Let’s Scrap the Waterfall Culture

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With the introduction of SAP Activate for S/4HANA, consultants have the technical tools they need to lead an agile SAP implementation. Now all they need is an agile culture.

Before SAP Activate was introduced, any consultants who tried to apply an agile approach to an SAP implementation inevitably ran up against two big barriers. The first was the ASAP implementation framework. Compared to what came before, ASAP was all about how to travel faster down the same very long waterfall, while passing all the familiar milestones along the way: requirements gathering, writing a spec, getting customer sign-off, building the required functionality, testing, debugging, and going live. But a faster waterfall is still a waterfall.

The second barrier was cultural. To be successful at something you have to commit to it. You have to train a lot. And you need to gain lots of experience. And that old cliché, “dance with the one who brought ya” still very much applies. If you built a successful SAP consulting career by being among the best at what SAP consultants were supposed to do, then you’re going to want to keep using the same tools that got you where you are today. Just giving consultants new tools — no matter how powerful or how highly recommended — is not enough. If SAP consultants don’t actually like agile then just giving them an agile toolset like SAP Activate will probably not make them agile consultants.

New Tools, Old Attitude

What if someone were to hand you a different set of tools and say, “Here, I want you to use these now, not the same tools you always use.” What do you think you would do? It would be like trying to hammer a nail if suddenly all you’ve got is a power drill. You’ll probably use the back of the drill to pound in the nail. In other words, you’ll improvise a way to use the new tool like it was the old tool. So your performance will actually suffer, not improve. You’ll get really frustrated. The bad results will confirm your suspicions — that switching to the new tools was a bad idea. And you’ll end up hating the new tools and you’ll try really hard to keep working the way you always wanted to work.

A better choice, of course, would be to learn why you’re being asked to use the new tools in the first place. To ask yourself: What advantages do they offer? How do they save time? How do they achieve better results? And how can I get better at doing what the tools were designed to help me do? And — most importantly — am I willing to take a short-term performance hit as a tradeoff for better long-term performance? Every tool that was ever invented calls for that same kind of tradeoff; it requires a learning curve. Riding a bike beats fast walking, even if you fall down a few times first.

For those of us who lead SAP project teams, and who for a long time have wanted our teams to embrace agile, the lesson is clear: we need to work as hard on replacing the waterfall culture as we have been working to replace our waterfall-style tools.

Here are some ideas on how to do that:

Build on small wins. Another cliché also applies here: “Nothing succeeds like success.” A key tenant of agile is to break up projects into small chunks that can be completed in two to four week sprints. So make sure to define initial sprints that can actually get done successfully in that timeframe. The worse way to introduce agile to someone is to assign sprints that are likely to fail. Make sure consultants new to agile see positive results early.

Pick the low-hanging fruit first. A lot of what makes SAP Activate so powerful is that it comes with Rapid Deployment Solutions (RDS), SAP Best Practices (ready-to-run business processes optimized for S/4HANA), Model Companies, and other pre-built assets built right in. One of the easiest ways to get quick wins is to identify assets that will require little or no tweaking and build those into the current project first.

Get people talking to each other. Don’t assume that everything is okay just because no one is complaining. Make sure that everyone participates in white boarding sessions, weekly standup meetings, and other opportunities to plan sprints, go over progress to date, identify issues, and set milestones. You want consultants to feel like they own the project, not the other way around.

Scramble the seating chart. Agile is all about getting people to collaborate across functions and SAP Activate makes it really hard to stay in your own silo. For example, Best Practices come with their own built-in tests. One way to get people to collaborate sooner and more efficiently is if they are seated close to each other physically. Even if people are working virtually you should still make sure to populate online chats and web conferences with people from different functions. The more people collaborate openly, the more they’ll like collaborating and will resist staying trapped in silos.

Get rid of bad apples. Agile isn’t for everyone. And the last thing you want on your team is someone who constantly complains or otherwise undermines your efforts at building an agile culture. So, ultimately, if someone is not going to be happy in the new culture, they should go someplace where they will be happy.

Remember, the power of agile is the ability to swiftly get past barriers, whether by removing them or by going around them. And the first barrier to get past — as swiftly as possible — is a waterfall culture.

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