Open Site Navigation

The Future Role For HR?

Organizations that don’t manage to make the shift to increase business agility will slowly get weaker and die. The ones that do transform into a new culture and structure – more adapted to today's needs and tomorrow’s participation economy will survive and flourish.

“Manage the system, not the people.”

– William Edwards Deming

Small and medium-sized companies can manage the shift more easily since they often have fewer top-down structures that hinder people from realizing their potential. The bigger the company, the more complex it becomes with systems, processes, and structures that you cannot easily change. You can try to change one (often functional) department of the company, but the problem remains in another. Since all parts are dependent on each other, the brave department that attempts to initiate change is typically forced to give up and return to the old structure, like a rubber ball after it’s been squeezed.

To handle this challenge, you can either flatten the pyramid (as Jan Carlzon suggested in his book, Moments of Truth) or organize around value flows, instead of optimizing for departments in a top-down manner. Another option would be to emulate the Chinese company, Haier), which reorganized their entire business into 4,000 micro-enterprises with a large degree of self-management.

... organizations that don’t manage to make the shift to increase business agility will slowly get weaker and die ...

Why HR Needs to Drive the Agile Transformation

To accomplish organizational change, there is one functional department that can affect all the other parts simultaneously: HR. This group, in most companies, control:

  • Leadership programs and development

  • Change management

  • Organizational development

  • Employee engagement and retention

  • People development and learning

  • Reward strategies and bonus systems

  • Talent acquisition

  • Performance management

  • Long-term workforce management

All of the above areas cut through the entire organization. They are the processes that support or stop the change to a learning organization and a more agile future. It all depends on how we work with processes, policies, and programs. They can be developed to limit performance and engagement, or they can optimize performance and employee satisfaction. However, HR struggles with criticism of being the organizational police that stops performance and engagement by implementing the very processes that were supposed to increase the same. This needs to change.

HR has been sitting in the back seat for too long now. It’s time to step up and take responsibility for change. The fact is, HR departments are the architects of organizations, and their leaders need to take the wheel in the driver’s seat. They need to lead the transition from traditional management practices to agile leadership to prepare to compete in current and future business landscapes.

There is tremendous room to grow. People need to be given the freedom to create and experiment to explore new heights and ideas. Despite this necessity, much of management’s fundamental mindset is still rooted in the idea of the old factory mentality. To keep up in today’s world and compete, management needs to change with the times.

... HR has been sitting in the back seat for too long now. It’s time to step up and take responsibility for change ...

When HR managers hold on to traditional ways of working, learning, developing, and planning, they are severely reducing the possibility of change.

Those companies will be left in the old paradigm, which lacks the business agility we need in a VUCA-world. Or worse, they will be outnumbered and outpaced by smaller, faster players in the market. Alternatively, if HR departments switch to a structure that focuses on customer value over-rules and policies, they will lead their companies through the change.

Organizations are complex social systems propelled by people and relationships. They are not machines that you can manage with routine care, and people are not cogs in the machine, as they have been treated in the past. They are living organisms with feelings, dreams, challenges, and thoughts. People, just like the future of work, cannot be controlled. But we can give the right prerequisites to people in the organizational system, and they will take care of the rest. We don’t have to drive change; it will happen by itself when people realize that it’s up to them and that they are trusted to take action in a psychologically safe environment.

HR has the power to design the structures that either support people to perform or make it difficult to contribute to creative and innovative ways. If HR holds onto the old, traditional approach, the consequence will be rigid and fixed organizations chained to ineffective systems and processes.

The system needs to be managed, not the people. We don’t need to implement difficult frameworks, methods, or models; we need to learn how to allow people to give their best effort to the company by providing support structures, not limiting structures. It’s a path of trial and error to find the best way for each company. The only way to move forward is through continuous learning. The companies that learn faster than the others will be the winners.

Overall, employees will take responsibility for their learning, growth, and movement within organizations, rather than waiting for it to come from “above.” As different aspects of a company’s growth trajectory become important, the traditional employee/manager roles will change irrevocably.

