People Management


People management goes by many names, including human resource (HR) management, talent management, staff management, people operations, and work force management to name a few. The fundamental goal of the People Management process blade is to attract and retain great people who work on awesome teams. This article addresses several topics:

Why People Management

There are several reasons why people management is important for your IT organization:

  1. People and the way they work together are your primary determinant of success. Organizations are a collection of teams working together to support the rest of your enterprise. The implication is that you need to attract and retain the right people and build awesome teams comprised of these people.
  2. You want to support people’s career aspirations. To retain top talent your organization needs to help these people remain so by providing opportunities for fulfilling work, training and coaching in new skills and new ways of thinking, and in mentoring.
  3. Greater employment flexibility attracts a wider range of people. To what extent will your organization support flexible working hours, flexible working locations (e.g. allowing people to work from home), flexible device options (e.g. BYOD), job sharing strategies, and many more strategies? Greater flexibility increases the attractiveness of your organization at the cost of requiring more robust collaboration, management and governance strategies. One employment strategy does not fit all.
  4. Many people-oriented activities fall outside the scope of what occurs on your work team(s). The hiring of people, people leaving the company, moving between teams, getting trained in skills not directly related to their current team efforts, and many more activities partially or fully land outside the scope of a team. Yes, a team should be actively involved in the decisions surrounding who is on the team but that doesn’t imply that they do all of the work surrounding the hiring process.
  5. Legal requirements. Every organization must conform to the laws of the territories in which they operate, and there are always laws around how organizations can treat the people that work for them. These laws vary by country, and sometimes even by territories within countries, and evolve constantly. The laws pertaining to how you hire, reward, and fire someone in San Francisco are different than the laws for someone in Toronto which are different again than the laws for someone in Moscow.
  6. Organizational sustainment. Your organization has long-term staffing needs, including succession and capacity planning. Succession planning focuses on identifying and supporting the people who are being groomed to fill key positions in the future. Capacity planning focuses on ensuring you will have enough people with the right skills in the right places at the right times to get the work done in the future.
  7. You need to manage your staffing mix. There are several employment options available to people: They may be full-time employees (FTEs) of your organization, they may be independent contractors working for a defined period of time with your organization, employees of external service providers who are assigned to work on your teams, or they may be consultants working with your organization on more of as-needed, ad-hoc basis. Each of these employment options have advantages and disadvantages and your organization needs to actively manage their overall staffing portfolio to ensure that they are meeting their long-term needs. This is an aspect of capacity planning.

A Disciplined Agile Mindset for People Management

There is all sorts of great advice out there for how human resource (HR) professionals can become more agile, including Pia-Maria Thoren’s book Agile People and the Agile HR Manifesto. Here are what we believe to be the critical philosophies that underpin a Disciplined Agile mindset for people management:

