Interview with Tracey Waters, Director of People Experience at Sky, and Agile HR pioneer

Tracey Waters is the Director of People Experience at Sky, the UK’s largest pay-TV and digital broadcaster, with over 30000 employees and millions of viewers. Tracey is also an inspiring Agile HR pioneer and the visionary behind one of the best Agile HR case studies in the corporate world today. By embracing an Agile mindset, Tracey and her team have not only radically redesigned their own team structure and operative model but have revolutionised Sky’s people practices and learning culture. Natal caught up with Tracey to learn more about her Agile HR adventures and the team’s achievements over the last few years.

Meet Tracey Waters, Director of People Experience at Sky

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Tracey’s background is in psychology, and holds a Masters in clinical psychology. However, this was not to be her destiny, and found a love and passion for organisational psychology instead. Tracey found her way into people development and HR and in 2008 she relocated from Australia to the UK, where she joined Sky.

Part 1 | Evolving Ways of Working with Agile

In the first part, of our two part interview, Tracey talks about how she invited her team to try Agile HR and evolve their ways of working. To start the conversation, Tracey explains why she decided to use Agile in the first place.

Why Agile?

As Tracey points out, it’s an interesting question because, as some people correctly observe “the answer this not Agile, unless you know what the problem is”. In 2016, when Tracey first embarked on her Agile HR adventure, her team faced a series of problems:

The Pace and demand of the business was rapidly increasingly, and there was no longer the luxury of taking 3 or even 12 months to deliver something of value, such as a leadership development problem or a Learning and Development (L&D) solution.

Tracey Waters, Director of People Experience at Sky.

Tracey Waters, Director of People Experience at Sky.

Waste was happening as a result of designing things in a way that they needed to be perfect, beautiful and fully formed before they were released, and anyone saw them. The problem was that working this way took a long time and often resulted in deliverables that didn’t add any value. Instead the team needed to be releasing things of value and at speed.

Opinion overload & HiPPOs were also a problem. In Agile, HiPPO stands for Highly Paid Person's Opinion, and these are characterised by having small ears and very big mouths. In HR these voices are often able to exert tremendous influence because HR doesn’t come to the table with data to inform our decisions. The result is opinion overload and allowing work to be guided by HiPPOs, rather than validating the right thing to work on through data.  

Silos are a problem to which HR is particularly prone. By the time Tracey and her team embarked on their Agile journey, Sky had people working in silos within silos. Individuals, working on individual programs of work, sitting within the silo of L&D, which was then within HR, operating as a silo sitting within the business itself!

Common HR problems

Many HR leaders recognise Tracey’s list of challenges. Indeed, when Tracey talks with her HR peers they often exclaim, “that describes us!”. These problems are also why Agile is perfect for HR. The core features of Agile are multi-skilled teams collaborating to solve complex problems and deliver value at pace.

Test and learn

To kick-start her Agile HR transformation Tracey embraced a test and learn approach, a driving principle behind Agile. Tracey explained that this involves breaking work down into smaller chunks and focusing on the most important bit first or that which represents the highest risk. Then test quickly what works and what doesn’t, which in turn reduces the overall risk of failure and increases the confidence that you’re heading in the right direction. Also, if your test reveals you are way off, and Tracey and her team definitely experienced this, you can quickly change course.

The 90-day experiment

To start with Tracey talked about the idea of Agile with her team for a couple of months. She makes the point that Agile was completely unfamiliar to them.

“None of us knew what we were doing! So, we had to take a test and learn approach”

During this initial phase, Google became their ‘friend’ and the team researched as much about Agile as they could. Then, Tracey made a kind of deal with the team and invited them to experiment for 90 days. If at the end this period, Agile ways of working didn’t solve their problems or indeed created new problems, she promised to go back to how they were working before. This invitation to experiment created the freedom and (extremely important) psychological safety for her team to play and learn, and made it clear that nobody had all the answers.

