Hiring for the agile mindset

19 November

If you spend time researching and educating yourself on agile as a way of working, you will come to the point where you have an “ah-ha” moment around the key foundation for agile success. We have been conditioned over the years, to believe success resides in action and activity. The more action and activity you generate, the more success. There is a lot of truth in that, but as change and disruption speed up, there is a lot more to it. There must be a foundation to that action and activity that is purposeful while also understanding of the dynamics involved in moving forward in complex environments. Basically, without a strong foundation, you can’t weather the storm of constant change that agile embraces and today’s work environments experience.

In that research, you will see a lot of emphasis on agile practices, but you will also see a lot of failures with agile transformations that were based on too much focus on agile practices (the how) over the principles and values (the why). It is when the agile transformation is centred on the principles and values of agile that success is found. The team, with their culture wrapped around agile value and principles, infuses the practices with authenticity and drives the team do not just do the practices from rote but to adjust and change based on their continuous learning and growth.

If the values and principals are so important, why do organizations consistently focus on using certification and experience as the primary tools to hire agile professions? Certifications are great but they only show that you know something. With experience, it shows that you have been exposed to things but that is it. In the end, we do not need people who know. We need people that can do something with what they know! People who can “internalize” and actualize agile values and principals are better able to get things done when faced with the adversity that complex work environments present.

When you are an agile organization, what should the plan for hiring be if certifications and experience can steer you wrong? Let’s start with the fact that certification and experience are tools. They add credibility to what someone is saying but they should not be taken as the be-all and end-all. If you are an agile leader you should have a solid understanding of the professional skill characteristics that enable a person to better embrace and espouse the agile value and principles. Here is a snapshot of the professional skills that enable higher probability someone can work in an agile way.

  • Emotional intelligence: All four levels; self-awareness, self-management, situational awareness, and situational management. Does a person understand their impact on others and within situations and can they adjust and pivot their actions? Without emotional intelligence, it is very difficult for someone to work in an agile way. Way too underrated a professional skill set.
    • Questions to ask: Tell me your top areas for improvement? What professional development are you planning in next year or two? What was the most difficult work situation you faced and how did you get through it? What are you most proud of in your recent professional life? 
  • Influence: Can a person get things done without positional authority? Influence is the most critical element of moving forward in agile within the self-organized organization structure. 
    • Questions to ask: Tell me about a time you got something done and you were not the boss/manager? What do you believe motivates people? What are the best techniques you have used to motivate teams? What does it mean to inspire someone? 
  • Conflict management: Within self-organization, the team must move forward and make decisions, there will be competing ideas and competing opinions and beliefs. So how someone handles and works through conflict drives the productivity of the agile team and it can’t be the “managers” problem. Remember it isn’t about the person it is about what they did. Conflict becomes messy when it is about the person, not the action. 
    • Questions to ask: When faced with conflict what do you do? What do you take personally at work? How do you speak to someone when you believe they did something wrong? When you see something wrong how do you approach it? 
  • Negotiation: An agile team is focused on moving forward and executing toward the need of their customers. It is not about winning. To execute decisions must be made. To make decisions folks need to negotiate. An agile professional must understand how to negotiate to move forward not just to win. 
    • Questions to ask: How important is it to do things the way you want them done? Do you feel compromise is important or does it lead to lower quality? What is your goal when you negotiate?

Here are additional questions can help you ask to get a sense of how well someone will embrace agile value and principals. Remember agile is not the end-all. And if you don’t work in an agile way it doesn’t mean you are bad. The issue is, to work in an agile way means you should espouse and exhibits certain characteristics. Here are questions to ask that digs into basic work characteristics:

  1. Do you like to work with people? There is nothing wrong with wanting to do your work in a separate room with no one around, but it doesn’t work in an agile work environment.
  2. Are you open to group decision making? People, including leaders, want to make the decision and from there move forward. It can be effective and fast but doesn’t fit in with Agile values and principals.
  3. Do you hate to fail? Fear of failure drives many successful people but with an agile team failure drives learning, and success and fear of failure slows the team down.
  4. Do you really want autonomy? If you can make a certain amount of pay and never make a decision, is that okay with you? A lot of people would say yes, and a lot of people work this way every day. A number of agile failures reside in the self-organized team being unable to operate because the expectation of the team making the decisions doesn’t happen (because of the team or the leader of the team).

As you plan your hiring strategies, it is all too easy to focus specifically on finding people with the specific experience you need. What is missed is that you can train experience you can’t train innate characteristics. If you are building an agile team and practice, you can’t ignore success with agile is about working in a certain way and from there conducting specific practices or ceremonies. The agile way of working means you have to find people who can espouse and actualize that way of work. To do that, you have to find professionals with the characteristics and professional skills that match the agile way – and remember that is more important than finding experienced and certified agile professionals


Post by David Mantica.