  1. People aren’t resources. This was certainly a lament as long ago as the early 1990s and we suspect even earlier than that. Calling someone a resource is insulting at best and agilists simply don’t tolerate it. Step one on your agile journey is to jettison the term resource once and for all, an implication being that “human resources” must be dropped too. We prefer People Management, although others suggest pretty much any combination of Talent/People/Human and Management/Coordination/Operations. Pick what works best for your organization, but please abandon the term HR. Enough is enough.
  2. Support agile teams. We need to enable teams to organize themselves, manage their work, and evolve their own process or “way of working.” The concept that a team owns their own process, that it isn’t inflicted upon them by “all seeing management,” is a fundamental of agile. Having said that, in the Disciplined Agile (DA) toolkit we recognize that teams must still be governed appropriately.
  3. Be flexible. Our organizations are complex adaptive systems (CASs) where teams will work together in an evolving, context-sensitive manner. One People Management strategy does not fit all, and any strategy we adopt must adapt as the situation evolves.
  4. Energize people. People who are energized, who are happy, who love their work are far more productive than people who are not.
  5. Enable people. We need to help teams get the funding and time required for training and coaching, to help set up communities of practice (CoPs)/guilds where people can help each other to learn their craft, and to help set up communities of excellence (CoEs) that offer explicit learning support to people. We also need to help leaders to push decision making authority to the people who do the work and help these people to accept this authority and responsibility.
  6. Inspire leadership. We want to inspire the leadership within our organization to be agile themselves, to move away from command-and-control management and become true leaders who motivate and enable our staff.
  7. Reduce cycle time. People managers must be able to move fast to support people when they need it, to hire good people when they become available, and to support the evolution of teams and their way of working when required. The implication is that People Management professionals need to perform key activities such as recruitment and supporting learning in a continuous manner, rather than the episodic efforts of traditional HR that are often motivated by the needs of a specific project or budget.
  8. Enable cultural and structural fit. When culture and structure become misaligned we effectively throw sand into the gears of our organization, reducing our ability to delight our customers. Our People Management efforts must actively strive to monitor this fit and then work with teams to help them become better aligned.
  9. Reward for agile behaviors. If we want to have an agile organization then we need to reward staff for behaviors that lead to this. The implication is that we need to reward people for delighting customers, for effective teamwork, for collaboration, and for learning.
  10. Govern lightly. Yes, there are still legal requirements and financial constraints that we must operate under. But, it’s important to recognize that we often have significant leeway in how we choose to respond to those requirements and constraints. So respond lightly. Effective governance is based on educating and motivating people to “do the right thing” and then making it as easy as possible for them to do so. Wording this as an agile value – Motivation and enablement over command and control.

The Process

The following process goal diagram overviews the potential activities associated with disciplined agile people management. These activities are performed by, or at least supported by, your people management (often called a human resource) team.

Figure 1. The process goal diagram for People Management (click to enlarge).

Disciplined Agile People Management

The process factors that you need to consider for people management are:

  1. Build agile culture. An important aim for your people management efforts is to enhance the agile facets of your organizational culture.
  2. Guide careers. Your organization should support the career aspirations of its staff, providing opportunities to people and supporting their efforts to achieve their goals.
  3. Reward staff. There are many ways that people and teams can be rewarded, including base pay, bonuses, and non-monetary rewards. For some people in some organizations their pay is publicly known (for example, in Canada public employees who make over a certain amount have their salaries published annually) whereas for most people their remuneration strategy is private.
  4. Manage staff changes. Your organization needs to perform basic functions such as hiring (onboarding) staff, letting people go (offboarding), promoting, demoting, transferring them and providing benefits to people.
  5. Ensure diversity and inclusion. Diversity strengthens your organization, and when you include a range of diverse voices in your decision making you will prove to be more innovative and more likely to delight your customers.
  6. Organize groups. What is your strategy for organizing your IT department? Your Marketing department? Your Finance department? For example, for IT do you do it by job function (e.g. have a business analyst group, a project management group, and so on), by geography (e.g. a North American IT department, a European IT department, and so on), by business division (e.g. an IT group to support Retail banking, an IT group to support brokerage, and so on), or by value creation (e.g. an IT group to support a specific product line). Or combinations thereof?
  7. Staff groups. You need to identify, and plan for, your organization’s staffing needs. This includes succession planning for senior people, critical technical positions (yes, that includes all those legacy COBOL programmer positions), and other critical roles such as product owners. This also includes staff capacity planning/forecasting as well as determining your mix of full time employees (FTEs) and contractors.
  8. Form teams. There are different types of teams that can be formed to address IT functions, each of which are (self) organized differently.
  9. Evolve teams. Team membership and structure evolve over time, and there are several common strategies that enable this. Some teams are ad-hoc, forming when their needed and disbanding when they’re not, with little or no management intervention. Sometimes people are assigned to teams and sometimes people volunteer to be on a team. Some organizations are holacracies where teams are self-organizing and have defined strategies for enabling collaboration and communication between teams.
  10. Govern people management. Your people management activities, just like all other activities, should be governed effectively. An important aspect of people management governance is the definition of roles and responsibilities (see Roles on DAD Teams and DA Roles at Scale for suggestions), as is the usual measurement and monitoring activities. Governance of your People Management effort is an aspect of your overall Control strategy.

