River Island HRD: Few in HR understand Agile

A London HR Connection event explored how Agile methodology can be used to foster new ways of working

HR professionals are still confused about what Agile working really means, according to Nebel Crowhurst, head of people experience at River Island.

Speaking at a recent London HR Connection event, Crowhurst explained that: “Agile HR is about utilising a set of principles and a project methodology that has been used in the world of tech for many decades, which enables us to deliver more work more quickly to the business in an iterative way.”

When Crowhurst asked those attending the event whether they thought it meant flexible working very few hands went up. Yet few hands also went up when she asked whether they thought it was a methodology used in the technology world.

Crowhurst explained that Agile principles and scrum approaches involve bringing some aspects that have been used in the technology space for a long time “into the world of HR transformation to bring in new ways of working”.

“For example, if the business says ‘we don’t like the performance management approach can you design something new’, and HR goes off and creates a new process, the business [then] goes ‘that was six months ago, things have changed now’. So Agile means small incremental changes, test[ing] what works and be[ing] aware how the business and market is moving in different directions… you’re more likely to land what the business needs,” she said.

Crowhurst went on to outline how HR has made performance management at River Island Agile. She joined the retailer three years ago, and moved performance management away from an annual appraisal approach. This involved taking an “iterative approach to testing and trialling” to find a more meaningful way of measuring performance.

Crowhurst said HR first turned to IT for advice, where the methodology was already in place, and started in an L&D “pocket” of HR first. Work is done in two-week sprints, with a retrospective after each week to get feedback on what’s working and what’s not. “If you can’t see blockers it’s almost like the elephant in the room,” said Crowhurst.

She said that only by using Agile was HR able to meet the deadline to apply to become an employer provider of apprenticeships. Following successful application in HR, sprints have also been used for store openings, meaning some branches have opened days early.

Agile can help people feel less daunted by big change projects, said Crowhurst. “For Agile every small milestone and achievement means people feel they’re delivering,” she said. “It’s like anyone who likes a to-do list – you tick off small things as you go along which keeps your momentum going.”

It also improves teamwork by “empowering and enabling people to take ownership of what’s happening”, Crowhurst continued. “It doesn’t matter what seniority you are, you all have a shared purpose and set of tasks. There is no hierarchy.”

However, the HR team didn’t get it perfect first time, she conceded: “What we didn’t do was help managers cope with changes very well – we just went 'we’re not doing that anymore' and we had to work backwards to realise through feedback that we’d missed the biggest thing, which was upskilling managers to perform in the changing world.”

“To do something like this you need people to be on board,” she said, adding that the sceptics often become champions of the approach once they have experienced a sprint.

A shift to Agile in performance management has opened up opportunities to explore its implementation in other areas of HR, Crowhurst continued. “We moved away from annual appraisals but then still had yearly engagement surveys so we’re doing that in a more Agile way,” she said, adding that the next challenge is applying it to pay reviews.