Heidi Araya

Heidi Araya

Heidi helps startups scale effectively and remain competitive, and established companies transition to “new ways of working” by building deliberately developmental environments… where we’re not only improving the processes, but also allowing people to grow into new ways of thinking and being.

It’s Heidi’s mission to improve workplaces so that people are happy, engaged, and doing amazing work together. She is a co-founder of the Open Leadership Network and trains and speaks at events worldwide. Heidi also co-hosts a popular virtual meetup series for Agilists at www.coachingagilejourneys.com


Most companies now either have jumped onto the Agile bandwagon, are considering it, or even in the middle of hiring consultants to help them “transform.” Howeveronly 6% of companies think that they are “highly agile”, according to a 2017 Deloitte study. I’d like to convey a few thoughts to the executives and leaders considering an agile transformation, based on over 10 years of experience with many transformations and years sitting with executive leaders.

Dear Executive… Inconvenient Truths about your Agile Transformation

By Heidi Araya


Most companies now either have jumped onto the Agile bandwagon, are considering it, or even in the middle of hiring consultants to help them “transform.” However, only 6% of companies think that they are “highly agile”, according to a 2017 Deloitte study. I’d like to convey a few thoughts to the executives and leaders considering an agile transformation, based on over 10 years of experience with many transformations and years sitting with executive leaders.


Dear Executive,

The vision and support for this transition is not something that you can outsource. It is not something “those people over there do.” It’ll change everything about the way the business operates, and it’ll be challenging but rewarding at the same time. So read on for some thoughts…

It is a large effort for most enterprises. Undoubtedly, the larger the company, the more challenging the transition. Evolving from a business that operates like a machine (deliver pre-planned things and try to sell what we’ve built), to one that operates like a living organism (try experiments; inspect outcomes) is a huge shift in all ways — management style, organizational structure, how the work is done, and what information is needed in order to succeed. It will not be easy, and it might take years, not months. Some companies start to transition several times, quit, and start again, sometimes years later. It is even more challenging for public companies, due to pressure of short-term stock market results. It is a continuous journey, not a destination. See the last point.

The current culture will likely be the biggest impediment. It is easy to force and push people to execute rote practices and tasks, but this is exactly the opposite of what will help the company succeed, and it will be a false sense of progress. Not everyone will be ready all at the same time! Leverage those who are ready, and use them as a launch pad to show successes. Use them as champions. Showcase the things they did to get where they are.

There is no one size fits-all. You cannot ‘install’ agility via a framework. The vision comes first for what business challenges it solves, or opportunities it can provide. Many companies start with a big bang approach, when it might be better to set up a few teams, give them the support they need, find and resolve the challenges that come up, and discover incremental ways to improve.

Provide the clarity of mission. You, the leader, must provide a vision in your organization for the problems agile solves for your business as well as the business outcomes you want, not practices that people follow in their day to day work. Why is making this change not only good, but an imperative for the business? What will happen if we don’t change? (If you cannot answer the last question, start there).

Support. Leaders go first. Without executive buy in, deep understanding, and continuous support at all levels, the effort will fail. Everyone, from top levels down will need training and coaching to understand how it will impact their jobs and teach much-needed skills. Alignment on “this is the way we work” is required. Meet regularly with the transformation team or coaches and find out what they need in order to be successful. Send out a regular communication about the transformation efforts and accomplishments. This is about surviving, thriving, and remaining competitive.


Everyone must be agile. If leadership does not regularly reflect on what went well, and what did not, then why should teams? What does a continuous learning mindset mean for the leadership team? Set regular and productive retrospectives for all levels. Look for second order problems (“what are the conditions that led to this and how can we fix those conditions?” Rather than “why did this occur,” and merely fix that first level problem). Don’t make continuous learning empty words.


Use guiding principles and enabling constraints, not rigid rules to follow. Things like “quality over speed”, “focus on finishing over starting something new,” “sustainable pace,” “understanding customer outcome before starting,” etc. Rules cannot cover all scenarios.


A mindset shift will be challenging for many. Agile is about ongoing collaboration, openness to learning and failing, experimentation. People who think they know it all and are not willing to try something new, eventually won’t fit into the organization. Make the desired outcomes clear for the leadership team and all managers, and you, the leader, should support them through the effort through training and coaching.


