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Agile HR at workplace - Wayne Tarken [Interview]

Agile HR at workplace - Wayne Tarken [Interview]

April 13, 2022

About Wayne Tarken

Wayne Tarken is an HR coach with Agile HR Consortium. He has a vast experience of 15 years and helps HR leaders worldwide solve queries from anything related to technology and emotional aspects of work. He is also a faculty of organizational dynamics at the University of Pennsylvania. Doing his part to keep the HR world updated, we are happy to have someone of his stature on our interview series.

Aishwarya Jain

Agile HR At Workplace - Wayne Tarken [Interview]

We have the pleasure of welcoming Wayne Tarken today to our interview series. I’m Aishwarya Jain from the peopleHum team. Before we begin, just a quick intro of PeopleHum. peopleHum is an end-to-end, one-view, integrated human capital management automation platform, the winner of the 2019 global Codie Award for HCM that is specifically built for crafted employee experiences and the future of work.

We run the peopleHum blog and video channel which receives upwards of 200,000 visitors a year and publish around 2 interviews with well-known names globally, every month.


Welcome, Wayne. We are thrilled to have you. 


Thank you. Glad to be here. Thanks for the invitation.


Absolutely. Thank you so much for making the time, it’s our pleasure.

So, Wayne, tell us a little about your journey so far, 15 years in the industry! Can you share some experiences that shaped your thinking and inspired you?


Well, I think, ever since I was a little boy, I was curious about things. So I've always been someone to look below things and try to break things up and figure it out and I had a very successful HR career inside organizations and outside organizations.

About nine years ago, I decided to go on inside and try something new. And I actually went into the IT world and became a scrum master, which is name for Project Leader in an Agile environment building code for IBM. And so we were working on some of their large enterprise, double human capital systems. And, I was enjoying the work.

Then I realized that agile did one thing that I hadn't really seen before. It actually worked. It actually took big projects, broke them down to small pieces and they turned out to be successful.

I have been frustrated many years before that because I have done a lot of technological limitations, tracking systems, ARPs, and they all generally had big problems, and most were not successful, and here was a solution that really worked. I said to myself, why can't we do this in HR, right? It's not just IT, much of HR is project-related.

And so, nine years ago, I started thinking about it. Fast forward 2015, I got involved with the consortium on the West Coast called, consortium to reimagine work, and I was able to articulate my view of agile HR.

This was 2015 and so I went back had some CHRO jobs, 2017 kind of went out and thought about doing this full time. I'm gonna evangelize this because I believe in it and built this consortium of about 70 plus companies who get together for open source sharing collaboration. We developed this concept that agile methods could be applied to HR. And so that's where we are today. 


That is wonderful and I'm sure it must have been quite a roller coaster ride for you, right?


It still is. When you meet someone, do they ask you what you do for a living? Well, I'm an Agile HR coach. They say what's that? I describe it this way. Do you know those meetings that you go to in your business that go on forever?

The same thing comes up each week and no one ever accomplished anything. And everybody's frustrated, well, agile helps solve that. Because it looks at different ways of breaking things down into pieces. And so people typically get it that way. People perceive it as being an IT function, an IT product or strategy, but it isn't. It takes the best of IT and combines some leadership practices. If there's something that works in HR or marketing or finance or sales, I think it could be applied anywhere in the organization.


Yeah Absolutely. It's about being, you know, more responsive and just a way of organizing the function as such, for more adaptiveness for activities as a structure.

And yeah, it must be a little difficult to sell that concept because, maybe people are not aware of what exactly the term is or people somehow do not give a lot of importance to HR as a whole. In organizations, it's overlooked many times, and I think that is also a problem. Don't you think so?


Yeah, I think so. I think that's why we came up with the saying called EBITDA. So in the business, financial world, EBITDA - Earnings before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, Amortisation is a financial term. It describes financial health and so we struggled for a while because all transformations are linguistic, you need to have a certain language and we realized that we needed to do something.

One day, I was listening to Ginny Rometty on TV. She was the CEO of IBM when I was there, and she was talking about people and I said, 'Wow, that's it.' And so we created an EBITDA version for agile. Experimentation, break big things in small pieces, incremental letter of work, timebox activities, self-guided teams, servant leadership and always be engaging customers.

