An agile recruitment process or just a interestingly executed normal one?


I was not looking for a job. Out of nowhere, a job posting appeared and it seemed to be connecting all of the dots, including a larger appealing meaning though the company’s mission & tech. I could not resist applying. I really wanted to see if that job was a fit as it was presented in the ad and through preliminary discussions.

First, an interview with two professional HR persons, who had done their homework and were interested in getting to know me. Great interview, mostly going through my work history, giving them the “story”. Good energy, common respect, checking that mutual thinking exists, checking that the story is coherent and getting a gut feeling of me/each other as persons.

Second, one hour interview with a CEO. I had asked to have a discussion about the company’s business and requirements for the role I was applying for, asked them to prepare for a discussion rather than “an interview”. Unfortunately the CEO had not spent time going through my CV, so the framing in the beginning of the 1 h interview was “Go through your story with the CEO”. (Really? …Bummer. Well maybe a force majeure hindered him from doing that. So, CV, again, then? Well, fine..). So I went through my story, they asked some additional questions. There was very little relevant professional discussion about the actual job, the objectives, the business, the challenges they face, what I’d do about it all if I worked there. Mostly chatting about what I have done so far. The following sentences were heard from the CEO during the interview “We are not so sure what we really need this role for” and “I’m not sure what you would do the 40 hours a week here”. (Umm? What? And another ummm…what?! It was you posting the ad, right?) It took 50 minutes to have a chat about my profile and my past. I had asked for a little time to discuss business and see if our thoughts and values align with the CEO. Ten minutes remained for this kind of a discussion and it is very important to me checking that the values align. I thought we’d continue with relevant interviews later on. So, I checked that we both live on the agile, self-directed, modern work centric spectrum, and not on the old-school, top-down, command-control hierarchical one. (Great! We all had the same thinking of agile, self-directed organizations.)

Time was up.

Well, maybe we could continue talking about the actual business, maybe we could get to discuss the expected value added of the role. Maybe we could discuss the strengths and weaknesses. Maybe they could test applicants with a real task of some kind. I clarified my suggestion of what they could be looking for in the role the day after the interview by e-mail and asked them to clarify the role if we meet again. I clarified that I had expectations of people to prepare for the discussions and added some of my relevant discussion topics for a possible follow-up interview. (Darn, I am a terribly difficult person to recruit! I was asking for them to do their homework!)

Yesterday I got a call that they would not continue the recruitment process with me. Reasons: “your thinking about agile values & HR does not bring anything new to us” (Yes. Exactly that was the point, to assure to myself that the CEO builds on common ground) and “we will continue with applicants who have done this job before”.

I’m just left with one semi-important question: What was the job then? (…and when did you figure it out?)

I find it rather hilarious. I’m thinking both parties’ gut feeling was the real no go. I’m not sure if the recruitment process was a new application of scrum/agile (as in “we don’t know exactly what we are looking for, but will iterate and  find out during the process”, which is a very intriguing thought actually!!) or just badly executed (as in “we haven’t really had time to think about this and want someone who can tell us what to do”). I’m guessing the second, but I like the first a lot.

What I learnt as an applicant:

  • Always ask what the purpose of the specific interview is. I.e. which decisions are made after this interview?
  • Always ask the company to clarify the business objectives of the role so there is mutual understanding of what you should be talking about.
  • I would like to have tailored my own recruitment process. Which gives me a totally new idea of Agile HR, which I like a lot. Why not turn the ownership around when you have 4-6 applicants remaining? The more I think about it, the more I like that idea.
  • I am immensely intrigued by the idea of starting a “matching” process without knowing exactly what you are looking for. As in using scrum type of thinking for recruitment. This is the kind of cognitive dissonance that my brain loves! I have no idea why or how to execute that in a graceful manner (yet) but will let my unconscious work on that until it is sorted.

Suggestions to any hiring CEO:

  1. Do your homework
    Read CV, LinkedIn, blog, twitter etc. of the applicant. (in Finland: if the applicant has given you permission to do that). Don’t waste precious interview time on this
  2. Do your homework
    Clarify to yourself what need the new person or role should fulfill, the need of the organization, your customers, your employees, your needs, your management team’s needs. Prepare to explicitly say these expectations out loud in an interview. Talk about the important stuff! You should be sure the pre-work has been done well, and people who you interview should have the necessary skill set for the job.
  3. Do your homework
    Prepare to talk about the job, objectives, business, and challenges and ask the applicant of their view, opinions, and thinking – this is basically free consulting work from certainly capable people on your most important needs. You can even prepare the applicant with material about your company (such as balance sheets, customer data, project profitability/scrum charts, people data…), if you want to pick their brains.
  4. Trust your gut feeling
    When you’ve done your homework and you have gained understanding of the person’s thinking and actions connected to the job, your mind should have gathered enough data about the applicant. If you need to work with this person side by side, it needs to feel right. There are numerous research results that suggest we are terrible at judging people’s potential for a job on gut feeling, that algorithms are better at it than us. I believe our internal algorithm, developed by our nervous system over hundreds of thousands of years, tells us a lot about whether or not there is a natural kind of immediate trust between the two of you or not.

