Creating Agile HR, Part 7: Agile Feedback and Coaching

What can we make more “agile” in HR? Aside from an agile approach to recruiting and hiring, we can make feedback and coaching much more iterative and incremental. Add in collaborative feedback and coaching, and appreciations, and it starts to look like an agile approach to “managing performance.

In the past, managers held all the power for feedback and coaching. Managers decided when to have one-on-ones. They decided what feedback to provide and when. And, managers decided when to coach and what to coach about.

That led to the possibility of spectacular failures:

  • Managers who met with team members once a quarter or worse, once a year.
  • Managers who provided actionable feedback only when it was time for a performance review. They missed opportunities for feedback on an ongoing basis.
  • Managers who imposed coaching because they wanted you to learn something you didn't particularly want to learn.

I could go on, but let's stop there. I become angry just thinking about this. Too often, managers were “too busy” micromanaging projects and moving people around from project to project to build a trusting relationship with “their” people.

Servant leadership allows us to rethink management and the role of management. Yes, managers still need to build a trusting relationship with people with whom they work. And, managers do need to supply feedback when it makes sense. Managers can offer coaching when they have knowledge of the situation, and the other person wants coaching from them

However, managers don't work day-to-day with the agile team. Managers don't control the team. The team manages its day-to-day work. The team members—and often, only the team members—can provide each other feedback.

Oh, and let me insert one more idea here: some of my clients are asking the agile project manager or the Scrum Master to provide the feedback and coaching role the managers used to provide. No, that's not effective. That moves a collaborative cross-functional team back to a controlled team, not what agile approaches need.

Managers can offer career guidance, impediment removal, and coaching if the person wants it. When agile managers define strategy, provide autonomy and purpose and create an environment for mastery, they are doing their job. (See What Agile Managers Do: Podcast for details.)

Managers do not need—and cannot be—the sole source of feedback and coaching for anyone.

That means that the old HR approach of having a manager sit with a person (at any time) to provide feedback and coaching is outdated.

Here are some ways to make feedback and coaching fit agile teams better:

  • Train everyone in how to provide coaching and feedback and appreciations. It's possible to train in an agile way, with small, safe-to-fail experiments.
  • Regardless of where you are in the organization, model the feedback, coaching, and appreciations.
  • Consider adding some form of feedback and appreciations to any of the frequent meetings a team might have (the retrospective, any planning or story workshop meeting, a standup if your team has them). A team might even frame the feedback as small, safe-to-fail experiments.

Where does HR fit into feedback, coaching, and appreciations? They don't fit directly. That's because these are all private conversations that HR has no place in.

What can HR do to facilitate these conversations? Yes, HR has to take a servant leadership approach to become an agile HR function.

  • Arrange for feedback and coaching training. (Don't assume HR knows enough to train the people themselves. My experience is that HR pros don't know enough.)
  • Model feedback and coaching and appreciations.
  • Ask managers to do continual career planning in one-on-ones so people learn to experiment and guide their own careers.

This is a different set of skills than the HR-driven “did you write a performance review and give yearly feedback?”

Instead of HR “driving” performance management, HR might enable it.

People need feedback about their work and how they bring themselves to work. They might want coaching. Everyone needs appreciation for their efforts. (I'm not talking about giving everyone a participation medal. I'm talking about appreciations for their contributions.)

Managers might be well-suited to provide career guidance. Agile managers can and should build that necessary trusting relationship with people, as servant leaders.

HR can facilitate the entire process, not run it. That's a huge change.

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