Evolving the team structure

Tracey’s team started as a sort of pool of multi-skilled people, as opposed to groups of people working in dedicated teams. Over time this evolved into Agile squads, looking after specific user groups or customers. They discovered that four or more people can make up a squad, to which they have now added Scrum Masters and Products Owners.

To begin with, a Scrum Master would come over from another squad but now Sky HR have two dedicated Scrum Masters. Also, Tracey usually acted as the Product Owner at the start but they added in other types of Product Owners to give the model breadth.

“It's really been an evolution over three years but the fact that I now have people in my team with the job title Scrum Master and the job title Product Owner, tells you how far Sky HR has come in terms of embracing Agile”

 

Sprinting back to back

I ask Tracey how the concept of Agile ‘sprinting’, which is part of the Scrum framework, looks in Sky HR, compared to tech teams working Agile. She says her team started with a set sprinting formula, comprising a 2-week sprint and a series of ceremonies, such as sprint planning, daily stand-ups, product reviews and team retrospectives. This cycle was repeated, back to back, for almost a year.

Work debt

However, by working this way Tracey learnt that not everything in HR lends itself to sprinting, unlike tech teams that are designing code. For example, in HR you might design something in a sprint, but still need to deliver it or evolve it further. So, sprinting back to back in this way accumulated a kind of ‘work debt’, similar to a ‘tech debt’ in software development. The team started to hit blockers caused by things that needed to be fixed, because they would keep putting off maintenance and improvement type work while they were occupied with sprinting.

Sprinting and swarming when you need

So, the team now sprints when they need to and only for a week at a time. Tracey finds sprinting particularly useful when they’re designing something or in a discovery phase and need to get to the heart of the problem. They also do 2-day or 1-day swarms, where the whole team stops what they are working on and jumps on a problem together. Putting five people on a problem or business need for one day, is the equivalent of one person working on it alone for a whole week, which means a swarm helps you go faster.

“So, we've evolved it to suit our needs, to suit our culture, to suit our work but it always comes back to that mindset”

 

Kanban and Scrum mix

Tracey’s team then use a Kanban board, which visualises and prioritises work, to manage everyday workflow and stay on track in-between sprints. This is also how they manage business as usual work. Kanban is a workflow tool that limits work in progress and helps to stop the chaos. It’s also about protecting the team and not overwhelming them. This means they use the Scrum framework and visualisation techniques when they are sprinting, and then Kanban all the rest of the time.

Tech tools to support your ways of working

Tracey mentions that tech has an important role to play in supporting how they work. They started with Slack and Trello, two common and free to use tools on the market but ran into IT implications. They now use Planner and Teams, because they are an Office 365 company, which they find perfectly acceptable.

 

Great learning example

Sky’s experience is a great learning example for all HR teams that want to start doing Agile HR. The example demonstrates how it’s important to evolve your own working model, through a test and learn approach, that reflects your team structure and what you’re actually trying to design and do each day. The combination of using Kanban and Scrum is also proving to be a common outcome for many HR teams that have embraced Agile.

 

Agile rigour and discipline

Tracey also points out that it’s wrong to assume that Agile means there is no need to plan. She feels she now applies more rigour and discipline in her Agile HR leadership role, than she ever did before. She needs to pay more attention to the mission and goal, as well as what to release and in what order. To do this she constantly works with the Product Owners and Scrum Masters, because Agile requires a rigour of thought, and clarity of direction, to be successful. For example, if you’re sprinting on something and you don’t know the answer yet, you need to be clear on the goal of the sprint. It can’t be let’s just sprint”, says Tracey. Also, it’s this rigour and discipline that can greatly help HR teams, as it’s a very effective way of running your operations.

Agile scaling within HR

Next, we explore Tracey’s ideas on moving beyond the People Experience team and scaling Agile across the whole HR function. To help, Tracey first explains that People Experience at Sky essentially looks after the traditional centres of expertise areas, which she feels are ripe for Agile. Then when it comes to the wider HR department, it’s all about mindset.

Tracey summaries Agile mindset as firstly being about collaboration. Moving beyond HR silos and inviting other people from HR and the business to work with you, as well as the end user.

