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Agile in HR, an interview with Stacie Justice

BY -

Chris Hatler

April 29, 2021

If you hang around the tech world long enough, you’ll hear the word “Agile” tossed around. The idea of Agile software development started as a 2001 online Manifesto presented by engineers as a means to be more iterative and collaborative in the process of software development.

In the 20 years since the manifesto was published, the Agile approach has become the standard approach for software engineers. Instead of the traditional method of releasing a project once it is completely finished, Agile methodology instead calls for continuous iteration based on feedback from users and cross-functional team collaboration. When you wake up to new features on your iPhone every few weeks, that’s Agile at work. Companies that use Agile tend to be successful, and Agile teams and projects are 28% more effective, according to PwC research

So how does an innovative approach such as Agile relate to more traditional business functions? Human resources is often considered an old school department that does everything by the book, because by its very nature, it has to navigate through compliance and government regulation. Modern-day HR departments are looking to change that stereotype and take HR processes to the next level.

HR functions are becoming more data-driven and technology-focused by the day. Strategic workforce planning makes hiring proactive rather than reactive, performance management software streamlines employee feedback and annual reviews, and many other examples push HR into forward-thinking territory. So what’s stopping HR professionals from using Agile principles?

To learn more about how to utilize the Agile mindset in HR, we talked to People expert Stacie Justice. Stacie is the Head of People Operations at iZotope, where she has learned to borrow Agile methods to advance her HR team’s strategy from traditional to cutting edge. Check out the interview here and a full transcript of the conversation below.

What was your career path and what are you doing now? (4:01)

I got into HR in the hospitality industry. I didn't really know what I wanted to do with my career. Someone said, “hey, why don't you talk to our HR person? She's really great at helping people find out the color of their parachute.” 

And so I show up with this woman who’s the head of HR at the Colonnade Hotel, Paula Rauenbuehler. [She] took two hours out of her day to listen to me. I was 22 or 23 at the time, and I talked about the things I liked, what I thought I was inherently good at or wanted to do. 

At the end of that two-hour session, she hired me. That was my first foray into HR. She taught me everything I know. She came from the Ritz Carlton world, so everything had to be by the book, exceptional and delightful to our customers and to our employees. So she really set a strong foundation for me. 

Since then, I've worked in the legal industry. I've worked at a global nonprofit called Oxfam after the Haiti earthquake. And then fell into the tech world at Rocket Software. More recently, I was at Brightcove, a video software company. Now I'm at iZotope, which is an Emmy award-winning AI audio software company that's doing some pretty exciting things. 

What is Agile methodology? (6:01)

[Agile methodology] was born out of engineering. In 2001, a bunch of engineers got together in some remote part of the country, went skiing and came up with this Agile Manifesto. That created the foundation for the principles and mindset of Agile that's been running through engineering and product teams for decades now. 

It is a method that is challenging that traditional linear waterfall development model, where entire projects are preplanned, fully built-out, and then released into the wild without being fully tested. 

Sometimes those projects take years! Agile is trying to focus on [being] more iterative over time. Even two weeks sprints are standard in some innovative engineering companies, to deliver an update to your iPhone [for example]. 

How did you discover Agile and use it for your People operations? (8:27)

I was a business partner for many years in the tech world, focusing on engineering teams. As a business partner, you're exposed to a lot of data already. Agile is almost like water for [engineering teams]... And you come in and say, “I really feel like we should do something about morale.” You'll get eaten alive by a room full of engineering leaders if you don't come in with an evidence-based hypothesis you're trying to prove. 

So a lot of it was just being around them, embedding myself in the way that they worked and trying to steal things here and there. Let's do a retrospective. What worked well this quarter? What went well, what didn't go well? And what are some things we can change? And saying hey, let's do that in our HR team. This could be really useful for us. We've really been spinning our wheels. We're moving in six different directions. That was one easy way to pull in some data in real-time and make some change. 

The other thing is [experimenting]. Engineers fail all the time. You call it an experiment, it almost gives you permission to fail. So it's kind of fun. People feel less shackled by this idea that everything has to be a perfect solution, participation at the end of it needs to be a hundred percent, and everyone needs to be satisfied at the end of it. 

When you're talking about long timeframes, it's really hard. A lot changes in 18 months. The thing that you thought was really good in that moment in time, by the time you deliver it in its entirety, may not have the right impact. So I think it just came out of knowing that my biggest critics were engineers and wanting to try to meet them where they were by using some of their own methods and then bringing those into HR. 

People operations team discussing Agile

Walk us through an example of how you've used Agile in your people operations. (10:57)

Coming into iZotope, we had the traditional annual performance review. You’re sitting with other executives and they're like, “we really need to get rid of this thing. We need to do something bigger, better, more valuable.”  You say okay, that's a huge project. 

Then you start to think about, what if we're going to do this at scale for everybody? What kind of systems are we going to need? What tool do we need that's going to manage this, because you probably have a small HR team or people operations team? You think about all the moves that need to be made, all of the inputs you need to take in. You [can] get overwhelmed easily. 

So we go through this process called feature mining. Really define a slice of that huge project. What is it that we could do right now that's going to have the biggest impact? We want our employees to feel that they have continuous feedback, that they have the feedback when they need it that's going to help them grow and expand their capabilities, and ultimately be more valuable to the company or in the market. 

Then we do an exercise of, why is this so big? You acknowledge the bigness of that goal. Then you think about what the risks and uncertainties are and put it all out on the table. Now we know everything's on the table, we realize how big this is, how chaotic it could be, and the world changes.

