A couple of months later, Blair is starting to think about how much her team has built new skills and learned new ways to carry out their work. But they still have a long way to go. Just the other day, when they were updating the list of factors that could impact their work, the team started to talk about gaps in their knowledge and skills. Their discussion was focused on how to bring every team member up to the same level on their core skills while having a few team members concentrate on mastering specific skills that could be valuable in the future.
Although each person on the team, including Blair, must complete a certain number of training hours each year, the budget to attend formal training always seemed limited.
“Also, some people on the team would get a lot out of going to a class,” Blair thinks, “While other people just need to get more experience—and get it quickly. And for other gaps that we have, I don’t even think formal classes are the way to go. I wonder what other ways there are to build up our skills quickly while not spending a lot of money.”1
People are an essential resource in an agile organization. They use their expertise and experience to carry out agility routines, make decisions, share information, and take action. Agile organizations invest in their employees because they know that underwriting will help the organization prepare for changes and solve both old and new problems that arise.
As the environment changes in new, complex ways, it’s hard to know ahead of time all of the tasks that employees will need to carry out. You may not even know the full list of skills that they will need, especially with rapidly evolving technologies. But you can anticipate that employees will constantly need to both learn new things and have the time to reflect and renew in order to carry out the organization’s mission effectively and efficiently.
In an agile organization, employee development is viewed as an essential investment rather than a cost. While it can be tempting to put employee development on the back burner or decide that employees should invest in themselves on their own time, agile organizations place a priority on employee development. That development pays off in several ways—employees are engaged, excited by, and motivated to carry out their work; they remain with the organization longer; they display higher individual and team performance; and they create the foundation for innovation. When the organization helps employees develop, employees feel valued—because they are valued. Retaining employees yields several benefits, including less time and resources on hiring and onboarding; it also results in a knowledgeable, experienced workforce who already understands your norms and environment. When employees engage in learning, they also carry out many of the activities that we’ve discussed, such as sensing, interpreting, and developing their knowledge network.
Agile organizations devote monetary resources to training employees. Sometimes, the best way for you or a team member to learn is to take a training course, a certification course, or even a college class. We encourage that type of learning as long as you and they screen out insubstantial courses and classes. If you need assistance finding the right course or class, ask an expert for help, such as a senior person in your organization or a professor at a local university. If formal training is a good option, then consider whether you or your team member plan to apply it to the job. It’s okay to do the training even if you think you won’t need to apply the material immediately—as long as you are confident that you will use it in the near future. And remember that agile organizations invest quite a bit in people skills as well as technical and functional skills. For example, a budget analyst might benefit from learning about negotiation tactics, or an IT analyst might provide better customer service after acquiring skills from a communication class. When a course or class is the right solution, be sure to get the most out of it by sharing some of what you learned with the rest of the team—ideally in a hands-on way, not just in a slide-based debrief. And make sure to document the courses and results in a prominent place so that others can benefit from it later. Not only will the documentation help you justify your budgets, but it will also help you with longitudinal tracking of skills development.
This approach doesn’t mean that you need a large training budget. Although there may be some instances where it makes sense for you or one of your team members to attend a training class or to pursue a certification, much employee development can be done inexpensively with a bit of forethought, such as through cross-training or rotating roles. Considerable learning occurs on the job, and classroom-based learning works best when the material is reinforced on the job. Low-cost ways to develop employees, in addition to traditional methods such as training and mentoring, include the following:
You should expect all employees to engage in some form of development. Whether they support stable or flexible processes, employees need to develop, albeit in different ways. Those supporting stable processes may focus on continuing to develop process-improvement skills (e.g., six sigma or process mapping), while those supporting flexible processes might focus on learning innovation techniques (e.g., design thinking). Both types of employees can benefit from advancing their technical or functional skills as well as their people skills. In fact, agile organizations place a strong emphasis on employees developing their teamwork and communication skills, which are essential for sensing and interpreting and sharing knowledge. Leadership skills can be developed at all levels, as appropriate for the role. And agile organizations find that the skill everyone needs is the willingness and ability to learn.