The second is about embracing a test and learn approach, and understanding that Agile is iterative. The overall solution will evolve over time, but you’ll also deliver something of value on a regular basis, along the way.

The third is Agile being data-driven. At all times we need to validate through data that the solutions we develop are useful and helpful to the end user. It’s vital that our work in HR is user centred, and we make the experience of work easier or better for the leaders, managers and employees that we service.

Human-centric HR

Tracey feels that this mindset can start to infiltrate a lot of things we do within HR, even without the need to fully embrace Agile working methods. Agile mindset can also help HR modernise and become more people centred and human-centric.

Part 2 | Reinventing People Practices with Agile

In the second part (of two) of our interview Tracey shares some of the amazing examples of how Sky has used Agile to reinvent their people practices and learning culture.

Man Dev

The first example is Management Development, affectionately termed ‘Man Dev’ by Tracey and her team. Tracey advises that Man Dev is a good topic to start with when using Agile. Indeed, Tracey warns against starting with Leadership Development as it’s far more exposed to senior stakeholders who have a valid voice in it’s design (quite rightly) but restricts experimentation. On the other hand, Man Dev is slightly less visible and you therefore have more room to play. Plus, it’s a perennial problem. Sky has 3000 managers, and when adopting the traditional program approach, it takes a lot of time and effort to roll it all out. It’s also kind of ‘won and done’ at the end, because once everyone has done their program, they essentially wait another three years or so before they get to attend another one.

Breaking the rules

Sky HR decided to use Agile to solve the Man Dev problem. Since they weren’t sure where they were going to end up, they decided to focus on what they didn’t want from the outset. In doing so, they had to break some rules! Man Dev, and indeed most L&D solutions, tend to have a series of assumed ‘rules’ or design principles, which the team realised were getting in the way of building a more Agile and manager-centric solution. These rules included that programs should be run in cohorts, be modular, that they include workshops (either face to face or virtual) and that everything needed to run in a scheduled sequence with dates in the diary that people committed to. All of these rules automatically created a lot of go-slow obstacles.

Understanding the manager’s experience

Freed from these design rules, the team decided to delve deeper into the managers’ experience with the aim of better understanding what Man Dev meant to the end user. Generally, when it comes to Man Dev, HR focuses on competencies or capabilities. However, Tracey and her team discovered that managers don’t think about which competencies or capabilities they need to develop, and instead talk about pain points. Also, unsurprisingly these pain points are experienced when being a manager requires them to do something that they haven’t done before or want to get better at.

For example, a manager might talk about the need to work out how to hire the best person for their team or that they have a new person joining the team in a few weeks and need to work out how set them up really well. Through this user research it became clear that the Man Dev solutions needed to focus on these points of need and use the same language as the managers used when describing them.

Delivering learning at the point of need

Once the team had identified these pain points, they started to explore how best to deliver learning to the managers at these moments in time. Tracey summarises the main methods as:

Automated where you hijack an automated message that the manager is set to receive, for example when they raise a hiring request in the HR system and an email notification is sent to them. What Tracey’s team did was alter the content of this email and include links to digital learning resources that they had designed specifically for this point of need. Of course, these learning resources had been designed by talking with managers who were experiencing these pain points and checking with them what helped them get better.

Push where a monthly email goes out to managers, in which they promote certain learning resources, as well as 90-minutee workshops that people can opt-in to attend. These emails are tracked, with their reach constantly assessed to see how many are opened and what content works best. It also means that if something is offered that is relevant to a manager on that day then they sign up then and there.

 

Evidence of success

To measure the success of their new approach to Man Dev, Tracey and the team firstly looked at how many managers have been helped. They’ve increased this result by five times and for less budget. Also, currently 60% of all managers access their digital resources each quarter. This is a huge amount when compared to the normal numbers when putting managers through a set program. They also look at how many managers attend their 90-minute workshops and who are repeat visitors, and are able to set targets for attracting higher numbers over time, without the need to massively increase costs. Overall, this is a great example of how you engage a test and learn approach and using the data you collect to continuously improve the learning resources and discover the best ways to connect with managers at their point of need.

