Agile Recruitment Process

Agile is the new orthodox methodology for software developers. This has been so transformative for programming teams, it's not surprising to see digitally-focused companies considering how to apply these better working habits to the rest of the organization.

For example, "agile marketing" is now a thing:


If you're interested in what agile marketing might mean, here's a good discussion from UK-based software experts Clearvision.

What about when it comes to hiring people? Most managers would agree that building the right team of highly talented people is THE critical factor in business success.

So can normal recruitment methods be improved? What would it look like to apply Agile to recruitment? Here are some ideas...

To begin with, here are two examples of very waterfall-looking recruitment process diagrams:

admin utep edu Recruitment timeline

Recruitment process, copyright University of Texas at El Paso


flowchart showing recruitment process steps

Recruitment process, copyright Lavya Associates

Even without looking into the detail of the above diagrams, to an Agile business, two things will jump out. Firstly, the large amount of work done before actually getting in a conversation with a job candidate. In fact both diagrams seem heavily focused on preparatory process rather than on specifying the end goal. Secondly, how abstract the pre-definition process looks which may exclude potentially good people, or cause a lot of extra re-work if the initial candidates cause a rethink of that rigidly documented hiring specification.

An Agile approach might help a business hire the right people faster and with less administrative overhead.

Using the four core statements of the Agile Manifesto as headings, here are some ideas about the changes to traditional recruitment practices that might be considered in a modern business:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

  • Adapt interview methods on the fly
    Interviews might work better if the sequence and procedure are not fixed. The scope of the interviews and who gets involved at what stage - the interactions... could be re-thought on the fly depending on the individual candidate.
  • Test for the right individual
    Assuming a key success factor in an Agile team will be whether an individual matches and can interact well, look for ways to evaluate this in the natural process of the interviewing. That idea alone is likely to make you throw out the classic interview script.
  • Don't let tools dictate how you recruit
    Standardized HR tools such as candidate application software, personality tests, and fixed evaluation criteria... could all be reassessed critically, considering how their rigidity could be limiting the freedom and adaptability of the company to find and attract the best possible candidates. After all, that's the point, and any tools are simply there to help with that. The tools and processes are not in charge.
  • Instil focus on "individuals and interactions" on partners
    If you're working with a recruitment agency, look for individuals there who will preserve the focus on individuals and not attempt to pseudo-objectify the process with smart sounding talk about processes and tools.

Working software over comprehensive documentation

  • Remain focused at all times on the desired end result for the business
    In recruitment you are of course not creating software, so the equivalent of shipping "working software" is delivering the right person into the right job. First of all, this can affect HR because it emphasises the completion of the hiring process... all the way to the new person sitting in her seat on the first day... and for this hire to work out.
  • Reduce bureaucracy
    The more unintuitive argument of this agile axiom is to de-emphasise documentation in favour of getting good results more efficiently. In one sense this means reducing bureaucracy and paperwork, and there is a lot of that even before a company can get candidates in the door. Look at ways to reduce the time spent on documenting candidate requirements, job descriptions, interview agendas etc, while still maintaining good results in terms of bringing in the right talent. Try to recruit using less specific or rigid hiring criteria, and give the company more flexibility to change the specification in response to discovering good individuals.
  • Extensive record-keeping is another form of HR bureaucracy
    Beware of how the desire for transparency, accountability, and record-keeping in a hiring process can all lead to large amounts of documentation work for HR and department managers. Strike a balance where documentation work is only what serves the business's actual needs, and doesn't block the actual work of getting a good person on board rapidly. In many cases the requirement for tracking decision-making in a hiring process can be satisfied via better communication (individuals and interactions) rather than extensive notes.

