Article | Agile Teams

Creating the Ideal Agile Talent Mix

by Rachel Picken

It’s at the heart of the Agile Manifesto and its principles: individuals and interactions, motivated individuals, self-organizing teams, and of course, welcoming change.
And now a global report between the Scrum Alliance® and Forbes Insights has identified the key ingredients for creating agility in organizations. Clue: it’s in the people you hire.
“The Elusive Agile Enterprise” examines leadership, mindset, workforce, and culture. It’s based on a survey of more than 1,000 senior executives from growth companies across the globe, covering sectors including manufacturing, banking, telecom, and consumer products.
Respondents were representative across the continents: 30% from North America, 30% from Asia Pacific, 20% from Europe and the remainder from Latin America, Middle East and Africa. Headline statistics indicate that agility in organizations is rooted in the people they employ. A huge majority – 83 percent – of leaders surveyed cited their talent mix as being crucial to their organizations increased agility.
Meanwhile, 70 percent of respondents reported that lack of engagement on the part of executives and employees to the main factor to hold back transformational success in their organization.
The report also makes a point of underlining the difference between “agile” and “agility.” It describes agility as “a property of an organization to sense and respond to market changes and continuously deliver value to customers” while agile is the approach and mindset of applying the Agile Manifesto and principles.
Benefits of organization-wide agile adoption include being faster to market with a product, greater innovation, improved employee morale, as well as the ability to attract and hire top talent, it states. But how do they do it?
Three steps to increase agility
Based on survey results, Forbes insight and the Scrum Alliance identified three factors to increase agility in an organization. Each of them are linked to investing in staff and continuous professional development.

  1. Create a C-suite with an agile mindset:Referring to senior leadership of an organization, C-suite executives have a “bird’s eye” view of a company. The CEO and COO roles were named as the biggest champions of agility.
  2. Hire and develop the right mix of talent: The report cites Millennials as “particularly well-suited to enhance an Agile enterprise’s talent pool.” Entry level staff should be empowered to self-organize and express their values.
  3. Foster an Agile-friendly culture and organizational structure: Research findings reinforced that Agility is not a set of procedures but a mindset – 66% of businesses agreed that agility is an essential part of their DNA.

Barriers to agile adoption
Previous research published in Harvard Business Review last year by Professors Peter Cappelli and Anna Tavis examine progress in the HR sector in adopting Agile practices. Forbes senior contributor, and former Scrum Alliance board member Steve Denning suggests caution around the research findings that HR is adopting an “Agile Lite” approach.
He writes: “Agile Lite seems to mean the adoption of tools and practices without necessarily deploying them with an Agile mindset.”
This latest report agrees that an ad-hoc approach can impede organization-wide adoption or understanding of Agile. Only 9 percent of respondents said they apply agile enterprise-wide. The majority (26%) use agile when and were needed, or within specific functions (23%).
But for today’s global, high growth businesses, it’s not enough to just dip your toe in the agile pond.
Craig Girvan is a founding director of Headforwards, a fast-growing software development company in the UK established in 2011. They deliver software for FTSE 100 and Fortune 500 companies. He said: “If you look at businesses like Google, Spotify and even Handelsbanken, they have re-invented how businesses are run and have a different structure.
“Hierarchical structures can impede agility. Older traditional organizations are successful for a reason, but this hierarchy makes agility harder.
“On the other hand, when we started Headforwards, we knew we wanted to embed Agile in our teams.”
Hiring top talent
This agile mindset as a central value now enables the Girvan and the company to recruit internationally, with developers from 18 different countries relocating to Cornwall, South West England to work at HeadForwards. The Forbes Insights report supports this, with 57% of businesses agreeing that agility enables them to hire top talent.
Girvan believes this is about operating a flat structure with a strong emphasis on teamwork. “We’ve worked to remove the bureaucracy and management at Headforwards. We talk about the team rather than individuals," Girvan says.
“An Agile culture is about the mindset and the leadership. We believe in a shared philosophy and values across our teams. The result is that when we hire, we hear feedback that this is great place to work.”
Girvan and his business partner Toby Parkins also adopt a “self-organizing” approach to team development – that a team should be empowered to understand their strengths and weaknesses, and that knowledge in specialist areas should be shared.
“We wanted to create an environment where people learn from each other. We don’t believe in creating heroes or putting someone on a pedestal for being an expert in a particular field," says Girvan. “We avoid egos. Of course, we want people who take pride in their work, but it’s crucial that if someone is struggling, they ask for help or the let the whole team down.
Balance an existing team with active recruitment
One of the survey findings was that long-term employees are the biggest obstacles to organization-wide agility. Almost a third – 29 percent – of respondents thought that staff members with a longer track record may stand in the way.
To counter this, training to increase awareness and understanding of Agile were considered crucial. While 54 percent have invested in employee training, even more (58%) said they “need to learn more” – indicating that continuous improvement also applies.
One global organization that’s embracing agile team recruitment plus developing existing employees is the English National Ballet. The 70-year-old cultural organization is preparing to move its base from 40-year-old premises near London’s Royal Albert Hall across the city to London City Island in the South East.
With the move brings fresh challenges to deliver commercial revenue and evolve business models. ENB invested in Agile project management training across its back-office function, involving marketing, events, HR, operations, and programming. Claire Eason Bassett is head of business development and events at the ENB and oversees commercial activity for the organization.
“We are about to go through one of the biggest changes in the history of our organization," says Eason-Bassett. “It’s about using our resources more effectively. We also recognized that we need to evolve mindset. We need to think more commercially and take advantage of opportunities that present themselves.”
Eason-Bassett has recently brought two new recruits into her team. She is now working to model agile practices to inspire colleagues across the company.  She describes her director as “naturally and calmly agile” in the way he operates.
“Whilst we still need to ensure we are recruiting the right person for the right job, it’s also about selecting people who are up for that challenge and aren’t wedded to the “it’s always been done that way,” Eason-Bassett says. “My team are curious, strategic, they get on with the job, they engage as a team. The challenge is about how we enable our colleagues to “think agile,” pick it up and run with it across their areas.”
What’s clear from “The Elusive Agile Enterprise” is that whether you are an ambitious start-up or a long-standing business, embracing agility goes much further than paying lip service to agile frameworks.
 It’s about embedding the positive mindset, a curiousness to continuously improve and people. It’s all about people.
Download “The Elusive Agile Enterprise: How the Right Leadership Mindset, Workforce and Culture Can Transform Your Organization”