And so that helps take a little bit of the mystery out of it. Because a lot of those things people relate to, some are tactical, some strategic. But I think that's hopeful. And a lot of people are figuring it out. Understanding it's not so mysterious thing that's IT. And something that we can use in our own organizations.



Well, any change is difficult. I think, those of us who are involved with agile for a while, we tend to think everybody should know, everybody should embrace it. And, we have to be careful how we talk about it because first whom we're talking to has probably never heard of it, they fear it. So I think it's getting people to embrace change, to incrementally try to get your hands around this. I don't recommend that someone go full bore, a full blast on Agile.I think you've got to start small.

I think the biggest impact you could have is the way you meet. You know, those monthly or once a week meetings where nothing ever changes. People get frustrated. I think if you kind of start with doing some short scrum sessions 10-15 minute sessions every day versus two-hour, three-hour meetings once a week, you'll develop cadence. You'll identify problems, work quickly.

That's a big issue with organizations. There are gonna be problems. We can't avoid that. But how do we respond to it? And most companies flail with that, whereas agile helps you articulate, find what the problem is and come up with solutions in a short period of time. So I think it's just a matter of a comfort level. Most organizations, uncomfortable with experimentation, they're designed to execute, not really, plan and think and try to do things.

So it's not incentivized, we're not designed that way. But I think some organizations, especially in the financial industry, banks, ING is an example, companies that are going through disruptions are more likely to embrace agile or other tools, adapt to space.


Absolutely. I think this is something that we can adopt in our organization so that we bring about some kind of at least, a structure. And then when you talk about meetings and it's so absolutely true every week, we kind of schedule one-hour meetings. But honestly, we will forget about what happened in the last meeting, and it’s just back to square one, it's very frustrating.


Well, it's frustrating when people tune out. I was involved in a technology project at a big pharma company, and it's typically over lunchtime, always had lunch, so people came. But after a while, people stopped showing up because nothing was getting done. They were checking their phones. They were tuning out, and so how do we do work?

That's the main way we work, right? Meetings. And if our meetings are a disaster, how could we expect to get better at what we do? How could we expect to improve performance? I think shifting to breaking down big meetings into smaller ones that are more frequent but ask a couple of questions, that makes a lot more sense.

I think shifting to breaking down big meetings into smaller ones that are more frequent but ask a couple of questions, that makes a lot more sense


Absolutely I agree with you.

Wayne, you also teach organization dynamics at UPenn, why is building a culture that drives, ownership engagements so difficult for organizations?


Well, I would describe it. People have fear and people don't want to change. So if I'm a senior leader and I'm doing okay in my business and it's growing. Why change? I'm making money. I'm delivering my products. Stalking the executive in a consumer products company.

And she was saying, these guys have been successful for years, and they don't see the need to change. And why would they change even though every business is going to be disrupted at some point? And so, it's really making a business case that the way things are now are not gonna be the way things are in five-ten years. You have to get ready. And so I think it's that fear.

I think the other thing is people have seen these change programs for years, promising Nirvana in terms of Utopia and they haven't worked. And so people are some what skeptical about new things like agile design thinking and they have a right to be.

The good news I think when it comes to agile, is that it's been around since the 90s and it's established lots of successes. So it has a track record. But I think, again it comes back to any change initiative. There's always fear of the unknown. People come from where they are, they don't see the need to change. And that's what we teach our students. Change isn't easy, and it's gotta be incremental.

Change isn't easy, and it's gotta be incremental

You gotta figure out the targets of opportunity, where in the organization are people more receptive to kind of taking baby steps to kind of start change initiative. How could you support those managers? It's really almost the marketing plan.

A lot of companies make the mistake of rolling out massive changes for everybody. I don't think that works. I think you have to work person by person, middle manager by middle manager, engaging them, finding people receptive, then finding more people receptive, using the people who've adopted to sell for other people, and then create acritical mass.


So you need to take stepping stones to get off to a good position?