Employee development also sets the foundation for innovation. More specifically, research shows that organizations that place an emphasis on training and that formally document people’s developmental progress tend to be more innovative. In other words, creating an atmosphere where learning is expected and supported and where people become more competent pays off when your team comes up with novel ideas and solutions to both old and new problems. How does this happen? When people gain new skills, they are likely to uncover solutions to new problems or find new solutions to existing problems. Sometimes people draw connections between a new idea or technique that they recently learned about and a problem that they are experiencing on the job and come up with new insights. Seemingly unrelated information can bring new ways of thinking about problems, which then lead to new experiments. Learning experiences can also help employees enhance their professional networks, which can lead to new insights as well.
Effective employee development is linked to reduced turnover, which is often what organizations desire, because turnover is disruptive and expensive. Although you want to control turnover as much as possible, a couple of situations exist where it can play a valuable role. One situation is when someone on your team wants to transfer to another part of the organization to further grow their skills or advance their career. Even though you may miss having their skills and working with them personally, the whole organization benefits by providing growth opportunities. Consider how the employee adds to your knowledge network. Find ways to include the employee when sensing, interpreting, and responding overlaps between your team and the employee’s new team. And extend an offer for the employee to return to your team, in either the same or a different role.
Another situation is when an employee wishes to leave your organization because their career goals are no longer aligned with the mission. You can try to find them a different role that meets their career goals, but if that is not possible, make sure to extend an offer to return should their goals re-align. In the rare instance that the employee is not agreeing with the agility principles, it may be best to part ways.
Cultivating a learning orientation will not only help your organization become more agile, but it may also support individuals in their career trajectories. Research indicates that having a learning orientation correlates both with promotion potential and leadership potential. Research also shows that creating an environment that supports learning and development is more likely to yield innovative ideas.
An essential skill for employees in agile organizations is the ability to learn quickly. And those with the view of “I don’t want to learn anything else” do not fare well in an agile organization. So when selecting employees, take into account their views on and their track record of learning. You want people on your team who are curious, excited, and able to adapt their approach as their circumstances change, since your organization’s environment is also changing all the time.
For existing employees, expect them to learn on the job. If someone has time available while waiting for a new project to start or a spare half hour on a Friday afternoon, expect them to use that time learning something relevant to their work. You could suggest they take advantage of resources, such as blogs or podcasts, that are aimed at learning in bite-size chunks. Or ask them to create their own repository where they can store resources and information to read later (and to share with others). Make them aware that sometimes insights occur when you’re reading something different or taking time to refresh and reenergize. And be sure to set a good example by sharing with your team all of the new things that you are learning. Of course, not everyone will be on board, so when faced with a skeptical employee, try to gently convince them to learn (and share) at least one small piece of new information.
Having a learning plan for your team can also be helpful. A learning plan can be very simple—you can find one topic or skill—even if it is small—that your team can begin to learn about. Or consider something that you have little knowledge of and that would help your work. It could also be something more formal and complex—for example, individual development plans, budgetary requests for training—depending on what works best for your team and internal processes.
While you don’t need a detailed, labor-intensive plan, it will help to know who is learning what and how that aligns with what your team needs to know now and in the future. Your team will also benefit by knowing what skills you and other team members are trying to develop. Consider asking your team to share their learning plans; you can get them started by sharing your own. For transparency, post the learning plans where they are accessible throughout the year. Try to focus and prioritize learning, but don’t neglect the long shots; spending time to better understand those low-probability, but potentially impactful events, that may occur in the future can pay off in surprising ways.
You may also wish to set aside a regular meeting time for the team to share quick updates on their current learning journeys. Through this sharing, you will likely discover that different employees embrace different ways of learning: one employee may prefer to read books or articles (sensing), while another may enjoy participating in interpreting conversations, and yet another may relish carrying out experiments. All of these learning methods are valuable. But after just a short time, you will probably be amazed at how much learning has taken place. Remember to take time to acknowledge and celebrate all of the effort that others have put into learning.
One term for sharing what you are learning with your team is public learning. Talking about what you are learning, where you are struggling, and how your new insights might change your current approach will help employees better understand that it is okay for them to do this too. You are also demonstrating that no one needs to be an expert in everything; there is always room for more knowledge.
At the organizational level, one way to ramp up when specific skills are needed quickly is creating talent pools. A talent pool is a database of internal or external candidates that have specific skills the organization may need at a given time. Talent pools are usually more of an inventory of individuals’ skills than an assessment, and they are not tied to performance management. They give the organization flexibility when a skill is needed for a relatively short time. A pool of people with a new skill can be created through cross-training as well as hiring contingent employees (e.g., contractors, temporary workers, on-call retirees), which gives the organization faster access to the specific skill sets it needs than if it were to create new positions and then hire people to fill them. It is also a way to ramp down quickly when the skill is no longer needed; current employees can go back to their regular jobs having learned or developed a skill, and contingent employees can return to the talent pool.
