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AGILE PEOPLE - Book Overview and Opinion

8. January 2019 / Michal Vallo

Last year I came across the book Agile People by Pia-Maria Thorén, and I would like to share some observations. Originally I wanted to write a review, but I have ended up with so many opinions that I tailored my article rather to be an opinion about the book. Concepts of agility become more popular so they start appearing in areas, where they were not considered much. And while Agile is mostly human organization technique, we do not see human perspective to be addressed enough in the literature. In fact, literature focuses more on process and technocratic side of Agility, therefore book about human element is more than necessary and very welcomed.



Who is Pia-Maria Thorén?

Pia-Maria has previous practice in HR department and she works in Stockholm as consultant for HR departments in area of Agile HR, Agile Leadership and Motivation. Therefore the book comes from needs in this area.


What is the book about?

In general, the book presents the set of concepts used in agile organizations and which people working in HR departments might find useful. She explains them what is Agile, what is the role of HR department in agile organization and encourage HR people to take initiative and guide managers on the journey of transition process. In her view, it is HR department responsible for organizational structure and people management, but it is not active enough with in today’s companies with adoption of Agile into organizations as it should be.

The book presents several concepts, frameworks or ideas, which are supposed to illustrate principles of agility on organizational level and which should be purposely implemented into organization, e.g.: 1) Scrum, 2) Management 3.0., 3) Modern Agile, 4) Reiss Motivational Profile, and some more, sometimes under their original label and sometimes relabeled as something different. Many chapters are accompanied by stories from the companies to illustrate the matter.

In the book one can find some overview of the areas with which HR people are familiar with and suggest some using some agile techniques there. Areas includes organizational structure, performance management, agile rewards, agile recruitment, learning and development, agile leadership, agile management, employee engagement, …. and more. I found myself interesting mention of the Reiss Motivational Profile, which I was not aware of and which I have to investigate further. And I found many good ideas, which catch my attention, either because of the form (wording) how some activity was explained, or it was different use of something I know and I found it worthy to try.

However, the book remains on this idea and techniques compilation. There is next to nothing of author own experience and contribution to the topic. It is a pity because this would be most valuable part of the book. Across the book there are many ideas and suggestions, which comes in a form of statements, but without any explanation. Sometimes they are just taken from somebody’s else book without giving enough context. I found it annoying because some practices or techniques are presented as if they were compulsory in Agile. However, these are only standard good practices, which are by coincidence more used in environment of Agile organizations now and then. Some suggestions even have nothing to do with Agile or agility at all (they may be good if the context is right).

I like mention of organization around four value streams – culture, talent, engagement and performance flow (page 269) because it is very similar to my 4 layer framework (motivation, value creation, knowledge management and response to change) which I use nearly 8 years at my projects to cope with various aspects of agility in organization. It is nice to see somebody has developed similar view.


My objections toward some arguments in the book.

I personally do not agree with concept of people from HR departments taking initiative and leading managers or organization toward agile world. Rationale in pages 63-70 is wrong. Partly because I strongly believe organizations are managed by managers and those are people to drive organization toward some goal. In particular (page 67), I think that the fact that because HR department communicates naturally with all other departments does not give it right and authority to appropriate the role of Agile Transformation Leader for itself. I also do not agree with author, who proposed following activities to HR department, because it is purely not business of HR. In brackets I indicate who is supposed to be in charge:

  • Leadership programs and development (role of Management)
  • Change management (every department)
  • Organizational development (Top Management, broken down into particular goals for everyone)
  • Employee engagement and retention (every single manager in the organization + well defined culture + disciplined demand to act according values)
  • People development and learning (people, and direct supervisor)
  • Reward strategies and bonus system (management – board, with contribution of every associate)
  • Talent acquisition (well, everyone in the organization)
  • Long-term workforce management (here I do not understand what it exactly is)


I am also convinced that HR department is auxiliary service. Traditionally it attracted people with lover qualification and acumen, so I would just expect from these people to deliver service for which they were created – recruiting, administration and legality of employment contracts, onboarding training and perhaps communication of organizational objectives and values on labor market and having them consistent with organizational goals. May seem very trivial, which indeed partly is. But as complexity of work increased and world shifting toward creative economy, there will be need for much more creativity from these people on how to secure organization with enough talent for its proper functioning. Not an easy job anymore.

For illustration of the topics there are used examples taken from books of other authors, mostly from Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux and some from What Matters Now by Gary Hamel. Author however did not visited mentioned organizations. And did not verified on site whether these techniques are indeed in place, whether they are indeed used as described, whether they are good illustration of the element and whether there really exists any correlation between use of the techniques and outputs, which the book propose. I am very careful and sensitive to this non critical picking over of unverified examples. I was for nearly decade actively looking for examples of agile organizations, which are doing something worth following, for inspiration of delegates at Agilia Conference. I found that many examples mentioned in the agile books have never existed, existed for short period of time and then vanished, or were used with very different objective in mind and can’t be used to illustrate the matter, or sometimes they proved wrong and were abandoned.

Book often presents ideas, copied from other authors, which are very theoretical and not supported by practical experiment or observation. I just can’t buy allegations, that agile companies have to or are investing a lot into education of people because it will make them more Agile. Similarly I do not buy allegations about paying highly above average will improve performance and engagement, because academics “observed” high salaries in good companies – here in book e.g. chapter Agile Rewards. Academic often lives in illusion, that organization has somewhere secret printer and can print unlimited amount of money. They often keep forgetting that best companies became successful first, only and only then decided to pay above average salaries or invest heavily. Filthy high salaries does not motivate to great performance nor creativity. And some organizations have access to undeserved resources (currency rate, subsidies of some type, …), which are not available to others. Business environment is not fair.

Reality for managers is often more complex. I saw in my life many more great companies, which were struggling financially than those which have had abundancy. Managers often balance on the cliff, when it goes to where to invest. I wish academics tried to launch some business at least once to gain practical experience about what is indeed possible.


What I am missing in the book?

I am missing the topics and challenges, which HR departments will increasingly face and which they can’t solve themselves without close co-operation with entire organization.

Agile changes the paradigm – it shifts perception of the role and purpose of an individual in the organization. It is the shift from just a cogwheel in the system toward partner and co-entrepreneur. It has many implications both for organization and for an individual. For example how to change legal relation between individuals and organizations? Work laws assume there is a worker (resource) in the factory and relation is purely transactional, but it is not the case in Agile organizations. There is nothing about trends in this area.

And I was also hoping to learn how the HR departments will reflects situations like follows:

  • Recruitment of a new partners for the organization? Dealing with issues of trust, engagement and performance.
  • How can HR department help newly acquired colleagues to become productive and contributing in a changed paradigm, where there are no commands?
  • How wants HR department use new agile techniques and approaches to improve its own work? The book mention that Scrum exists, but it says just little about how HR department could use it for itself.
  • What are the new problems and challenges HR departments solves now and will increasingly do in the future in the context of agile organizations? And how those could be approached?

If somebody have read the book, I would like to know what are his/her opinion and perception.

PS: I have shared with author my deep observation, which was 9 pages long document.


About author: Michal Vallo helps managers to understand agile techniques, benefit from its adoption to their organizations and consequently radically improve organizational overall performance. He is principal, agile trainer, coach and manager at Aguarra, founding member of Agilia community and organizer of Agilia Conference / Agile Management Congress in Olomouc, Agilia Budapest Conference and Agilia Prague conference.

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