Absolutely. That's the beauty of agile, it is incremental. And so you start small and you scale eventually. And so the thing works with the change program. You gotta start small, have some success because if we're not successful, people get frustrated and management starts to lose patience and that's part of the agile, you build success that people could see every two weeks.

We need to build more successes. And so people see things happening. They endorse it, they want to be involved. It's just a better way to manage things.


Absolutely. And in this process how this technology plays a role. 

What other kinds of HR systems, now the legacy ones as we all know, are very complex and cumbersome, So how did the newer ones really help in this process?


What's funny is when I started at IBM, the big push there was to develop a suite of products that would go to one vendor and you have everything you need. It's kind of funny how that's still the other way around.

With things available in the cloud and open source and APIs, companies like yours and others are able to kind of bolt onto a workday or SAP or PeopleSoft and provide individualized, functional certain areas. 

And so I think that's critical. But we have to change some of our thinking. It's like a lot of companies still focus on one big, massive technology solution that's gonna take care of all our problems. Well, it's not gonna take care of your problems. These things are overly complex.

If you look at Word and Excel, do we really use more than 20-30% of excel's functionalities? Probably not. And so who needs 70%? Same thing with technology. They're over-engineered to a degree, and so they become too complicated.

If you look at Word and Excel, do we really use more than 20-30% of excel's functionalities? Probably not. And so who needs 70%? Same thing with technology. They're over-engineered to a degree, and so they become too complicated

People use a piece of it, and you look elsewhere. So I think, absolutely technology.

And I think, they're easy to install now. People go on the cloud and use them on their own, which creates some kind of security and privacy issues. But it is the marketplace. So I think those kinds of small, emerging companies like yours could really have a big part of the technology HR ecosystem in the future.


Right. Absolutely.

I think if we adopt technology starting now, we can really make some progress, otherwise, I think there are a lot of traditional organizations that are still resistant to the idea of adopting technology? No, on the kind of automation anxiety as such, which is sad? 


Yeah. I think the most popular HR technology solution is Excel. I think a lot of people still use Excel spreadsheets for most of their decision making even though there are tools out there that could provide better solutions. The problem when you use excel is that other people know what you're doing. They can see that. And so that's why I think there's Google docs now. We have things online, but I think people just have old habits.

People are used to having something in front of them they could handle and manage. But I think as time goes on, with the cloud and the Internet. People are more comfortable, using a browser connected with people out there. So I think technology definitely plays a role here. 



And when it comes to behavior in organizations and workplaces, what do you believe drives politics at workplaces and the siloed behavior as such?


I think again, fear. People don't want to give up control. Even though we talk about, self-directed work and servant leadership. Most companies don't practice that and in some ways, employees don't want that, especially days like we're dealing with now. We want people to take care of us. We want someone to be in charge.

It's tough when your environment is like this where you don't know who's gonna be employed, who isn't, what's gonna happen, you're going to get sick. And so, we in some ways are desperate for leaders to help us. But leaders can only do so much, can't really depend on one person to help you. And so in organizations, we like the CEO to tell us what's going on and what we do. It's a lot harder to do it ourselves.

Now, it's not as effective. Self-directed teams can generate much more productivity, much more capabilities. But it takes time. it's an evolution. But I think the way we’re structured. the way we incentivize people, the way we select talent, the way we do budgets, the way we plan all focused on hierarchical decision making.

So anything that comes to defeat that or break that down is gonna meet resistance unless you have a leader who's really committed to it, who's thinking about the future and saying the way we do business today is not gonna be the way we do business in five years and really pushes it. And so you do need in some ways a hierarchy and leader to kind of really drive it so that we could have self-guided teams and servant leaders and we actually call it shared leadership. We believe that employees and leaders get together and they share leadership. It's not one or the other.

And so you do have servant leaders, you do have self-guided teams, but collectively a servant leader. So I think it's happening. The benefits are real. In IT organizations you see scrum teams, and self-guided teams and lots of great things. And so I think it's a matter of time. But there is still a lot of fear, a lot of resistance, a lot of politics until we reach a tipping point where we tip to the other direction.