I really want this company to succeed, and cheer for whoever they will choose for the role (because clearly, it was not a fit for me). These two recruitment ideas and the experience I got from this process are worth a lot. All of my jobs so far have been gained through my network. By connecting with people, hearing about openings through common contacts and applying, being asked to help. As a consultant the same – mostly I work with customers who contact me because they heard about me through the grapevine. So the experience of actually cold applying for a job is new to me!

Ps. Watch out if you’d like to recruit me, I might ask for permission to design my own recruitment process next…


Photo credit: WaywardShinobi / Foter / CC BY-SA

What is Agile HR?

Before reading any further, you may want to check out my post “great sources of Agile HR“. I will update that blogpost regularly, when coming across something useful on my quest to understand all this.

In this post, I have tried to summarize what Agile HR means for myself right now. I’ll keep the option open to revise my view anytime it seems flawed, insufficient or non-valuable. I would build any agile people practices on the following values:

  • Trust people to be able and willing.
  • Transparency; If you can’t be open about it, don’t create it.
  • Value adding for the customer (or value adding for the work employees are daily doing to create value for the customers).
  • Decision making with the customer, or as close to the customer as possible.
  • Continuous learning and adapting.
  • Blank – Fill in yourself with a couple of more after deep thinking

What is Agile HR, then?

Creating adaptive people practices, valuable for the customer

Tailored, adaptive and transparent people-related guidelines, methods and agreements that support the Agile organization to create value for its network, customers and colleagues. (I shy away from the words “HR-policies” and “HR-processes”, because their main function is to control and/or standardize people issues).

Creating the people practices with the people, through using Agile methodologies and modern tools

Agile HR is about using agile development methodologies yourself to create the Agile people practices. This means incremental planning, experimentation, verification and adaptation loops with the employees. The HR Tech scene is bustling with new HR tech to support creation of people practices. It is like a candyshop…!

Removing silos between support functions

Seeing all development as business support/business development. If it does not bring value to the end-customers, don’t establish it. Using cross-functional teams to create great service where it makes sense (HR, Finance, IT, Comms…). At least always cross-check with the other functions to get their view on the emerging people practices.

Constantly reviewing and updating of the emerged people practices.

Ongoing maintenance of the people system is necessary. With this pace of change, we can’t expect that something we created together in 2014 will be valid in 2020, or that something created in a company with 50 employees could be useful when if company has grown to hundreds of employees.

 … Let’s get to work, then!

…Agile HR network in Finland is starting on Friday 4th April 2014 with a core team workshop around what we’d like to achieve. There are HR’s and Bz Dev people from front-row Finnish Agile organizations and associations. Excited!

HR, Welcome to planet Wanna-be-Agile!

Imagine you are in charge of the infrastructure of your city. There is a Mayor, some other important officials and managers, too. The higher the rank, the more decisions they make. Your job is to see that the infra is supporting those decisions. You see that the people have what they need to survive and to live a somewhat good life. Of course, there is some privileges for the decision makers to go first in line and/or be better off because they have such an important job. Also the decisions are made in committees, behind closed doors. Only the decision, not the reasoning behind it or the discussion around it are communicated to the people of this city, not to talk about giving the people a real possibility to have a say.

Most cities run this way, and you are comparing your infra to the other cities’ infra. You are also building the same kind of roads, same kind of services and measuring the same kind of things, as any other city. You know a lot of infra-people in other cities and pretty often people in your profession change jobs in between cities, but the work is not changing that much. You can create the infrastructure just a bit better, nicer and efficient than in the neighboring city. Decorations and nice slogans here and there. Services to the people, to keep them somewhat healthy, somewhat happy and somewhat productive. The rules of how to handle the infrastructure haven’t changed much in 30 years. In some cities your job is valued a lot, in some others you are seen to just take care of the necessities. You know that without a modern infrastructure and running processes the city would be a mess. That is why you want to call yourself a strategic partner, and sit in the decision making tables. In some cities you have the seat. Which is great! In some cities the mayor is such an old-school dinosaur, that what he needs and asks for is an infrastructure from the 70’s. This mayor usually finds another infra-dinosaur to run the infra for him.

Now imagine that you change jobs to planet Wanna-be-Agile. Your job (you think) is to create the infrastructure for that planet’s city, too.  The planet’s Mayor and his posse have moved to this planet from planet Earth. They know their job is to make all the important decisions. This planet is very different from planet Earth. Everything changes rapidly here. The people on planet Wanna-be-Agile are working closely with a group called customers. The customers are part of the system, keeping the city alive and pose requirements of the development of the city. Most of the customers are immigrants from Earth, or still living on Earth. The customers buy stuff from planet Wanna-be-agile and another planet, planet Agile. The mayor has never really experienced or traveled on planet Agile, but he heard it was a great place. The cities on planet Agile are doing pretty well. The cities on planet Agile constantly outdo cities on planet earth when it comes to serving the customers. To create a competitive city, the mayor wants to have the same infrastructure, same tools and same methods as planet Agile cities have.

