How to hire ‘Agile people’​?

I often get asked what characteristics to look for if we want to build an agile team. Most people think of ‘skill-set’; as an addition to the traditional ‘role’. 

The challenge is: when we hire people for Agile ‘traits’, we’re usually transforming our organization. Transformation means ‘change’, ‘innovation’, ‘doing things differently’. If we look through our traditional lens, we see agile as ‘something that needs to get done’. This would match with adding a couple of skills to the job vacancies. 

Eric Schmidt describes it nicely in how google works when he shares Google’s ‘smart creatives‘: ‘Their common characteristic is that they work hard and are willing to question the status quo and attack things differently. This is why they can have such an impact. It is also why they are uniquely difficult to manage, especially under old models, because no matter how hard you try, you can’t tell people like that how to think. If you can’t tell someone how to think, then you have to learn to manage the environment where they think. And make it a place where they want to come every day.’ 

Here is a list with characteristics of Google’s ‘smart creative’. Having been around large enterprises in Indonesia for a couple of years trying to bring the ‘Agile spark’, I have highlighted a couple of the characteristics.

A smart creative has technical knowledge of their trade, hands-on experience, an expert in their field.

They’re analytically smart.

There is one question that shows whether this is within the person’s DNA: WHY? 

I have experienced a lot of ‘followers’. A follower assumes the boss or the teacher is right. When things are clear, we execute. This implies that rules ‘set from above’ (government, company, team) are ‘set in stone’ for the follower.

The analytical person asks: WHY is this so? WHY has this rule been set? WHY does my leader ask me to do X, while I think Y is a better solution (and will share that insight)?

Some people call this ‘critical thinking‘: being a critic, challenging assumptions, no matter who ‘owns’ the assumption or rule. 

They’re always referring to data to drive home a point.

Quick to iterate on their ideas and flex to the data’s results.

Ideas are cheap. Ideas are all over the place if you look for them. Some work, some don’t. The key of agility is learning and speed. We get an idea, try it out (using some simple version of the idea in action), learn from the outcomes and then continue or change course. 

An example from my own practice this week. For one of our clients we were discussing ‘how to assess whether a person fits into the agile squad he was assigned to’. We had a quick discussion about this and looked at: a. 360 degree peer reviews; b. performance review based on OKR; c. assessment by a scrum master and; d. self-assessment by the person. After 10 minutes of discussing what’s possible (or where we would hit a policy from HR), we agreed to go for a, c and d. 360 in a light version: create a survey (we already have some sample questions), share it with everyone, have 1 short session to explain and then see what happens. The assumption here is that the ‘smart creative’ would immediately jump on the opportunity to get feedback from his peers, which would add value to the appraisal discussion with his line manager. We agreed to try this assessment during march, see what insights it brings and then iterate with a better version in Q2. 

They create technical solutions to business problems. They understand the user and what the user wants. They don’t design and build for their ego; they look at the business case and user feedback.

They’re a fire-hose of new ideas which are actually good.

This one is important. If we have an agile team where ideas don’t flow (sign of which is: there are 8 people in the call and 2 do all the talking), we won’t grow as a team. We need everyone to ask questions, add new ideas for doing things differently. I’d add to the characteristics that I’d be happy even with bad ideas from while to while, as long as there’s a creative flow. 

The simple starting point for ideas: how does a person translate the ‘what’ into ‘how’? Does he wait for you to give him the ‘how’ OR does he execute even without asking you permission, the minute after you described what you’re after?

Often hard to manage.

They’re the person in the meeting who’s often frustrated because they’ve already come up with a solution before the agenda is readout.

Self-directed, they don’t like to be micro-managed although happy to collaborate and can articulate ideas to team members.

And that’s the killer: self-directed; self organized. While anyone who’s worked in an agile environment knows the idea of ‘self organization’, it often stays at that: theory.

To me, a self-directed person comes up with his own proposals for doing stuff (I say ‘let us start promoting this new product this week’ and they say ‘great, I will create a special pricing offer, 5 promotional posters, along with 2 blog posts describing why this product is important for the world’. And then they add ‘oh by the way, I’ve added google analytics to your personal LinkedIn so when I post the articles under your account (please give me your login), I’ll see exactly who clicked and where they ended up. I will share the data on Friday’). 

These are also the people who provide ‘comfort’ to me as a leader. They keep me updated throughout the week on what they achieved OR they ask for help when they get stuck. They don’t always reach the outcomes they set out to achieve, but if they don’t reach them, they will tell me WHY they got stuck, share insights on what they learned AND come up with ways to do things differently in the next iteration. 

And then the million dollar characteristic of an Agile change maker: entrepreneurial skills (audacity, vision, execution power, creativity, leadership). In any transformation, we need an Agile entrepreneur. This person drives the right behavior and ensure we get the right agile people on board. Here’s how Eric Schmidt appeals to the agile entrepreneur’:

‘But mostly, our hope is that we can give you the ideas and tools to go build something new. And when we say ‘you’, we mean you, entrepreneur. You are out there. You may not think of yourself as an entrepreneur yet, but you are. You have an idea you’re sure will change everything; you might have a prototype, or even a first version of a product. You’re smart, ambitious, and hunkered down in a conference room, garage, office, cafe, apartment, or dorm room, alone or with your small team. You think about your idea even when you’re supposed to be doing something else, like studying, performing your day job, or spending time with your kids and partner. You are about to launch a new venture. And when we say ‘venture’, we aren’t restricting ourselves to the technology startups that surround us in Silicon Valley. Employees expect much more from their companies now, and they are often not getting it. This is an opportunity: the principles we talk about apply to anyone who is trying to start a new venture or new initiative, either from scratch or from within an existing organization.

They aren’t just for startups, and they aren’t just for high-tech business. In fact, when skilled leaders can harness all of the great assets of an ongoing organization, that organization can have a far greater impact than a start-up. So just because you don’t have a hoodie and a seven-figure check from a venture capitalist, that doesn’t mean you can’t create the next big thing. All you need is the insight that your industry is transforming at a rapid pace, the guts to take a risk and be part of that transformation, and the willingness and ability to attract the best smart creatives and lead them to make it happen.’ 

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