If we ever do, we may not. Some organizations have been doing very well, not impacted by things going on then they stay the same way. Where if you look at financial companies and other industries that have been involved, they may look at things differently. 


Absolutely. I think a strong leadership will definitely, bring about some kind of order or drive the change to Success. And that's what strong Leaders are all about. They define the role and the value of systems and organizations, that absolutely makes sense.

And with the increase of the gig on me and there is an increase in the millennial workforce, how do you think this would fit into the existing system?


Well, being a gig worker myself to a degree, that's interesting. Everybody thinks all work is going to be gig focus. I'm not so sure about that. I think certain jobs will be gig focused. Others will not. There's the issue of how you could coordinate between gig workers and internal workers. Who are employees, who are not employees?

We have public policy concerns, overtime issues. There's a lot of legal ramifications. All this needs to be sorted out. I think not to be political, but one of the advantages of Obamacare was to promote the gig economy that people would have health care, which is the biggest barrier. I think to force people to go out on their own and do their own business. They didn't have health care. So that's been sort of changed. 

But and I'm not too sure of millennials versus boomers like myself for people in the middle, I think there's always going to be a subset of the population who like virtual work, like being on their own. It was gonna be a larger set of the population that liked being involved with a company.

But I think the issue is going to be, how do we integrate, coordinate between the two? You bring somebody on board as a new employee, there's an orientation program that takes weeks, they're integrated with the system. But when you have a person from the gig the economy, how do you bring them into your system? How do you indoctrinate them? I mean, when I worked at Comcast, I was a contractor. I worked right along with employees, and so what was hard to do?

The engagement survey. All the employees took it. It's not to criticize them. It's like in every organization. But I was there working just as hard just as integrated with the other people. But my opinion was asked, and I understood that. If you have a whole ecosystem of all kinds of employees, all kinds of workers, we need a better way of kind of bringing them all together in a cohesive way.

If you have a whole ecosystem of all kinds of employees, all kinds of workers, we need a better way of kind of bringing them all together in a cohesive way


Absolutely, I think coordinate will all kinds of people and have one inclusive workspace then we can move towards the future.

When I ask you, what do you have in mind, about what is ideal work experience?


Well, I'll tell you a story. I've been teaching a lot when I was teaching at a temple about 10 years ago. Maybe longer, had a student who had dual marketing and an HR background. So that's great. Great skill. That's the only time I've ever seen a student with that kind of dual major and I said to myself, That's interesting.

And then I evolved and as a consultant. You're more above the marketplace. Because you're trying to sell and interact. And then you're dealing with clients internally and you're not to be HR is a new marketing department. I mean, we need to treat our employees as customers. All the things that an organization does externally for customers, they should do internally for employees.

All the things that an organization does externally for customers, they should do internally for employees

And so you see a lot of companies employing that promoter scores. Analytics, which says, Would you recommend this company? And most companies have a negative, but they realized this and they're really focusing on that.

So all the programs we do should be marketed to employees, and it's not one size fits all. In HR used to put out something, everybody got to take it, and that's it. Now, it's customized for one, you need to look at the individual just like a marketer would do.

You do personas of your individual people and you target your efforts to this, so what a 25-year-old needs versus a 45-year-old with three kids needs, someone in a different location, an engineer, someone from India. They're all different, and so we need to adopt a mindset. These are our customers, and we need to respond to marketing. We need to analyze the personas we need to figure out what they need and then the messaging.

I did a blog recently where I talked about, It's the most used to be, The most important thing in HR was the service is a contact, not how it’s delivered and how it's received. Can I get it on my cell phone and can I get on my laptop? Can I get it on my TV? Okay, that's really the content differentiator. It's how I engage and make it easy for the employees to receive those things.

So that's a lesson that a lot of HR leaders haven't understood because we're used to that 'one size will throw it out to you'. We have a benefits program. We have a change program. We have a performance management program everybody's gonna do. It's gonna be done by December 1st. Whatever doesn't work that way anymore. I think We need to look at our employees as customers, and we need to respond accordingly.



And do you think that going forward, especially after we come out of the pandemic, the future of workers, as we call it, is going to change? Is the employee mindset and leadership mindset going to change?