Your best people will leave if you don’t work on making their lives better. People want autonomy, mastery, and purpose at work. A paycheck, snacks, and ping pong tables are not primary motivators. Oftentimes, without the desired autonomy and purpose, they leave for the competition. (1) Annual engagement surveys are not enough… Make sure that people have ways to surface their biggest impediments, listen to them, and act upon them. In some companies, these impediments to delivering work effectively and efficiently existed for years, causing disengagement and reduced productivity. Sadly, everyone knew about these, but usually no one ever gathered the organizational themes and measured the actual impact. (2) Push decisions to the lowest level possible. Invitations are engaging, as are decisions. Invite your organization to uncover and solve its biggest challenges via OpenSpace.


Transparency is key. Make the problems of the business visible to employees. Do customers find the features hard to use? Is quality an issue? Is revenue falling? Share this information with the organization to inspire them. Closed-door decisions and lack of key information are sure to help the transformation go backwards. Use storytelling format to make the information accessible and memorable. Sixty-three percent of stories are retained versus 5% of facts alone. Use a wiki. Work out loud in company online channels.


Agility has many facets, each with its own domain knowledge. All of these concepts will be new to your organization and people will require training in all these areas. The investment is significant, but the payoff will be even greater.

  • Complexity Thinking.Instead of large, year-long projects planned in advance and executed by project teams, the need today is for small, cross-functional teams learning by inspecting and adapting their approach and what they work on, all based on feedback (Scrum framework falls into this category).
  • A new kind of leadership is needed. Command and control will not help the company succeed in the future. The leaders who are there will have to learn to find a compelling vision, empower individuals with more decision authority at their level and in their areas of specialty, and consider group decision-making techniques to arrive at the best decisions. Try open patterns of business agility.
  • Facilitating the creation of a highly-effective team is new for most managers of teams. There is a science to creating high-performing teams. Check out the Google study, the Oxford Review special report, and the Flow SystemCheck out Open Patterns for tips on how to engage teams.
  • Technical & Cultural Practices.Things like TDD, BDD, CI/CD, unit testing, small vertical slices of features, pairing/mobbing, limiting work in progress, working towards business outcomes over single tasks, shifting left on security and quality, etc. will be new. These are often practices that seem counterintuitive but actually improve business outcomes. John Cutler has a great draft book on the topic.

It is a journey of continuous improvement. Agile transformation is not a project with a start and finish. It is a journey of continuous learning. Your organization will need to continue to evolve. This is the danger of setting fixed processes, without regularly inspecting what’s working and what is not. The implementation of a framework does not grant one a magic agility wand. Try making one step to improve at a time, and reflect on it at a pre-set cadence (quarterly, for example).

It’s a long and hard journey: Why it’s still worth it for you

Leaving a Legacy. You can leave a legacy of an amazing place to work and enviable culture (even if you don’t spend your entire career there!). It’ll be a place of rich collaboration, true innovation, and interesting work at all levels. The people whose lives you have positively impacted may follow you, if you ever decide to leave.

Delivering products & services that delight. You will be working at a place where everyone wants to have your products, solutions, or services. Not only that, but you will be leading the team that makes it happen. You’ll be at the forefront of an enviable organization.

Company survival. I’ve personally seen several companies die a slow death while struggling to understand market and customer needs, or prioritizing new features over quality or stable architecture. If you want your company to not only survive but outstrip its competitors, re-imagining the way the company works is required.

It is a moral imperative to change the way we treat people at work. Industrial age practices and management dehumanizes workers, treating them like cogs in a machine. Worker engagement is low. Most workers today have a completely different perspective and want meaning and purpose to their own existence, while contributing to their employer’s purpose also.


© 2020 by Heidi Araya

All Rights Reserved

This article was originally published at https://baa.tco.ac/3DaW



Managers, VPs, and execs ask me, “This thing in Agile where people are supposed to hold themselves and each other accountable is not working. My teams aren’t delivering, and they don’t care! How can I hold them accountable or get them to BE accountable?”


I get so many calls about estimation and forecasting. People reach out to me saying, “How can teams get better at estimating? Our forecasts are never accurate!”, “The biggest pain point for us is predictability!” and “Are there better tools to show actual realistic forecasts on our Agile projects and initiatives?”

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