When COVID-19 started impacting our daily work, we read many articles and newsletters on how to best adapt to working fully remotely followed by discussions about what we should do and should not do to support but not overwhelm our project teams. While we do believe that modern digital collaboration tools, a well-organized daily routine, and virtual water cooler talks help the individual team members to cope with the new situation, we believe that for the overall project an approach that can quickly adapt to a new situation is equally important. So, we think that embracing agile principles in projects does exactly that—it makes them more robust against unforeseen events.
We are currently working on a project for a large European utility company that is transforming its financial core systems (accounting, controlling, procurement, and real estate) to SAP’s newest version, SAP S/4HANA. However, it is more than a mere technology upgrade—processes are to be harmonized across different units and to be moved as close to the SAP standard as possible. To add to the challenge, the company is currently undergoing a large merger leading to adding a whole new layer of complexity to the project. Luckily, we were able to set up the project and get to know each other just before the lockdown.
Today we would like to share our experiences from working on a large-scale agile S/4HANA transformation project remotely and how our agile approach is helping us to overcome the daily challenges concerning remote work.
The objective for this year is to successfully develop the first version of a group-wide template and roll out two pilot units by the end of this year. Halfway into the year, we are right on track to deliver on this objective having just completed a very successful three-month implementation cycle reaching nearly all of our targets, despite the challenges of remote work.
Subsequently, we will roll out the template to the entire organization over the next years. The program spans more than 250 members in 20+ agile teams. We are applying SAP’s Scaled Agile Framework “SAP Activate”—enhanced by BCG Platinion’s best practice for managing large agile programs.
Five characteristics of agile enabled us to stay on top things when the COVID-19 lockdown hit the project:
Empowerment of teams:
Teams are empowered to make the majority of decisions themselves with little need for alignments outside of the team, which would be more challenging to organize remotely. Long-lasting principle decisions that require alignment with other functions are also made in a timely manner, as a decision board comes together on a biweekly basis in which teams get senior leadership backing for their proposed solutions. This is needed only if a significant development expense is necessary for implementation. Empowerment in our case directly translates into the delivery speed of the individual teams. With the empowerment also comes additional responsibility for leaders of virtual agile teams: They need to ensure that the goals of the teams remain realistic and that the teams do not overstrain themselves.
While teams are empowered to set priorities and make decisions themselves, program management requires the teams to keep their backlog and plans updated in a central system. Applying agile KPIs, such as monitoring the teams’ velocity with the help of burnup charts, makes issues visible immediately, and enables program management to support those areas of need promptly. While this administrative burden is often called out by the teams as cumbersome and annoying, it helps the overall program to resolve issues early, balance resources more efficiently, and secure long-term success.
Most of the skills required to deliver value are present within our cross-functional teams, which makes them self-reliant and autonomous. There are few external dependencies, saving the time otherwise required for alignments, which take longer when working remotely. On the other side, topics which by nature require stronger central coordination and are therefore not fully anchored in the agile teams, such as migration and testing, started struggling when we moved to remote working. More formal communication as well as longer-term planning were required to get those topics outside of the cross-functional teams back on track.
Iterative approach with predefined ceremonies:
Agile ceremonies with a predefined schedule provide a good anchor point to structure work in the current situation of uncertainty where many things are new. They reflect the need for increased communication of virtual teams: Frequent, short alignments ensure that everyone within the team is up to date with the latest developments, a priority calibration is done in every sprint planning and the progress is inspected in the demo meeting. The usage of digital tools such as digital scrum boards, online retro boards, or virtual scrum poker supports those formats well. Paired with video conferencing tools, they are nearly as efficient as they were in person, as the reaction to what is being said can be perceived instantly.
Inspect and adapt:
Conducting retrospectives both on a team and on a program level ensures that shortcomings in the way of working are identified frequently and addressed immediately. Other tools, such as pulse checks, telephone interviews and anonymous FAQ sessions, complete the picture. This enabled us to quickly counter challenges that came up concerning remote work (e.g., scheduling key meetings, addressing personal concerns, such as receiving special access to get into the office buildings throughout the lockdown).
“Looking back at the past three to four months of remote work, we believe we were able to cope with the situation of a complete lockdown better than we anticipated”"
Looking back at the past three to four months of remote work, we believe we were able to cope with the situation of a complete lockdown better than we anticipated, in fact, even better than we could have hoped for. This is of course partly due to proactive planning, communication, and crisis management, but mostly because we are applying agile principles in our program structure as mentioned above. Having said that, it, of course, feels great to gradually get back to the office and meet colleagues face-to-face again.