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When Agile is a marathon instead of a sprint

Dominic Mersino
Dominic Mersino, Architect and Program Lead, X by 2

To say the Agile methodology has taken over the insurance industry would be to understate the obvious. Nearly every insurer uses the Agile approach in some way or another, for small, medium or large projects, and most are at least seemingly satisfied with the results driven by the agile methodology. However, what most insurers don’t disclose is the time they’ve spent – and are spending – on implementing and ingratiating Agile thinking into their organizations. Because it’s one thing to agree to adopt the basic operating principles of Agile as a way forward for a large insurance company, but it’s another thing altogether to make the shift from a waterfall mentality to an Agile mentality. That’s a cultural shift rather than a technical shift, and that’s when using Agile becomes a marathon instead of a sprint.

This piece focuses on that aspect of the transition to Agile, and the challenges inherent in attempting to make this change in a large insurer. Since many people learn experientially, one of the best approaches is to introduce the Agile methodology as part of the project management approach for a systems implementation project. That has the effect of making it real for people immediately, and linking the adoption of the methodology with the overall success of the project.

The three key elements in making the transition to agile thinking are communications, empowerment and results – all of which take time, patience, encouragement, and a little (or a lot) of ruthlessness when required.

Most business and IT people at large insurers have grown up in a waterfall development methodology world and that world became all encompassing at many insurers. Since that’s how systems were developed, it was also how business processes were designed, and how cultural norms became ingrained. Everything was – and still is at many insurers – do this, then do that, then do this, etc. In general, a production line mentality works for producing the same thing over and over again at a manufacturing plant but does not necessarily translate to the world of software development where, while there are patterns, each problem is unique and requires different solutions.

This waterfall mentality must be addressed, and that’s where communication is key. It’s important to discuss why things are the way they are, the results that have been achieved historically in this manner, and the implications of doing it differently with Agile. This is typically the “trees for the forest” conversation. A fair amount of time should be invested up front in communicating the benefits of the Agile approach, including the potential difference in IT delivery and results (emphasis on results) for the company if done well (more emphasis on ‘done well’).

That’s where the next element for success, empowerment, comes in. At most large insurers, empowerment gets tangled up with risk, as the cultures of many insurers connect individual decision making with risk taking. That connection has to be undone. People put into the decision-making roles in the new Agile environment – developers, team leads, business leads, etc. – have to be given a sense of security so that making a decision, right or wrong, becomes more important than waiting for somebody higher on the management chain to make the call.

This can be one of the most challenging aspects of an Agile transition, so it’s important to be vigilant for real-time opportunities that illustrate the downside of not embracing empowerment. A typical example of this is the group decision making that occurs at most insurers over spending budgeted money. In this case in point, a necessary software component was selected for a price of $10,000. It met or surpassed all of the necessary requirements, and fit within the budgeted expenses for the project. Even with that, it took four meetings with dozens of resources in attendance to make the final decision. The time spent by the resources in the meeting far surpassed the actual cost of the software. One of the issues is that empowerment implies accountability, and accountability is still an acquired taste at most insurers. That’s why it’s important to create an environment that supports empowerment and accountability, and that recognizes that learning occurs from all outcomes in decision-making.

The third key element is a focus on results rather than the current focus at many insurers – process for process’s sake. One of the core principals of Agile is a focus on results as opposed to the process itself, but that’s a tough and time-consuming transition for most large insurers. A process should exist, but it should exist to serve the people rather than vice versa. Success requires an abundance of communication, empowerment, and above all patience. It’s not that IT and business people aren’t willing or capable of focusing on results at the detriment of the sacred project plan, it’s just that they’re not used to it, so it feels very uncomfortable at first. However, some positive reinforcement – especially from happy customers – goes a long way in facilitating that transition.

Success breeds its rewards, and in that context, Agile becomes the tool by which moving a large insurer from a waterfall to Agile culture can be achieved. It’s important to start with small successes and grow those into larger successes as the methodology alters the way people think and behave. Because in the end, it’s not about methods, project plans or checking things off the list, it’s about delivering quality software in an efficient manner that contributes to the overall success of the company. Of course, it’s always been about that; it’s just that we need to be reminded of it from time to time, and Agile is a pretty good reminder.