Here’s Why Your Talent Strategy Is the Key to Agile at Scale

Pat Petitti

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

The authors of the recent HBR article Agile at Scale make compelling arguments for why executives at leading enterprises should push their companies to become more agile. In our experience working with leaders at 30% of the Fortune 1000, we’ve seen the importance of leaders reflecting agile principles in their own work, resourcing critical business initiatives with silo-busting teams, and thoughtfully sequencing agile rollouts as critical ingredients for success. In our view, the article is the start of a very important dialogue. Below we outline additional lessons we’ve learned while partnering with enterprises to move beyond interesting experiments and boldly towards operationalizing an agile workforce at scale.

1. This isn’t just about innovationit’s about how your company works. The article focuses on agility to drive innovation, and innovation teams are indeed promising places to pilot. We believe that this transformation to a more agile workforce need not center on innovation. It’s about getting work done faster, better, and more efficiently. Companies we see deploying an agile workforce effectively take the most important initiatives at the organization and use agile workforce concepts to deploy the best resources against them, regardless of where those resources are. This is consistent with the authors’ notions of removing bureaucracy and breaking through silos, and not just for innovation — indeed, for the most important work at the company. One leader at a Fortune 50 company framed it this way to us: agile lets his business operate more like a nimble flotilla of ships than like a large and lumbering tanker, which is especially important in rapidly-changing business conditions. It’s about prioritizing speed.

2. The days of Talent Acquisition are over. It’s time to think about Talent Access. The article touches on the importance of changes in talent acquisition and motivation needed to support agile at scale. Reconsidering incentives, the role of managers, and performance management are all key. And we believe that this is just the tip of the metaphorical iceberg. Companies where we see successful agile workforce rollouts stop building their talent strategy and infrastructure around talent acquisition (synonyms: purchase, possession, procurement) and instead build a competency in talent access (synonyms: connection, approach, introduction). This fits well with the idea of agile—which rests on the notion of engaging the right quantity of the right talent for a specific, well-defined mission. That does not always require a full-time employee—it just requires the right person with the right skills at the right time. Yes, talent will always include some portion of people with a company badge, and an agile workforce enables companies to engage employees in a more effective way. But it also includes the broader world of talent available to a company—freelancers, alumni, consultants. An organization should consider those options alongside employees and engage the best skills for the job to be done.

3. Ignore labor demographic trends at your own peril.  Shifting from talent acquisition to talent access is consistent with the way the world is already working. People beyond the borders of your company are working in a more agile way, and leveraging technology tools that make it possible. You’ve probably noticed many of your colleagues are choosing to work more in a more agile fashion outside your organization. This isn’t just about commoditized work; in fact, many of the very best people — think those with the most niche skill sets — are choosing a different way of working. For enterprises with skills gaps across their organization, losing these talented people is untenable. To maintain access to them (which may include keeping them full-time, or may not), you need to change how you do work inside the company to provide a similar experience to what exists outside.

4. Invest in the proper infrastructure, or agile won’t work at scale. As the article highlights, modularizing workstreams is important. That is difficult to do without technology. How are you modularizing work? How are you accessing and matching the right skills at the right time? How are you tracking outcomes? How will you do that across your entire organization? Without the right enabling technology, you may miss the mark. When you bring those tools into your company and allow people to engage projects they otherwise didn’t have access to, value results. Imagine an internal version of the gig economy that enables you to discover and engage the skills and interests of your employees across the far-flung reaches of the company… What would it mean to your high-performers—and to your company—for them to be able to raise their hand and apply their talents on projects across your business? What would it mean for your organization to better understand the competencies that exist within the company, and to have visibility into the skills your colleagues go outside the company to engage?

5. Start small, think big, move fast. As the article mentions, starting with a full-scale transformation to become radically agile is unlikely to lead to success. Starting small is critical. We also believe that small pilots must be designed with the end in mind. As you roll out tests in your organization, consider what you need to learn about what it would take at scale. We’ve seen companies start with pilots and think they’ve learned what it takes to scale, without realizing that there are fundamentally different implications for a scaled solution that can’t be tested in a smaller, controlled environment.

If you’re still reading this and have ideas we haven’t considered, we’d love to hear your thoughts! And if you want to discuss further, we’re always happy to talk.

Read more about Catalant’s take on workforce agility or download our recent research, Reimagining Work 2020.