Internal Workflow

A people management team may be a single person within a small organization, a small group or department within a medium-sized organization, and a large group or collection of teams within a large organization. In many organizations the people management team is still being called the human resources (HR) team or the HR department, although some organizations use terms such as Talent Management team or even People Operations team.

Figure 2 depicts the high-level workflow for a people management team. A customer of the team, perhaps an employee somewhere in your organization asking for career guidance or a manager asking for help with their staff, submits a request to the team. This request is triaged. Straightforward requests that you address on a regular basis are handled via your day-to-day workflow. Requests that are unusual, perhaps because they require a large effort to address or because they are the result of a unique event for your organization, are either handled via a project lifecycle or are organized into smaller pieces of work and handled by your day-to-day workflow.

Figure 2. The high-level workflow for a business team (click to enlarge).

High-level lifecycle for a non-software team

Internal Workflow: Day-to-Day (Continuous Flow)

We find that a lean approach where the work is performed in continuous manner is the most appropriate for the day-to-day work of people management teams. The fundamental idea is that people management professionals face a constant stream of requests for help, each of which should be prioritized and worked appropriately. The lean lifecycle of Figure 3 addresses this situation well.

Figure 3. A lean lifecycle for business teams (click to enlarge).

Lifecycle - Business - Continuous 

Let’s work through Figure 3 one aspect at a time:

  • New requests. Other teams within your organization will make requests of a people management team on a regular basis. Examples of new requests may include onboarding someone, offboarding someone, helping someone identify a mentor, addressing behavioural issues of an employee, consulting with a team or manager to help them to understand people management issues surrounding a decision, executing on a communication strategy, addressing a minor regulatory change, and many more. Sometimes the work for a project (see below) comes in as a large batch of requests. Each new request captured as a work item and put into the work item pool for the team.
  • Work items. The work items for the team are often maintained via a Kanban board. For a team working at the same location this is very likely sticky notes on a whiteboard or wall that is easily accessible by the team. For a team that is geographically distributed it very likely be a digital tool such as Jile or Trello. The aim is for the team to self organize and manage their own work.
  • Prioritize the work. Someone within the team, or collaboratively by the team itself, will need to prioritize the work items. On a software development team there is often someone in the role of Product Owner who would do this work. On a People Management team this role typically doesn’t exist, so this responsibility tends to fall either on the Team Lead/Manager. Prioritization is typically performed on a just-in-time (JIT) basis when the work is pulled into a team, although it can be done any time at the discretion of the person responsible. The more frequent that new requests for work come in, the greater the need to prioritize JIT.
  • Pulling work into the team. The team pulls a single work item into their process when they have the capacity to do more work. You want to pull in the highest-priority work that can be performed by the person(s) with the ability to do that sort of work.
  • Performing work. The team, or typically a subset of the team, performs the work to be done to fulfill the given work item.
  • Obtain feedback. As the work progresses the people doing it should obtain feedback from others, in particular the person(s) from which the request came from, to ensure that they are on the right track. Feedback can come from informal demonstrations (“hey, can you come look at this”), formal demonstrations, requests for feedback, reviews, and so on.
  • Coordinate. The team should regularly coordinate the work that they are doing. A common practice is to have a short (10-15 minute) huddle/stand-up meeting each day to do so, although we’ve seen teams coordinate twice a day and other teams as little as once a week – we find daily to be effective in most situations. During these coordination sessions the team will typically discuss their priorities for the day, their expected capacity to do work that day, and any bottlenecks they foresee or are currently experiencing. Each team will discover a coordination strategy that works for them – when to hold the sessions, what to discuss in them, and most importantly how to keep them short and focussed.
  • Replenishment sessions. This is a working session where team members identify work that they believe should be performed. This may be to address team-health issues (perhaps to receive training or have an team-building exercise), to address long-term strategic goals, or to run experiments with new ways of working (WoW) amongst other things.
  • Finish. When a work item is complete the appropriate customer(s) of that work item are notified and the team now has capacity to pull more work in.