HR can either support or hinder the change toward a more agile organization, which is why HR needs to go first! By providing different structures and focusing on customer value instead of rules, HR can lead companies through a change in a way that no other department is capable of.

... the only way to move forward is through continuous learning. The companies that learn faster than the others will be the winners ...

The Agile People Coach

The question is:

  • Where do managers and HR go from here?

  • What will become of them when everyone is encouraged to lead themselves?

  • Will they slowly become obsolete when information and knowledge are transparent for everybody?

What do companies look like when the power is not exclusive to a few “talents” whom we promoted because they were seen as “HIPOs” (or High Potential Employees, i.e., the people perceived to be the rising stars) back when we judged performance in a yearly performance review?

Is there an alternative future role for HR and managers when process-oriented and transactional leadership styles are replaced by more transformational ways of leading work in a complex reality?

Agile People promote and celebrate the new role that HR and leaders need to take in all kinds of organizations – the Agile People Coach's role.

Agile People Coaches see organizations as social systems, not machines. They recognize that people and relationships build organizations, and if their motivation is high enough, they will find ways to innovate and provide value together. We still need structures, but just enough to provide cohesion, as opposed to restriction. We need to foster great business cultures to guide behaviors and incentivize people to do things that will help them perform in a common direction. In this scenario, the future career path for leaders and HR professionals is to adopt an Agile People Coach's competencies – a role that aims to create the right conditions for individuals, teams, and the whole organization to grow and develop and change as needed to survive.

“We spend a lot of time helping leaders learn what to do; we don’t spend enough time helping leaders learn what to stop.”

–Peter Drucker

The Agile Coach’s Competencies and Level of Intrusion

In her book, Coaching Agile Teams, Lyssa Adkins outlines three paths to agile coaching, all of which originate from the IT department: from Scrum Master, from Tech Lead, or a Project Manager. In agile organizations, an Agile Coach works with the following areas: people, product, technology, and process. The Agile Coach Competency Framework 4 teaches us four competencies (stances) in an Agile Coach’s toolbox.


1. Facilitation

2. Professional Coaching

3. Teaching

4. Mentoring

You may ask yourself: Where and how do I know exactly when to apply which stance to create the highest impact? To answer this, let’s look into “the obtrusiveness” of each Agile Coaching stance. Some of the tools are less obtrusive and fit more naturally into the environment (like water flowing into water), while others create waves and new streams (like throwing rocks in the water).

Facilitation is the most unobtrusive tool. The facilitating coach doesn’t have an agenda and is an expert in collaboration and, therefore, can help clients have richer discussions on the topics they are interested in. The coach can always rely on her facilitation skills in any new situation, which is a pretty powerful lifesaver.

Professional Coaching is slightly more obtrusive than Facilitation. Here, a coach still follows the client’s agenda but can decide to guide the client to explore unknowns, what-ifs, and what-would-it-be-likes they might not even know to exist. By using this competency, a coach can help the client see new paths and directions. We can also use it to increase motivation and commitment.

Both facilitating and coaching assume the client has all the resources and inner wisdom to reach the necessary conclusions. If this is not the case, then teaching and mentoring are the proper tools to use.

Teaching is far more obtrusive than Professional Coaching. In this situation, the coach wears a trainer’s hat, stands by a flip-chart, and raises her index finger when explaining the right way of doing things. She is knowledgeable in the content of the domain. She explains the fundamental theories, proves them right, and shows new ways of accomplishing tasks. She shows options. The decision to apply the new knowledge and skills is still on the clients’ shoulders. They are in the driver’s seat to the new horizons (or maybe not).

Mentoring is the most obtrusive tool of all, which doesn’t mean we should avoid it. It needs to be used with caution and a deep awareness of the mentor and the mentee's impact and dependency. Here, the mentor (an agile coach wearing a mentor’s hat) pairs with the clients. The mentor is an expert in the domain. He or she shows new practical skills, gives exercises, provides feedback, gives pieces of advice, and leads by example. Usually, some teaching happens between teaching sessions (or had already happened earlier) to explain the practices' theories.