Trainers chosen by the mayor and his posse train the people of Wanna-be-agile. The trainers come from planet Agile. The trainers from planet Agile tell the people at wanna-be-Agile,

  • “Hey, what is important is that you create competent teams, and decide most stuff yourself”.
  • “Yes, you have the freedom to change the infrastructure, and you are even urged to do that if it makes sense for you, your city and your customers.”
  • “The mayor will understand it takes time for you to develop your teamwork and productivity, and will help you succeed in any way the Mayor can”.
  • “Because customers are constantly changing their requirements and the world is changing so fast, you can’t really plan your long term work targets or performance.”
  • “You need to learn to live with the uncertainty and constantly review your estimates and priorities to keep on doing value adding work”
  • “Most important is to keep your workload on a healthy level and to deliver stuff to the customers in smaller batches so they participate in telling you if you are on the right path”
  • “Now here are also some tools and methods you can use to drive learning, working, collaboration and iterative decision making in your teams”.
  • “Because of this organic development no two cities or hubs are alike on planet Agile, they are all unique”.

The mayor or his posse are not participating in the training, nor dot they really communicate with the customers. They are busy with making decisions and plans. You as infra-manager are planning the infrastructure to mirror a top-notch Earth-infrastructure, and you want to call it “agile” and “high level service”. The mayor knows that the new tools and methods will drive performance up and service to customers will become quicker. He is planning in great excitement, asking people to estimate next year’s development. You copy a “best practice” performance evaluation system from Earth and start implementing that on top of these people-given estimates and plans. They gave the estimates themselves, right!? So they should know exactly what will happen during the next year. So let’s discuss individual bonuses on the basis of these estimates….

…OK, so you see where this is going?

Your people have just been taught self-directiveness, freedom and responsibility. Some people have been elected as coaches, just to keep the learning and collaboration on a good level in the teams. The people have been taught that “no plan holds” because that is a basic paradigm on planet Agile. The idea is to react to changes. It is a value-set, which the mayor, his posse and unfortunately you, too, are fully unaware of. You think you have some best practice solutions from planet Earth to serve the people in a great way. Using best practices from planet Earth or copying infra from planet Agile, but still keeping the decision making and infrastructure design on the management level, will create a collision of two sets of worlds.

Your well-meant control and planning block the people from creating a great Agile city.

What happens to the people on planet Wanna-be-agile? They probably first realize how fun, creative and effective working according to planet Agile paradigms are. Until they bump into the first possible bigger hurdle. The people are unsure if they really can solve the situation. So they go and ask the Mayor and his posse. The Mayor does what he is good at and what is quickest. He solves the problem or makes a decision. He drives the teams to realize the estimated schedule, because that is where his individual incentive is.  The people are not very satisfied with this, since the mayor really does not know the customers, who just came in with a lot of new requirements. The people have to work their butts off to get anything done by the deadline, with all the new requirements from the customers coming in. To keep the mayor happy they deliver something, which looks good on the outside but is full with flaws on the inside. This goes on for a while, until the people realize that the Agile values are not realizing at all and they are forced to deliver bad quality to keep up with the estimated deadlines. The Mayor thinks Agile tools and methods are not creating the value he was sure they would. The Mayor trust people less because they come to him with impediments, delays, bad quality, new infrastructure requirements.  What happened to following the great plans and performance objectives, which were working so well on planet Earth?! Why did the people give bad estimates, they were given the freedom to estimate and now nothing holds?

And you? You are baffled. You have tried to implement the best practices from planet Earth’s infrastructure, and maybe even copied some great infra tips from planet Agile.

What nobody has told you, is that planet Agile works upside down. There is no gravity on planet Agile. There are not even cities on planet Agile, but hubs and networks which dissolve and come together when necessary. The infrastructure on planet agile consists of dynamic rules and frameworks that are useful and necessary, until they are not anymore. The people are allowed to change the rules. Some hubs have different rules than others. There is no money incentives on planet agile, but people agree on what needs to be done to develop their hubs and networks. There is no point in setting incentives on the “what” and the “when”, because the customer folks are so unpredictable and want to change a lot on-the-go.  Social incentives and incentives on “how” things are done are used on planet Agile. The ones who really made it to planet Agile can’t imagine moving back to Earth or to planet Wanna-be-Agile.

It is not easy for HR on planet Agile. Luckily you don’t have to KNOW exactly how the infra should look like. You will find out, together with the people.

Personal note: I was born on planet Earth, worked there for 10 years. Because of my rebellious soul and due to understanding the sciences of biology, physiology and chemistry, my mind was always on planet Agile. Organic is a word which is at the core of planet Agile. That is a subject you as an HR professional need to look up carefully if you want to work as infrastructure manager on planet Agile.

PS. The young generation of people and customers are born on planet Agile. What does that mean for you?