Internal Workflow: Projects

A project is a piece of planned work or activity that is performed over a period of time to achieve a particular outcome. Projects are large pieces of work, typically taking many days or weeks to accomplish, that require a significant (for your team/organization) budget. Common projects that a people management team may experience:

  • Review and rework of organizational policies due to regulatory changes.
  • A layoff/downsizing event.
  • An acquisition/large onboarding event.
  • Annual reviews (yes, this is a questionable practice but many organizations still do this).
  • Organizing a hackathon or college recruiting event.
  • Large learning events such as conferences or team-building exercises.

Figure 4 depicts an agile project lifecycle that a people management team may choose to follow to implement a project. This lifecycle is based on the Scrum method and has been extended to address the full lifecycle from beginning to end.

Figure 4. An agile project lifecycle for a business team (click to enlarge).

Lifecycle - Business - Agile Project 

Let’s work through Figure 4 one aspect at a time:

  1. Initial vision and funding. Someone within your organization will identify this new project, the outcomes they would like to achieve from it, and initial funding to do the detailed inception work to get it going.
  2. Organizational roadmaps and guidance. Your organization very likely has guidance (standards, principles, guidelines, …) that it expects teams to follow as well as business roadmaps that your team should work towards. These things should be known to to team and will guide and constrain the decisions that you make.
  3. Project inception/initiation. This should be a short period of time, typically hours or days. The aim is to perform fundamental project initiation activities such as putting the project team together, identify and understand what work needs to be performed, and plan how you intend to do the work. You want to do just enough organizational work so that your project will be successful. For large or complex projects you may find that you want to have an executive review of your strategy before the rest of the effort receives funding.
  4. Work backlog. The backlog will first be identified during Inception but then allowed to evolve over time based on feedback and evolving needs. It is very common, and should be expected, that your understanding of what work needs to be performed will evolve as the project progresses. The work backlog is typically ordered by business value so that your team will focus on the most valuable work at all times. It is also common to consider dependencies between work items as well – sometimes if you do X first then Y and Z are much easier to perform.
  5. Iterations/sprints. We have found that a one-week sprint tends to work best for typical people management projects. At the beginning of the sprint the team identifies the work the believe they can complete during that period, they plan what they need to do and how they’re do it, and then they do it.
  6. Iteration/sprint planning. At the beginning of each sprint the team gets together, they identify the work items they believe they can accomplish during the sprint and they collaboratively identify what needs to be done and who will do it. Agile teams are self organizing in that the people doing the work are the ones who plan the work – the manager or team lead may facilitate this planning work but they don’t tell people what to do. This is an important nuance that is critical for agile culture.
  7. Daily work. People on the team collaborate to accomplish the work. Hopefully team members are able to work with the customer, or at least someone who can fairly represent the customer, so that they can get input into their work to ensure that what they’re doing reflects the actual needs of the customer.
  8. Iteration/sprint wrap up. At the end of each sprint the team should seek feedback on what they have done, which is particularly important when they have not had access to their customer(s) earlier in the sprint. This feedback session is often a “show and tell” or a demonstration. The team should also consider taking some time to reflect on how well they’ve been working together so as to identify potential improvements.
  9. New ideas. Customers/stakeholders will often generate new ideas for your team when they’re given the opportunity to see what you’ve done. These ideas can come in at any time although it is common to generate ideas during demo/feedback sessions.
  10. Transition. Once the work is complete, or at least a valuable portion of the work is complete, it should be delivered or transitioned to the customers.

We find that an agile approach tends to work best for most business-related projects due to the regular cadence provided by iterations/sprints. Having said that, there is nothing wrong with taking a lean approach instead if your team is more comfortable with that. See Figure 5 for this sort of lifecycle. However, in practice we’ve found that when a people management team prefers a lean project approach over an agile one the more common strategy is to simply organize the project work into a collection of tasks and then feed it into your normal day-to-day workflow.

Figure 5. A lean project lifecycle for a business team (click to enlarge).

Lifecycle - Business - Lean Project