Agile boosts innovation and productivity, but Bain & Company has found that only 1 in 10 respondents of more than 1,900 surveyed believe their company has the talent to support its Agile practices. Just paying more won’t fix the problem.
Successful Agile organizations take a more holistic approach. They build talent ecosystems that attract and win great Agile hires. They adopt innovative approaches to help their existing workforce grow new Agile skills. And they design compelling career paths and incentives that effectively retain Agile talent.
In this article, we’ll share examples of leaders in Agile talent successfully winning, growing, and retaining talent—lessons that can benefit any company, whether new to Agile or extremely experienced.
In our experience, there are three things Agile workers especially look for when evaluating a prospective employer:
- the chance to do work with a clear sense of purpose;
- the encouragement and freedom to innovate; and
- a community of people who understand and embrace Agile.
Purpose. Research has found that employees with a sense of purpose report 64% higher levels of fulfillment than other workers. They also have 11% longer tenures, are 50% more likely to become leaders, and are 47% more likely to recommend their employer to a friend or family member. By design, Agile offers clarity of purpose superior to that of traditional approaches to work. Agile teams deal directly with customers and see the value of their work as soon as it is delivered. They have a clear mission that they are accountable for. And they know how that team mission directly supports the organization’s broader mission and goals.
When recruiting, it’s important to share specific examples of existing Agile teams delivering on critical missions for the company, highlighting the sense of purpose and value felt by team members.
Innovation. Some leading Agile companies, including Google, Apple, Hunter Industries, and Atlassian, have offered workers “innovation time,” during which they pursue a passion or innovation project. These are smart policies to actively advertise when recruiting Agile talent. But even companies that don’t have these policies can emphasize how Agile teams are encouraged to innovate as part of their day-to-day work, sharing examples of successful Agile innovation.
Community. Agile experts want to be surrounded by other Agile individuals and appreciate commitments to an Agile workforce. These might include the formation of an Agile center of excellence, Agile guilds, or the hiring of a senior leader with a reputation for supporting agility. This type of person will serve as a talent magnet, attracting more people to apply.
Defense giant Northrop Grumman has gone further, advertising its adoption of Agile on YouTube and in industry publications such as Defense & Aerospace Report. The company describes how it uses Agile not only for software development on the new B-21 Raider stealth bomber but also in arenas such as talent acquisition and human resources. John Deere has shared a detailed, behind-the-scenes look at the Agile transformation that helped increase the employee Net Promoter ScoreSM in its Global IT group from 42 to a world-class 65. The company also regularly shares its progress in exciting areas such as data science and AI with outlets like VentureBeat, which has an audience of Agile and technical talent Deere wants to attract.
Winning Agile talent from the outside is necessary, but for many companies, the existing workforce, with its deep domain knowledge and history within the organization, is an even better source of potential talent. It requires the right practices to grow top talent from the inside. One especially valuable practice that we’ve seen is the adoption of dojos.
Agile learning programs and environments called dojos—Japanese for places of immersive or experiential learning—have been adopted at John Deere, Target, 3M, American Airlines, and others. Dojos teach employees new skills and ways of working by immersing them in an Agile environment, partnering closely with coaches and fellow team members to teach, train, encourage, and practice until the cohort has the confidence and experience to work effectively in Agile.
At a financial services company, a marketing team spent four weeks in the dojo. The first week, they ran daily sprints, with the entire team working together on one priority at a time. They created a deliverable each day that received either internal or external customer feedback. Senior leadership was available to answer questions and resolve issues that slowed the team down.
In the second week, the team did a single sprint, still utilizing their Agile coach for every step. By the third week, the team worked mostly on their own, though the coach was available to help as needed. By the fourth week, the team had mastered Agile ways of working and no longer needed the coach. After their time in the dojo, they were much more creative, innovative, and efficient. They quickly reduced the time it took to develop new marketing materials from six weeks to just one week, a level of improvement not uncommon for Agile teams that complete a dojo immersion.
Performance reviews. Another way innovative companies are growing in-house Agile talent is by changing the performance review process. Agile organizations have begun to focus their reviews on team-based work and collaborative success, rather than just individual skills. One Agile manufacturing company now considers how employees contribute to shared team goals and broader organizational goals, and it has made the review discussions themselves more collaborative and evidence based. According to the company’s head of agility, these changes have resulted in higher employee Net Promoter Scores for the performance review process and significantly accelerated learning across the company.
In an era of higher wages, remote work, and easy job switching, retaining Agile talent is more challenging than ever. Many companies have experienced annual attrition of 30% or higher in critical roles such as product manager. To improve retention, many Agile leaders have changed their compensation structure and increased career mobility.
Common changes to compensation and rewards include:
- Updating incentives for employees on Agile teams. Some companies establish a separate bonus pool for Agile team members to provide additional upside to the broader company performance bonus program. At Tencent, for example, the 30-odd-person team that developed the wildly popular Honor of Kings mobile game received a $15 million bonus.
- Moving from purely individual to team-based incentives. SAP experimented with individual bonuses for Agile teams but found it wasn’t motivating the right behaviors. As a result, the company switched to team-based bonuses and saw better results.
- Widening salary bands. As organizations flatten and fewer people managers are needed, wider salary bands provide attractive career paths for individual contributors. This is especially common in software engineering, where companies allow top individual contributors to earn as much as directors or vice presidents leading hundreds of people.
In addition to changing compensation, making it easier to switch to an attractive role elsewhere in the company makes it less likely that an employee will leave the company altogether. Tencent used its internal talent marketplace to recruit 60% of its WeChat team members, while saving on recruiting costs and increasing employee satisfaction by more than 20%.
Another approach is to shift away from the traditional career ladder, which allows progression in just one direction, to a career “lattice.” With this more flexible approach, moving your Agile skills laterally to more prestigious projects or other functions is encouraged. This approach to career paths works especially well with Agile because Agile teams are designed to be cross-functional and challenge team members to broaden their skills and experience, preparing them for success in a wide variety of environments.
A good first step toward becoming an Agile talent leader is taking stock of where you stand right now. How good is your organization at winning, growing, and retaining Agile talent? Which of these approaches could most help you? To begin answering these questions, talk directly with frontline leaders and Agile team members. Get their perspectives on what’s working well and their biggest constraints. Then start to apply the practices demonstrated by Agile talent leaders that could best address their input.
You will need to be Agile in your approach, testing and learning to determine which practices work best. It will take time and effort, but the increased speed and improved business outcomes will be worth it.