We recognize that government agencies must adhere to human resource laws and policies. However, t hose laws and policies are changing and, no doubt, will continue to change. So we encourage leaders to communicate and collaborate with their HR and agency leaders to influence changes to laws and policies in a way that will give agencies the flexibility they need while also supporting merit principles. Moreover, we encourage HR leaders to demonstrate agility by seeking out innovative solutions to meet strategic HR objectives (of course, complying with relevant laws). We also encourage public sector leaders to approach HR professionals with a problem to be solved rather than with a requested solution. That way, both parties can work together to solve the problem, even if the solution the leader had in mind was not viable within HR policies.
Agile organizations are highly proactive at identifying future skills that their workforce will need. That’s because, with things changing rapidly, human capital strategies that were once updated every few years now need to be updated more frequently—sometimes even on an ongoing basis. To identify the skills that the organization needs to have, you can rely on sensing and experimenting.
For example, if someone on your team discovers a new piece of software that could be adapted to your work, that’s a signal you might need expertise in using the software in the near future. You can respond to this signal by asking a team member to learn more about the software and how to use it—perhaps by watching a free webinar offered by the software vendor, reading more about it, or talking to a colleague at another organization who has used it. As the team member builds knowledge about the software, she can help you decide whether it might be useful to your work. If you decide to purchase the software, you might be able to negotiate for training from the vendor. If vendor training isn’t available, you could send employees to training courses to learn the software. Other ways to support employee learning would be to give them time to experiment with the software or to create an internal user group where experts throughout your organization provide help.
There are several ways to use sensing and experimenting to identify skills that your team might need. Here are a few of them:
As with any type of sensing, you might find that your prediction doesn’t pan out. So you’ll want to find a balance between monitoring to see if the new skill will really be needed and rapidly investing in developing it. Obviously, you don’t want to overinvest or invest too early, because doing so could use up resources that you need to invest in skills your team actually needs. So keep an eye on the skills you think you might need and, if you get to a point where you realize you’ll need them, ramp up investment as slowly as the situation allows. Agile organizations find that even small investments in learning sometimes have big payoffs when unexpected events occur. For example, perhaps you asked an employee to research a new trend that is affecting your customers, and the employee gathered several industry reports and presented a summary at a learning hour. Then a few months later, a different unit mentions they’re seeing the trend affect their customers—only now it’s a huge problem and they need a solution fast. That small investment your team member made could help both teams figure out a solution much faster than if everyone were starting from scratch.
Finally, if you discover the need for a new skill at a time when you are also hiring, consider adding it as a required or preferred skill in the job description being advertised. Then, before you hire, make sure that you have the right position for the employee with the new skill. Remember that as skills change rapidly, human resource departments can have a hard time keeping up, especially with the constraints they face, so you may need to be proactive in how you work with them—for instance, by creating job descriptions and job titles that reflect new skills in the labor market.
Investing in your people means not only promoting their learning and development but also making sure that they feel valued. You can do many things to show employees that they are valued. You can make sure they are free to be themselves at work and to be curious and ask questions. You can also foster a space where employees feel comfortable learning from each other and sharing their diverse experiences, which creates conditions where ideas can emerge, solutions can form, and opportunities for sensing and interpreting can happen.
You can also invest in people by making sure they take the time they need to maintain their health and mental well-being, to care for family members, and to refresh their energy. Unfortunately, in some organizations, it’s a badge of honor for people to work excessive hours over the long run or to never take a vacation. However, that leads to burnt out, stressed employees who do not bring their best to the job. It can also indicate that employee development is not a priority, sending the message that those who put in the most hours are the ones who gain the most experience, while others are not afforded the chance to develop and therefore contribute in more meaningful ways. We’re not suggesting that people be allowed to slack off, but we are saying that people need time away from work to recharge.
Make sure that they take time off in a way that works for them, whether that’s a vacation or a series of long weekends. Check in with them if they are working on a busy or stressful project and anticipate when they might need help. When someone finishes a complex, fast-paced project, find a way for him to spend a few days wrapping up the effort, which can provide him with closure and a chance to reflect on his accomplishments before he jumps into a new project. And continue to develop your team so that you don’t force someone into an unnecessarily stressful situation where she is the only one who knows how to carry out a certain task.