 

Discovery work in Agile HR

Man Dev is a great example of what can be designed once you’ve identified the problem you’re trying to solve, but what happens when you’re not sure what the problem is? Also, as Natal points out, many HR teams assume they know the answers, to which Tracey shouts out “guilty”. They also fall prey to listening to HiPPOs or in many cases do what they’ve done before because it’s considered HR best practice and it worked last time.

To directly challenge to these old ways of working and to ensure HR works evidenced-based, Agile HR uses discovery work and design thinking techniques to tap into the user experience and clearly define the problem before any solution is even considered, let alone designed.

 

Career Development discovery sprint

A great example of discovery work in Agile HR is the recent sprint that Tracey and her team did on career development. This is a topic that many HR leaders are grappling with, and one that the traditional HR toolkit can potentially provide solutions for. Indeed, Tracey was offered the chance to use Job Architecture, such as job families and competency frameworks, to address career development. However, Tracey wasn’t convinced this is what people needed and decided to dedicate time to running a problem finding sprint.

 

Human-centred design

The team took a human-centred design approach with the aim of getting close to their employees and understanding how they saw the problem. To start with they looked at the data they already had, such as attrition data and engagement survey data. Next, they set out to interview a good selection of their employees. Tracey emphasises that this means actually talking with people and not the standard HR approach of running focus groups or sending out questionnaires. Indeed, the team were a little worried because they had set themselves a goal of interviewing 25 people for 90 minutes, within two weeks, starting immediately. To their delight people cleared their diaries to be involved.

“We did 25 interviews in two weeks without really breaking a sweat and what that told us was that this was a problem that people really want us to help them solve”.

The true meaning of career development

What Tracey and the team discovered was that far from being about job architecture, career development meant very different things to different people. Some people talked about career meaning their actual workplace, while others talked of their manager and their team. There were then people that talked about wanting to help others as part of their career, and only some actually talked about finding jobs and new opportunities.

“It was a really broad description area and we would never have found that out without actually speaking to them”.

 

Prototyping

Once you’ve delved deeper into a problem, you use a variety of creative thinking techniques to think big about the possible solutions you can create. You then need to narrow these ideas down into some core areas. Tracey’s team chose four main ideas and evolved these into four prototypes. These prototypes were literally built out of things like Lego and Plasticine, and then placed in front of the users to gauge their reaction.

Tracey points out that you’re not so much interested in what people say at this stage, rather you’re assessing their emotional reaction to the prototype. In particular, you’re wanting to discover which prototypes create an experience of delight and help the employee move away from their pain point. For Sky, they had positive responses to three of their four prototypes, which they are now moving through to the design and delivery stages.

 

10-week sprint

This discovery sprint actually went for 10 weeks, though not with people allocated 100%, more in the region of 30% to 50%. They did activities like interviews, creative thinking sessions, prototyping and getting feedback from employees. Tracey reflects that 10 weeks is not actually a huge amount of time, particularly considering Sky HR now has the answers to shape a whole new approach to career development. The team also have a high degree of confidence that they’re working on the right things for their employees and can move into development quite quickly.

 

Tapping into the user experience of work

The career development sprint is a great example of how to use the design thinking and Agile mindset to understand the user experience of work and begin to solve the problems that matter most to your employees. A design sprint is also something that all HR teams can do, even if they don’t work fully Agile. You can even do a design sprint over a couple of days, but it’s essential to have the users in the room with you to help solve the problem. Tracey references a book by Jake Knapp, called Sprint, where you dedicate five solid days to a predefined design sprint format, and on day five you have the user in the room giving you feedback. Tracey says she has seen extraordinary results from this technique.

 

Thank you, Tracey

What an amazing interview! Sky remains one of our favourite case studies here at the Agile HR Community as it captures the true essence of Agile, both in how it was evolved and the results Sky have achieved. Well done Tracey Waters and her team, and thanks a million for sharing your time and story with us.

Written by Natal Dank

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Natal Dank