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

  • Proactive communication
    The Agile Manifesto's aversion to contract negotiation in part is about avoiding a defensive and negative way of working. Recruitment can become negative like software projects, if you don't get the desired results, i.e. a good person hired for the job in good time. You don't want to set it up as a blame game: the collaboration in the Agile Manifesto implies frequent communication throughout the process, mutual trust, and mutual tolerance for dissent and changes at any stage. In practical terms for recruitment this means that if there is a series of unsuitable applicants, then both sides work together to learn from this, refine the ideas of what the company is looking for and where to look for this person, and keep trying... hopefully with a quick iteration instead of taking a long time with the position unfilled.
  • Involve the right colleagues at the right time
    Another implication of "customer collaboration" is making sure that all the stakeholders are involved actively but without implying that you use up lots of people's time right at the start of development work, when it might be a waste of time (since plans always change). In recruitment this means firstly knowing who needs to be kept up to speed, but secondly for the managers and employees who are likely to be involved, to be willing to work with you at the right time, which might not be pre-planned. For example this might mean asking someone to stop working with no notice and come and join in an interview because the candidate is good and we might be able to confirm a decision faster this way. That would not make the HR person popular, but if colleagues are more aware of an agile way of recruiting, they would be able to see their flexibility as being in the team's best interests.

Responding to change over following a plan

  • Evolve what works, throw away doctrine that turned out not to be applicable
    The two most likely changes in SME recruitment  - but where the details are hard to predict in advance - are changing the interview method from the original plan (or simply the interview procedure going off course), and the job scope changing to suit a candidate with different skills and experience than your original concept (but you still want to hire her). In both situations it pays to work positively with the changes than try to stick doggedly to the original plan. Where the original plan causes conflict, review it based on real life cases. The plan is more likely to be useful in an Agile way if it focuses on the desired outcomes and emphasises speed of implementation... instead of trying to specify too doctrinally about the correct way to conduct recruitment.
  • Simplify interview scripts
    At the detailed level, what questions you ask in interviews, what course that conversation takes, and who gets involved in meeting the candidate, are all things where you get more benefits from adapting in real time instead of trying to check off a fixed plan. HR and departmental colleagues need to trust each other and have clear shared ideas of the intended eventual result (the right person in the right job), in order to allow the flexibility on the detail of the interviewing method.

Additional points

  • In the same way as interview scripts can be simplified, job descriptions could be expressed less prescriptively and more based on the end results that are required, i.e. what does productivity mean and how will that be measured. Along Agile lines, the detail of how a person turns out to be good at their job... is up to them as long as they can deliver.
  • If you expect team members to work in a formally agile way in their job, or at least thrive in an agile-esque office culture, then it makes sense that the recruitment process should project this from the very beginning. One factor to test, then, will be how well a candidate responds to this style of assessment and how well you think they could operate in a more collaborative and flexible working structure.
  • A risk in following some of the above ideas would be to project a disorganized image to candidates or to fail to communicate clearly about the detailed requirements of a position. In other words, just because the team internally have a collaborative definition of the job and the right person for the job, it doesn't mean the candidate shares that understanding yet. In the same way the less-documented and adaptable approach only works well internally when colleagues share a clear understanding of the end result, the company should make extra efforts to communicate the idea of the role and the ideal person for that role, in the absence of a more traditional array of documentation. The HR team should look for the quickest and most effective way to communicate the right information at the right time: details about the job are important but not necessarily right at the start.
  • Since Agile methods imply working in shorter cycles, iteratively, this is likely to affect the whole job advertising and interview process. For example, job ads may be put out in different ways and the text and targeting may change, depending on the priority results, simply in order to start getting candidates in faster. Candidates may be given more, but shorter interviews, in order to speed up elimination. Interviews for qualified candidates would be arranged with different people as soon as possible instead of waiting for all-in-one interview dates. Follow up conversations may be unscripted and unscheduled. The recruiting manager would coordinate each candidate through the shortest path to hire or no-hire, even if these paths are not consistent. The HR team need ways to keep track of multiple candidates at different stages in a way that keeps everyone moving, as free as possible from systematic bottlenecks or fixed timings.
  • Finally, the very route by which a skill or personnel requirement gets raised to a confirmed recruitment project, may be different with an Agile approach. Perhaps the need for a new hire is like a sprint and the scope of the new job is based on a priority+coherence grouping of need-to-have skills in a team-voted backlog!

This is an IMHO article by George Baily, business thinker at KnowledgePower, Digital Marketing Consultants.

Comments: @knowledgepowers