You say, what if we just did a manager feedback template? And what if we just start with engineering, or what did we just start with marketing? And we talk to all the managers in marketing. We show them a couple of templates. We get feedback. Which one of these questions, this feedback template, or this 360 are going to have the most impact for you and your teams? You take that feedback in, and then you build and demo and release something to marketing that is this ready-to-go, lightweight manager feedback form they can use immediately. They use it. They say, “Oh, this was good. Thanks for including me in it. This is what I asked for.” 

Then they say, “but what could be better? This question seemed to really work for us, this one didn't.” You iterate and say now we've got an even better product. Let's see what happens if we release it at scale or, or in engineering or in customer care. Is it going to have the same impact? 

You just keep delivering value in continuous modules like that. Once you get something that starts really working, people start talking about it. And they're like, “hey I heard customer care really loves their annual performance reviews now, how do we get into that?”

So instead of HR always being the nudge… you start polling for people to participate rather than people coming to you. That's what's great about the experimentation. It gives you this chance to be a just-in-time resource for people.

How can an HR team calculate risk when delivering those types of experiments? How do you manage the possibility of negative feedback? (16:34)

You definitely can gate it… I'm not saying everyone has to immediately run into these two-week sprints. But [it’s] powerful to say, hey, we're experimenting with this. Will you help co-create this solution with us? And people get excited. 

They're like, “Oh, so I can just throw anything at you?” [You say] yeah, throw anything at us. People start to be really creative. And of course, HR knows that there are probably some things we're not going to be able to do for compliance reasons. We're able to use our judgment there. But some of those crazy ideas become reasonable, innovative ideas when you're willing to open your mind to the possibility of doing something new. 

You want people to want to participate in these programs. You want them to say there's value in this. That's why we're all here, to make sure we're making that impact. We all feed off each other's energy… It’s not as scary as it sounds once you get started. The way HR has been operating, who [HR workers] are as people, and why we got into this field is exactly Agile.

We have the data. That's why we build the relationships. Not just to get invited to weddings and make friends, but also to create those continuous feedback loops. But then we don't have the framework to say to our chief people officer or CEO to say, let's try this thing. They see it as this [huge investment]. How do we know it's going to work? Maybe I don't know how it's going to work. 

But I think these Agile frameworks, methods, tools, and concepts give you powerful language that works every day at companies like SpaceX, Spotify, and Airbnb to release really cool, innovative products. You're taking that same language, but applying it to HR programs and products that we're building for our employees that have a direct translation to our customers.

HR professional working with Agile

How important is the language you use to describe your operations in getting the company to buy into Agile transformation in HR? (19:31) 

At Brightcove, the head of UX was putting on a workshop about design thinking. She had this incredible role and this incredible impact on how every product was built at Brightcove. She was teaching everyone about the design thinking experience, which was to empathize with your customer, get to know your customer, and define the impact. You're going to make a prototype. Test it, deploy it, and reiterate. 

That's what we are trying to do in HR with our systems, but we didn't have this powerful language that goes along with it. It's really interesting how the ears perk up [when you say you’re design thinking]. It doesn't sound like the dusty, traditional HR methods or approaches of the past. 

How would you get started implementing Agile ways into HR practices? (21:52)

There is a resource that I've gone to that is one-of-a-kind, maybe one of the first trying to translate Agile from IT, SaaS, and software into something that actually works for HR. 

Riina Hellström’s got this group called the Agile HR Community. They're getting bigger and bigger all the time. There are HR leaders from all around the world. They have a certification process that you can go through. It's a really great virtual learning course. [They provide] really sophisticated models, no matter where you are as a company, no matter how big you are. She's worked with some of the biggest companies in the world and also can translate that to a one-person HR team. It's kind of the point of Agile. What's that little slice, what's that little experiment we can start with and build on? And I think you can do that at any size and at any scale. 

There's also Josh Bersin. A lot of people are familiar with him. He’s really starting to get on the Agile HR train and has a ton of great content on his learning platform. 

A lot of podcasts are starting to pick up on what Agile HR means, translating that into real terms for people ops. 

There's another woman, Rachel Ben Hamou, who's doing some really cool stuff with Agile HR. [She uses] great visuals, understands the importance of the language, and takes what HR already is, but puts it into a framework that really gives it legs and power and a runway to do more interesting, innovative things. 

So by hanging out with product and engineering teams,  you'll learn all you need about Agile? (23:54)

Yeah, exactly… It was because I had embedded myself in engineering, product management, design thinking world, and taking a lot of how they, how do they solve complex problems, how do they deliver faster and in ways that have more value than other teams and departments do it?

Once you see how they work, it's pretty easy to translate it into your everyday life or your goals and strategy for People ops. Oftentimes, HR and engineering don't always mix well together… they assume we're all intuitive and going by our gut, or maybe there’s other unfair bias towards HR. Then HR sometimes avoids engineering because they're overly cynical or they're the first ones to resist a rollout. So go find your detractors and [ask them] what would work. 

About Stacie Justice
Stacie Justice, Head of People at Izotope

Stacie Justice is the Head of People Operations at iZotope. While she may seem like a city girl, Stacie grew up in Kansas, where her mom worked on a dairy farm. Stacie often came along to help birth calves out in the middle of the winter. Sometimes, if the calfs needed extra care, they’d bring the animals back to their home. Stacie would often stay up all night to feed the calves and sleep in the barn to keep an eye on their vitals. She finds that those humble beginnings translate into the love and care she puts into her talent management practices.

Connect with Stacie on LinkedIn and check out iZotope here.


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