what the Academy should be focusing on – were much better than mine. I understood quickly that these guys already knew what they wanted to do, and were ready to fight hard for their point of view. I also understood that their request for a big picture was a request to participate in creating one. They did not want to be told what the Academy strategy was. They wanted to be asked about their thinking.

My team wants to take part in defining the strategy. They have a point of view, and they think their ideas are as good or even better than mine. They want me to bring in the business problems, they want to find their way and establish their own pace to solve problems. They detest when I tell them to do things or a sequence of activities on how to get things done. They want me to back off and listen. They want me to incorporate their intellect, their initiative – into the solution maps for the business problems. They want me to create the means for getting their ideas implemented. It took a painful bit of time to make the shift of becoming a servant leader, rather than a boss, happen. The shift of managing not people, but processes that empower people to be the best version of themselves. The painful yet gratifying transformation, which I am still going through.

Of course there still are processes and problems where I am sure I know how to do things better. And for those problems, I have to fight for my right to be heard, just like they do. I am earning my right to be heard and to be counted on. I don’t get that right automatically ‘because I am a boss’.

There is a tool that helps us develop a common understanding in where I may leave my team to do things by themselves, and where they want me to get into helping them by teaching them, coaching them, or simply being consulted within the journey of getting things done. The tool is Delegation Board. The tool works as follows. We list down all the critical ongoing processes. Then my team indicates, for which of these processes they need me to oversee them closely, jump in and do things together with them; where they need my advice yet not close micromanagement; and where they want to be delegated things, so they may do them their own. The tool is Delegation Board (more info and tools can be found on Management 3.0 web-site https://management30.com/) which promotes the philosophy of the systems thinking: the idea that 95% of the performance of an organization is the result of the whole system, not the individual. Management 3.0 examines how to analyze that system to come up with the right solutions for better and more effective leadership across organizations.

To sum up, I believe that in recent months the most important evolution of me as a leader was to become a more quiet leader. I learned to listen and appreciate the incredible intellect of others. I became the vehcile of implementing my team’s initiatives, the facilitator that finds the resources and clears up the way. Not a driver, but a companion.

Insight 2. The old classical leadership challenges are still there.  

Agile did not free me from the challenges that I had as a leader in a ‘traditional’ organization. Even more so, the necessity to align people around a common goal is even greater in Agile. The need to empower, motivate people is a cornerstone of this way of working. Feedback has never been a more important factor for success. So the years of trying things out in an old good corporation are a good suitcase to carry over to Agile.

Let me give you an example for the alignment around a common big picture. You know, when you work in the Learning function, new funky ideas and initiatives are pouring in from the entire organization. Colleagues, team leads from other teams come up with numerous ideas on what the Academy team can take on, for making a learning environment better, to solve the skill gap or team issue. It is so easy to get lost in the crowd of requests and ideas. Especially if these ideas are novel, interesting, they’ve never been done before and my team wants to try these initiatives out. Can you smell the chaos already? As a leader of a self-managed team, my greatest challenge so far is to keep my team on track of a committed strategy.

For that, we use a transparent Backlog tool. A backlog is essentially a list of items we need to get done, to satisfy the stakeholder and customer needs. Everyone in my team can add items to Backlog, but I am prioritizing them. The higher the item in the Backlog list, the more important it is for implementation. What I do every week is refining the backlog priorities. I take priorities from the leadership meetings, I listen to internal clients and my team on urgent and important things happening in projects all over the organization, I refine the commitments that Academy has taken to deliver in PI (program Increment planning, a strategic meeting of stakeholders, happens once in a quarter). Based on the above, I decide which items go first for implementation. This helps my team in their Scrum process when they decide which pieces of work to take for implementation. This also helps us to do the right things, in the right order.

To sum up, things are constantly changing in my organizations. New emergencies pop up, colleagues come with initiatives, stakeholders shuffle their teams and learning priorities all the time. My key challenge and the most crucial part of my work that enables my team to do the right job – is keeping up with the changes and properly setting up priorities for my team. Alignment around a common goal has never been more crucial for me as a leader. And I have to do it daily.

Insight 3. A new meaning to the term ‘empathy’.

Just a year ago I was having an entirely different, much shallower understanding, and application of empathy to my work. Seeing the world from the others’ standpoint, understanding how they feel and why they do the things they do – is something that I am learning about in an Agile environment a lot.

The difference between my ‘traditional’ experience is especially drastic when it comes to how we work with our customers. Perceiving the world through their eyes is a tremendously difficult and exciting thing to try out. How do people encounter their learning and development needs? What do they do when they understand that they need to learn a certain thing? How do they feel about researching and signing up for our learning opportunities?

We spend quite a chunk of time stepping in the shoes of our customers to feel their pains, so we can do a better job satisfying their needs. The best source for finding inspiration and a very rich toolkit for empathizing with one’s customers can be found with Service Design methodology. Service Design methodology (more info can be found on the site of Service Design Network https://www.service-design-network.org/ ) the leading non-profit institution for expertise in service design and a driver of global growth, development and innovation within the practice. 

Let me give you a few examples. My colleagues attend client calls and observe our project teams presenting to their stakeholders, so that the Academy can improve our business communication, negotiation, public speaking training and other. My team observes colleagues interacting with foreign stakeholders, aiming to upgrade the contents of our English classes and adjust the vocabulary presented in classes. Like ethnographers exploring the uniqueness of ancient peoples, we explore the unique struggles, pain points and aspirations of our customers. The insights we bring back – we turn into experiments. We try out different solutions and stick to the ones that show the best result for our clients.

For example, one of the recent experiments we did was announcing the learning events. We took 2 pretty similar learning events for which we wanted to gather internal participants. One of the events was announced via corporate news, another was posted in general chat. We wanted to see which event gathers more people. It turned out that particularly for tech-oriented events, chat works better than news on corporate sites. So that’s how we communicate tech events now.

To sum up, empathizing with the customers for whom we do our job each day offers an entirely new level of service that our team can deliver. And frankly speaking, an entirely new sense of meaning to us as a team.

I do believe that elements of Agile philosophy can be applied in the work environment of any leader or any team. Co-creating as a team, no matter what your specialization or role is; collaborating to solve problems; making small iterations to experiment with new ways of doing things; and learn by doing – these are the activities necessary in any environment. Agile may be a good source of inspiration for making a new development step for you as a team.

Yuliya Rak

Academy Head at Symphony Solutions
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