A great agile coach has mastered all of the four stances and uses them constantly and alternately.

Source: Alexey Krivitsky &

The Agile People Coach Difference

An Agile People Coach is different from an Agile Coach, although the basic understanding of agile values, agile tools and methods, systems theory, and organizations are the same. Agile People Coaches, versus Agile Coaches, coach people in all areas to continuously improve value and flow. The emphasis is on People over Process, and they have a broader, more inclusive approach based on three levels: “me and you,” then “we as the people in a team,” and then “all of us as part of the organization.” It’s about teaching people how to build themselves up through self-leadership and then developing a high-performing team that supports the company (and its culture) as a whole. Agile People Coaches understand basic human needs, behaviors, teamwork and support an emerging strategy towards the organization’s purpose.

They need to know that the secret to success always comes from people’s motivation to create value, and different things motivate different people to perform. How well you can create conditions for people to perform together will affect how much value is created for the organization. A core quality for an Agile People Coach is coaching people to find a place where they can be their best.

The Agile People Coach also needs awareness about tools, methods, models, and frameworks for making a regular business department or a management team (where they still exist) perform. Making people work cross-functionally between departments such as Finance, IT, HR, Legal, Marketing, or R&D requires knowledge about new ways of working that will promote communication across the usual boundaries. Finally, the Agile People Coach needs to have competence around how strategies emerge and adapt and how to involve all people in the organization in the emerging strategy creation.

Moving from Agile Coach to Agile People Coach

... core quality for an Agile People Coach is coaching people to find a place where they can be their best ...

The Agile People Coach’s Skills and Roles

In agile, a “T” shaped competency refers to one’s skills' breadth and depth. The top of the “T” is one’s general experience and knowledge of several different topics. The stem part of the “T” represents a deeper understanding of a topic or one’s expertise. Having a T-shaped competency means that you are great in one or more areas but have a general familiarity with several others.

On an individual level, T-shaped competency represents the possibility to broaden or deepen knowledge in areas someone is interested in learning more about and/or what is needed to perform and contribute to the organization’s goals. For a team, having people with T-shaped competencies creates increased flexibility so that everyone can take over each other’s tasks. They learn from each other and try on many different positions. On the organizational level, it means that competency shifts are possible, which minimizes bottlenecks, and if someone isn’t performing in one area, they can easily shift to another.

The concept of T-shaped competence very much applies to the role (or roles) an Agile People Coach can take on given the specific circumstances. Noone can be fantastic at all of the roles, but people can choose which role(s) they’d like to develop further. Becoming an Agile People Coach is a continuous learning journey - you never reach your destination; you just become wiser with time. Now we also talk about pi-shaped, M-shaped, or even comb-shaped, depending on how many different roles you can take in the organization.

Moving From Formal Manager To Agile People Coach

The more roles you can take, the more valuable you become for the organization, as your understanding of how things work together will increase with every role you master. Generally, people who gravitate toward Agile People Coaching come from one of three different backgrounds: HR, leadership, or as an Agile Coach in the tech arena.

There are nine plus one, distinct Agile People Coach roles one can fulfill, but which one they choose to develop depends on both the individual’s competence and the organization's needs. Below, we will explore each role of the Agile People Coach in more detail.

... now we also talk about pi-shaped, M-shaped, or even comb-shaped ...

Moving From HR Professional To Agile People Coach

The Leader/Explorer Role

A leader can emerge from any department within an organization and has great leadership skills that have likely been in development for several years. They may come from a specialist role within a certain function, have a proficiency in various leadership frameworks, or possess a general, broad leadership competence. Worst case, they have been promoted from a specialist role and are not interested in leading people but would prefer to go back to work in their specialist area. In this case, let them do that. They will probably never become a good people manager.

... in the worst case, they have been promoted from a specialist role and are not interested in leading people ...

They can make hard decisions when no one else is willing to take on the responsibility or put a stake in the ground. They’re able to explore different strategies and consider a wide variety of factors when making decisions: the competitive landscape, market trends, people’s passions, and competencies, and the advantages/disadvantages for the organization as a whole.

