Transformation & Change108

From Cop to Cruise Director

An Interview with Arlen Bankston

Evan Leybourn, Arlen Bankston

October 1, 2018


At the heart of every Agile organization is not systems or structures—it’s people. An Agile organization’s employees are engaged in their work, highly communicative, and equipped to self-organize. This means that the shift towards agility requires an increase in flexibility and a greater degree of autonomous management among employees—and as such, Human Resources takes on a new level of importance. An HR department is not just tasked with recruiting, hiring, and onboarding new hires. They are also responsible for fostering a culture of innovation and dexterity with each new hire.

Arlen Bankston

The Business Agility Institute spoke with Arlen Bankston, a preeminent leader in the Agile movement and author of HR and the Agile Organizationto learn more about how to harness the power of human resources for the next generation of government and business leaders. Arlen will present “Principles and Trends of Agile HR and Talent Development” at the Government Agility Conference in Washington D.C. on November 13-14

Business Agility Institute (BAI): First off—you’ve had a wide range of experience within the Agile movement: from co-founding Lithespeed, one of the first Agile consultancies in the United States, to coaching government practitioners into greater innovation. What was it that inspired you about the Agile movement originally?

Arlen Bankston: I had worked in a number of different roles in the customer-facing side of things, and I got an offer to work as a contractor on an extreme programming team. This was something I had briefly experimented with and I found it interesting . . . it was short cycles and quick feedback. I found it especially useful for the front end of things because you don't really know how usable things are until you try them.

I ended up joining the team officially. We worked on a project to deliver some software for a client and found that they were interested in not just us delivering the software, but they wanted us to teach their internal developers how to do what we did. Agile methods were still a new thing and I'm pretty sure this was one of the earlier projects that occurred in this part of the United States. We were very early on the scene.

BAI: Agility as a movement is still in a relatively nascent stage, and many of the more popularized case studies are within the private sector. Do you think the public sector will follow suit? Are the pitfalls that might hinder agility similar across sectors?

Arlen: There are some fundamental themes in managing people that have changed over the years, and those can certainly be seen in both commercial industries and in the government.

Government adoption of Agile methods has been accelerating quickly over the past decade. We’re hearing similar stories from the government sector as we are from commercial industries, but progress differs from agency to agency. We have to be able to tell the stories of what’s already happened within the government sector, where people are experimenting with new ways of doing things, as well as the aspirational examples of where it’s worked in the commercial industry. These instructional anecdotes might present things that government folks could borrow from.

BAI: How about human resources—why is that important to an agile organization, in both the private and public sectors?

Arlen: Historically, HR might have been seen as a way to control the “bad actors.” It's been a punitive function, almost. I did a talk recently and the tagline was “From Cop to Cruise Director.” I think that represents the shift we're talking about here: instead of looking to find out when people do things wrong and slapping them on the wrist, we’re turning towards supporting the best people.

The question then becomes how to get and keep better people. A lot of this is about self-management and getting rid of extraneous layers of middle management. You don't need so many hierarchies because people have more access to the information they need, the people they need, and the tools they need to do things more directly. Agile HR removes the need for intermediaries.

BAI: Practically, how can a Human Resources professional or team move toward this model?

Arlen: Agile HR is about trying to get people to be able to make better decisions on their own, and what this means is they need to have more insight into the way the business operates holistically. If we want people to make good decisions like we would expect a good leader or manager to do, then we need to equip them with the skills of leadership, management, and good decision-making.

I’ve also got in mind this notion of making work an adventure. Make it so that people join you because they like the work and they like the set of challenges that you offer them. Begin to embed talent development into companies . . . basically, decentralize HR. A lot of companies are beginning to experiment with this. Instead of having this one central group that doesn't know what’s going on in the trenches, those people are put where the work is happening. This is so they can see firsthand how their people are doing and what they are doing. It would help localize where assistance is needed from a training, coaching, and talent development perspective.

And of course, instead of just doing things because you’ve heard they work somewhere, lead strategically through data and experimentation. Run a Human Resources project like an Agile project. See how things work and iterate from there.

Join Arlen at the Government Agility Conference in Washington D.C. on November 13-14 as he presents “Principles and Trends of Agile HR and Talent Development”.

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