Investing in people in this manner is likely to yield returns in daily productivity, and when a truly unforeseen event happens, your team will be better positioned to respond in terms of their knowledge, skills, and energy. When your team comes up with creative solutions on the fly, you might think they’ve pulled off a miracle, but they’re actually just the engaged and highly developed team that you prepared to tackle anything.
Agile organizations place a high priority on employee development, and they back it up with training and development dollars so that employees can take college classes, attend professional training courses, participate in leadership development programs, and benefit from coaching and mentoring. Understandably, however, very few organizations have the luxury of hosting slack resources; they don’t have spare budget dollars or extra employees sitting on a bench just in case they are needed. That said, it’s a myth that developing employees requires a large budget. Organizations with any type of budget can still find ways to inexpensively support employee development; indeed, we’ve already shared many of those ways in this chapter.
A related myth is that it’s impossible to get ahead of the curve timewise—that once employees are in reactive mode, it’s impossible for them to find time to participate in agility routines. We agree that it’s hard to transition from a purely reactive mode to being more proactive. When employees are in purely reactive mode, they are subject to burnout and stress. In turn, burnt out, stressed employees are more likely to make errors and may choose to leave the organization, taking their knowledge with them, which, of course, further perpetuates reactive mode.
To help employees get out in front of all of the changes that are burning them out, you’ll need to find ways for them to carry out routines in a manner that doesn’t require them to simply work more hours. When they carry out the routines, they are also developing because they are learning new things through sensing and interpreting as well as through working more efficiently and effectively through responding. That said, here are ideas for finding time for your team to engage in routines while also supporting their professional development:
As Blair continues her train of thought about how to invest in her team, she runs into Hank, who asks her for her thoughts on training courses.
Hank says, “I learned a lot by researching the vendor tools. It’s something I’d like to learn even more about. I hadn’t realized how important cybersecurity is for the work we do and whatever tools we end up using. I know that we need to get a certain number of training hours each year. What if I continue to build my IT and cybersecurity skills?”
Blair smiles approvingly. “That’s a great idea! I think these tools are going to be increasingly valuable to us in the future. Having someone who understands them from a technology and security perspective will help us be proactive. We don’t want to buy something that has poor security. And we certainly don’t want to be on the receiving end of a cyber-attack and have no one with the skills to deal with it.”
Later in the day, Blair stops by Barb’s team meeting just to listen in and see where they might need support as they continue to experiment with the new process. The discussion quickly turns to questions that they still have about the two leading tools. After hearing several great points, the team discusses possible experiments to answer the remaining questions.
Blair adds, “In a short period of time, you’ve learned an incredible amount. You’ve found really creative ways to learn the pros and cons of each tool with some really brief tests. And that knowledge is starting to guide the new process. And we got some positive recognition from Mrs. Banks for Hank’s and Kyle’s help to the western division last month when they started their search for a new requirements-management system. Hank, you and Kyle were able to suggest a tool that you ran across, pass along a contact to the vendor, and even give them some questions to ask. That saved the western division an incredible amount of time.”
Barb jumps in. “And we’ve learned so much from our experiments. When one or two of us learn something and share it, we all benefit. Kyle, remember when you started using the new tool, and every time you uploaded the appendices, it crashed? I’m glad we figured out early on that we need to ask the programs for the information in a certain format. And then Hank figured out an easy fix to their file-storage system, which he wouldn’t have known to do unless he had just read about it in that acquisition software blog. It would have been pretty disastrous for our customers if we had rolled out the new tool without knowing the file format.”
Blair expands on Barb’s point. “I’m devoting resources to making sure we all get the training and development we need for our current work and especially for investing widely in what we expect to do in the future. Sometimes that might mean taking a class or getting a certification. We probably don’t have enough money for every class, but we can be smart about where we spend our training budget. And there are many other ways to make sure we expand our skills and continue to learn through the work that we’re doing. We should keep sharing what we learn, changing up our roles so that people learn all aspects of the standard approach or become specialized in the new, more responsive approach. You know, we can also expand beyond our team by participating in the agency’s job-rotation program or proposing our own rotation program with some of the other divisions. We can keep sensing like we’ve been doing. We will continue to have conversations about changes that we are sure will affect us so that we can invest in developing skills that we need in the future.”
1. Jamie Ann Neidig contributed to this chapter.