The HR Professional Role

Ingen alternativ text angiven för den här bilden

This individual has experience as an HR business partner, manager, or specialist. They have a solid general understanding of what makes people tick and can have hard conversations to inspire people to excel. They are also the only role in the organization that deals with unions' negotiations and have competence around labor law and societal regulations.

The Coach Role

The coaching role is a keystone skillset that all Agile People Coaches need to master. It’s about helping people succeed by asking questions, using active listening, and providing meaningful feedback so they can:

• Frame challenges

• Examine assumptions

• Articulate what they want and need

• Remove obstacles

• Formulate clear goals and action steps

At the heart of the coaching role is the coaching mindset. They believe people are capable and smart enough to figure out their own best solutions when given an environment that allows them to think clearly about their issues or challenges. A common framework to start from is GROW.

  • Goal: goals and aspirations

  • Reality: current situation, internal and external obstacles

  • Options: possibilities, strengths, and resources

  • Will: actions and accountability

There are many different tools and coaching frameworks like GROW and a battery of coaching questions where the coach helps the coachee realize (by themselves) what is needed to take the next step.

... people are capable and smart enough to figure out their own best solutions ...

Use professional coaching when:

  • Pure facilitation didn’t give sufficient results.

  • You have done training and/or mentoring, and now you would like the clients to make decisions based on what you taught them.

  • You are working with a complex issue that requires a deeper look and insights.

  • You have enough capacity to work one on one with a person

The Facilitator Role

A great facilitator helps move the process forward without inserting their own opinions, thoughts, and concerns. They will stay outside the specific topic discussed and move the discussion to make sure everyone in the room has a say. Conflict resolution is one of their greatest skills, and they have deep knowledge of when a conflict becomes harmful instead of useful. Competencies include knowing when to interfere and when to stand back while keeping an eye on the process.

A facilitator does for groups what a coach does for the individual. Using a similar mindset, the facilitator knows that if the group can communicate clearly, it can be fully capable of figuring out smart solutions and clarifying challenges. However, we also know that people are people; they tend to slip into inefficient or dysfunctional behavior patterns that get in the way of clear communication and effective work. Two examples are conflicts or inefficient meetings. In those situations, the facilitator’s job is to help the group lead the process that allows them to communicate clearly and collaborate effectively.

... a facilitator does for groups what a coach

does for the individual ...

Use facilitation when:

  • You don’t know the current maturity level of the client yet

  • More obtrusive coaching is happening in another knowledge domain

  • You have done some training and/or mentoring and believe the client now has all the needed knowledge.

  • A whole group of people is engaged in the matter that needs help in driving their collaboration (e.g., building shared understanding or decision making)

The Mentor Role

A mentor is someone who has experience in your domain, who can give you guidance, constructive feedback, and advice and help you from his or her own experience. Often, but not always, this person is from within the same area/company/ role as the mentee. A good mentor can help you pick the right path to move forward and have the experience that could help you understand how to act in a given situation.

... can help you pick the right path to move forward and has the experience that could help you to understand how to act in a given situation ...

They are usually more experienced and senior to the mentee and have a “been there, done that” perspective.

Use mentoring when

  • You have gained trust from the mentoree(s).

  • You have solved similar issues in the past and have a set of proven methods.

  • You are an expert in the domain, and passing your skills on to the clients will make a change.

The Trainer Role

In many situations, especially when the team or specific members don’t have the basic knowledge of what to do, the most effective and quickest way forward is to teach the knowledge directly. A trainer’s role is to develop the competence of the students in a particular area.

One great tool for this is “Training from the Back of the Room,” a framework for Learning and Development that lets students go through reflective exercises and concretely practice the new solutions using trial and error. And in a training situation, people are in an environment where it is safe to fail.

Use teaching when

  • Previous facilitation and coaching resulted in a low level of insights.

  • It is possible to help the clients get insights by reviewing a case study or a made-up example.

  • You (or other coaches) can follow up on this topic later with coaching or mentoring.

