“Agile Way of Working – The “R”evolution in People Management” door Marie Vandenberghe


You probably have heard something about Agile – the Spotify model…

Explaining everything about Agile would take pages and hours. Adopting the Agile way of working will bring a full bucket of benefits but, as in every huge change, attention should be paid to some key success factors. The purpose of this article is to explore the HR side of implementing Agile within a classical organization.

Moving to an Agile way of working will bring 3 main benefits to the organization:

  • Faster time to market – faster delivery which brings a wow effect for customers
  • Lighter structure and lighter governance
  • Increased employee satisfaction and engagement

Very shortly – How does it work?

The central element of the model is the “SQUAD” (a team of 8-9 members). A squad is an autonomous  MULTI-DISCIPLINARY team regrouping all competences /expertise needed to deliver a product/service or any purpose. As these people are sitting together, it makes them faster in taking decisions, solving issues and dependencies.

The key thing is that this team is an autonomous work group in a self-organizing mode. There is no boss …

A squad is multi-disciplinary; it can mix, e.g., IT specialists, product specialists, process specialists, data specialists, marketers, communication specialists … each squad will be composed differently as it’s important to populate a squad with the people having the specific required competences.

Why is this model a “R”evolution in people management?

If we look at a classical management model, we find mostly one person playing the two management roles:

  • Steer on the WHAT – what needs to be delivered, what tasks need to be performed …
  • Steer on the HOW – how things should be done, how competences should evolve, how people should develop themselves …

What about these roles in Agile? :

As explained, a squad is composed of people with very different expertise, meaning that a person in the squad could steer the WHAT (without being a formal “boss” of the squad member) – what needs to be done to deliver the purpose – but it would be impossible for that person to steer on the HOW – maintain and develop the various expertise – because he/she would need to be an expert in all domains!!!

That’s why, the only solution is to distribute the two roles over two people:

The WHAT is the responsibility of the “Product Owner”: he/she will be end responsible to deliver what has been committed by the squad in consensus. That person is not a specialist in all domains, he is not the boss of the team but will play a role that we could compare to a Project manager: coordinate, prioritize and solve issues when needed. That role can be done by a different person for each project/assignment (i.e., it is a temporary role – however some stability is expected, so typical role durations are 1-2 years).

The HOW is the responsibility of another person called “Chapter Lead”: he/she is an expert in one domain and will be accountable to maintain and develop the expertise of the chapter members. He/she is very development and people oriented. The Chapter Lead will also play a role as (standard) squad member in a squad. His/her Chapter will be composed by the people having the same expertise in the company (or part of the company). In some organizations, that person might also be the hierarchical boss.

For any organization willing to evolve towards the Agile model, the big challenge will be to go from the common people management model to this new model. Why?

This is a huge mindset change for the people managers. Some current people managers might become Chapter Leads or take the role of Product Owner. In both cases, they will have to let go part of their current tasks and authority.

Let’s take a concrete example: a squad having as purpose to develop a new application for the customers.

In such a squad, we might need multiple expertise: Product, Process, Digital, IT, Marketer, Data. This means 6 different domains of expertise.

The squad will be coordinated by one Product Owner, chosen by the squad members or by the head of the unit. He/she will be expert in (at least) one of the 6 domains. He/she needs to be able to make links, prioritize, manage stakeholders, solve impediments, promote the purpose …

As the Product Owner cannot be a specialist in the 6 domains, it’s crucial that all squad members are respectively experts in their domain, autonomous and team players.

Ensuring that people become and stay experts in their domain is the role of the Chapter Lead (one for each various domains).

Ensuring that people have the right behaviours (being autonomous, being team player, create trust in the squad, collaborate, being accountable) is the role of everyone …

Hopefully, a third key role has been created in the Agile model to facilitate the process: the “Agile Coach”. This person will play a NEUTRAL role in the squad, helping to build the necessary trust, facilitating the communication, clarifying the difference between the roles of Product Owner and Chapter Lead. He/she is a professional coach who understands the business and is also specialized in Agile methodology which implies, amongst behaviours, a lot of tools and ceremonies (meetings) which are not the purpose of this article.

4 HR-related key success factors

So, implementing Agile brings a lot of benefits for the employees who feel autonomous, free to take decisions and solve issues by themselves … and for the company. To make it a success, I would like to mention 4 HR-related key success factors:

First, recruitment:

For the role of squad member, the organization needs to select people with the right expertise AND the right mindset and behaviours: autonomy, accountability, collaboration, daring to speak up, self-awareness.

For the roles of Product Owner and Chapter Lead, amongst the competences of squad member, there is a need to recruit people with quite different competences and behaviours.

  • Product Owner: Prioritization, stakeholder management, communication, “sales”
  • Chapter Lead: People management, development orientation, coaching

For the Agile Coach, deep coaching skills, ability to learn and understand the business/the purpose of the squad and all specific tools related to Agile are key competences.

Second, internal communication:

It’s very important that the whole organization understands very well the concept of working in a squad: Agile is based on self-organization and requires a lot of autonomy, trust and collaboration to be successful.

The competence matrix and the weight of the competences will be different in Agile comparing to a classical people management model. People need to perceive the evolution in what is requested from them. They need also to receive support to change (communication, training, coaching…).

Third, a personal challenge for each individual:

According to the role people have in the structure, they will have to take in hands their tasks and responsibilities and let go what is not in their role.

To avoid deviations of the system which might bring frustration and conflicts, some behaviours like dare to speak up, communicate, give feed-back in a proper way, accept feed-back …, are a must.

Having the reflex of self-development and self-coaching is also part of the requested autonomy.

The Agile coach will help to accelerate this learning curve.

Fourth, performance management:

In such a model, how to approach the objectives setting and evaluation of the performance:

  • Do we privilege the squad (group) performance or do we look at the individual performance?
  • Do we look only at what is delivered to evaluate people or do we include the development of the competences and behaviours?

In any case, several actors will need to give input to evaluate properly the performance: the product owner, the chapter lead, the agile coach, the squad members, the stakeholders… which might be considered as more complex than in a common people management structure. This kind of 360° performance evaluation makes it for sure more enriching for the development of the employees.

As a conclusion, implementing the Agile way of working is clearly a benefit for the organization but of course, like in every big change, it implies, amongst others, HR challenges. After a while, the positive results on the engagement, the efficiency and the energy of the people working in that model are quite impressive.


Marie started her career within ING as a legal advisor specialized in HR matters. She has 14 years experience in the various HR domains but also 12 years experience in Business domains such as sales, program management, operational management. The last 2 years, Marie was Program Manager for the implementation of the Agile Way of Working within ING Belgium. In 2018, she has launched a new activity as Interim Manager specialized in HR.


Gepubliceerd door

Marc Plancke

Van jongs af aan ben ik sterk geïnteresseerd in hoe mensen zich gedragen, hoe ze elkaar beïnvloeden en hoe Jan daar beter in slaagt dan Mieke (of vice versa). Na het behalen van een licentie in de Psychologische en Pedagogische Wetenschappen ben ik eerst beginnen werken als psychotherapeut in een Dienst Geestelijke Gezondheidszorg. Daarna heb ik me gedurende een 15-tal jaar in verschillende sales functies uitgeleefd, zowel nationaal als internationaal. In 2004 heb ik me omgevormd tot HR freelancer met focus op rekrutering, development en employer branding. Eind 2012 heb ik Cantaloupe Interim Management opgericht, een bureau gespecialiseerd in het detacheren van HR Interim Managers en Freelancers.