I hope so. I think we live in what I called the age of experimentation. And for an agile person, this is ecstatic here because what we've done, we've created a huge experiment. You've taken all these people inside. We threw them outside into the workplace. It's like my expression. You Ready, Fire, Aim, which would actually focus on its not perfection, is trying it in fixing it. So we throw all these people out there now we got it forgot ways to incentivize a management problem.

So I think the future is bright. I'm optimistic that because of all this, experiments that companies will embrace more virtual work, more individualized work, more customized work.

But I'm not certain they are still a lot of pressure to execute in the way we've always done, because we've always been successful and this pandemic will pass and we'll go right back to the way business was and that's true. I'm not. I don't believe all these things. They're going to say are totally different. But you know, who knows?

I do think that things like technology analytics and artificial intelligence are here to stay. I've heard seeing companies are using them to kind of automate their customer service function. Any time you go to a website, you are gonna interact with a chatbot by which is the artificial intelligence behind it. It’s gonna interact with you. And so I still think the human element is so critical, but who knows what the future work is gonna be?

It's gonna be interesting for those of us who are excited about change. It's going to be a fantastic time and for those that are scared to death, they're going to be miserable.

It's gonna be interesting for those of us who are excited about change. It's going to be a fantastic time and for those that are scared to death, they're going to be miserable

 But do we really have a choice? I don't think so.


Yeah, absolutely. We need to take this in stride and be really headstrong about it and try and make the best of what might be coming for us and to be prepared as much as possible because this could be a very good chance. If you go to see and if you're ready to embrace that change. Then it's only gonna be more beneficial for you and your organization.

What is your advice to HR of right now in these times of crisis?


Listen, be empathetic, people are going through a tough time. Don't try for perfection. So look at our company response. You can say what you want about people should have known things differently. But I give them credit for the response.

I'm not involved in the business that is laying off people, so I may be a bit of perspective, but people are flailing a little bit and you're gonna have these systems don't work, and you're not going to get your treasury checks when you like it. But to me, these are good things.

They're trying. We don't have an exact road map. We don't have an exact process. Typically, if you had a government program like this, you would take years to put it together. Right where several months designed all the bells and whistles and all the nuances and all the problems.

Well, we don't have that luxury, so I give them a lot of credit for throwing out there. And to me. I think most employees realize that they're getting it right. Eventually, I'll work with them. And so if I'm an HR leader, I don't have to be perfect. I would take the same concept, be transparent. I don't have all the answers of HR. What I do know is I'm trying. I need your input. Help me talk to me. We'll do it together.

I think a lot of HR leaders don't have enough. They don't get the crowd behind them. The employees are too isolated. Get out there, talk to people. Have them communicate. Listen to them. We're all in this together, and I think because we're trying this.

We're doing the ready, fire, aim. I think people will respond. I think people know that people are trying to work hard. If it goes on for six months, who knows? But I think we'll see progress. We have already seen progress. People are I talk to clients, it's not ideal, but people settling into work more and they're getting better at it.

And so just, pay attention to employees, be empathetic, realize not to be perfect, don't aim to be perfect. Just try, be honest about what worked, what didn't. Improve it and move forward.

Pay attention to employees, be empathetic, realize not to be perfect, don't aim to be perfect. Just try, be honest about what worked, what didn't. Improve it and move forward

That would be my advice.


Wow, that is great advice. And I think a lot of people can benefit from this if they really put into practice and I don't think it takes too much to put into practice. You just need to have a very open mindset and be a little more proactive than you already are, I think at this point in time, a lot faster, just reactive. And we're probably reacting negatively instead of being positive. And we just need to change that tweak that a bit.

So I absolutely agree with you. Thank you so much for that advice. I had a really wonderful time Wayne, and thank you so much for engaging with us. Thank you for sharing your views. It's been a learning experience.


My pleasure is a glad opportunity to kind of evaluate HR and help people where I can.


Absolutely, thank you so much for that. And take care of yourself. 


Have a good day. Thank you. 


You too. Bye.

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October 25, 2021

A very inspiring list. Thanks for putting this together


October 25, 2021

This is such a great list of women leaders! More power to you all

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