The Guide Role

The guide has deep knowledge about the specific place you’re in or the specific topic you’re dealing with right now. They take you on a journey to understand the process and often teach or facilitate examples, stories, and expertise. A guide can demonstrate or share interesting information about the organization’s history as they have probably been around for quite some time. They step in to help teams avoid specific pitfalls by knowing exactly what they are and how to get past them.

... they step in to help teams avoid specific pitfalls by knowing exactly what they are and how to get past them ...

For example, if a team is developing a new solution to organize and structure work that needs to comply with labor law, an HR professional knowledgeable about labor law could step in as a guide to make sure the solution complies.

The Navigator Role

Agile organizations and teams often deal with highly complex situations and challenges. The human tendency is to look for the easy way out (best practices) or copy what others are doing, but complex situations require an experimentation process: probe, sense, respond. A navigator is comfortable with complexity and helps teams step into an explorer mentality so they can:

  • Frame the issue

  • Formulate a hypothesis

  • Design safe-to-fail experiments

  • Learn quickly what works and what doesn’t

Navigation requires deep knowledge about systems theory and complexity and experience using frameworks such as Cynefin 7 and knowing when to use which domain for guiding decisions. The navigator’s best friend is the compass, especially useful when a map does not mirror the reality of the path ahead or a thick fog of uncertainty surrounds the situation. He or she knows which tool (or tools) to use and/or how to pivot when a roadblock presents itself.

The Reflective Observer Role

Depending on the needs of your people, you take a different role to support them. The reflective observer role is that space in the middle of things, where rather than jump to conclusions or reacting too quickly (and possibly wrongly), you can figure out what is going on with the team and how you can best help them whatever scenario they are in.

... the navigator’s best friend is the compass, especially useful when a map does not mirror the reality of the path ahead ...

The skills you need to cultivate here are self-awareness and self-regulation, particularly being able to observe without judging. In so doing, you allow yourself to step outside of the situation, observe the group dynamics and the system, and assess for a moment before you step in and decide which of the other roles will give you the best response and offer the most help.

The Master of Agile

All Agile People Coaches must be a MASTER OF AGILE, which is to say they contribute with agile and lean tools, methods, practices, and principles and have deep experience from using agile in a variety of industries or situations – Scrum, Kanban, OKRs, and other agile or lean frameworks – and knows which tools are right for the given scenario or problem. If the exact tools do not exist, the Agile Master can adapt something else or create the right solution from scratch.

A Master of Agile is not a role; it’s an overall competency found in someone who fully understands agile values and principles and has a firm grasp of the mindset of agility.

The core competencies of an Agile People Coach are:

  • Leading Yourself by:

  • Knowing yourself

  • Keeping yourself motivated

  • Understanding mental models

  • Having an EQ (Emotional Intelligence)

  • Being a mindful leader

Helping Others to Lead Themselves by:

  • Having basic skills in psychology

  • Find motivation in others

  • Asking appropriate questions

  • Being able to coach and guide development in another person

... when mistakes are seen as learning opportunities, we can create a psychologically safe culture that forms the foundation for a learning organization ...

When people continuously improve and learn in a common direction, and when mistakes are seen as learning opportunities, we can create a psychologically safe culture that forms the foundation for a learning organization. When people feel safe to be vulnerable in front of their peers, they are destined to thrive, and so are the companies they work for.

Don’t get left behind the times. The Agile People Coach role represents an alternative career track for HR and managers in the new workplace. So if you did not already take some action to develop yourself in the desired direction, the timing could not be better. Constant change will be our new reality, and in that lies our opportunity. The next chapter will get some ideas about how the changing role can turn out for the new leader or manager.

Self reflection

  • Where am I already strong/weak?

  • What are the areas that I want to develop further?

This article is an extract from the recently released book "Agile People Principles - Your Call to Action for the Future of Work" by Pia-Maria Thorén and Agile People from Around the World.

130 views0 comments


Contact Us

General inquiries:

Visiting address:

Kungsholms Strand 159

112 48 Stockholm



+46 76 771 1029