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A Simple Guide to Agile Project Management for Your Insurance Business

, | March 3, 2023 | By
A person holding a smartphone in their hand and a tablet in their lap with geometric shapes floating above the tablet

by Jackie Sembrano – 

As Insurance companies embark on large programs such as Digital Transformation initiatives, organizations must pick a development methodology to deliver the business objectives on time with no surprises.  Agile – the widely adopted methodology is appropriate most of the time, but not all of the time. Its focus on the immediate need to create something for someone to see and feel has its drawbacks, more so if not paired with a reliable view of the long term goal.  A flavor of this methodology that has started to emerge and prove effective in realizing success is the “Modified Agile” approach.  This Modified Agile approach  is tailored to be more responsive to business outcomes through the application of these principles:

  • Executive sponsorship to inspire change
  • Business case showing the value
  • Single team with business and IT
  • Well-rounded Scrum teams
  • Thoughtful and clear epics
  • Demos of the product early on
  • A trusted partner to bring expertise

What is “Modified” Agile?

Methodology, in simplest terms, is a predictable process to deliver the highest quality implementations.  Agile, if strictly adhered to, can get work done, but sometimes the results are not what the business had requested.  It goes back to the adage, “technically correct, functionally wrong.” If the business will not receive value from the results, then it is viewed as a failure.

Enter the Modified Agile approach.  A combination of road maps, waterfall, and agile techniques flavored with lessons learned from experiences past.  Focus is on the following principles

  • Have a well-defined roadmap laying out all of the needed high-level activities of the program
  • Ensure consistent and clear communication on the goals and plans
  • Define the high-level business requirements in totality for each module before starting development
  • Use Agile’s Epics to build the long term vision and use the just in time user stories to develop functionality
  • Don’t be afraid to break the rules based on experience and goals to ensure the program stays on track

The goal is to define the implementation approach that provides a clear understanding of the progress of development, delivers the expected results, fits the culture, and ensures all team members can provide value.

Executive sponsorship to inspire change

The role of the executive project sponsor is often overlooked. Current data from the Project Management Institute (PMI) demonstrates that actively engaged sponsors are the dominant driver that enables projects to meet their original goals.

According to the “PMI 2018 Pulse of the Profession In-Depth Report,” 1 in 4 organizations report that the primary cause of failed projects is inadequate sponsor support. By contrast, organizations with a higher percentage of projects that include actively engaged executive sponsors report 40% more successful projects than those with a lower percentage of projects with actively engaged sponsors (PMI, 2018).

Executive sponsorship is critical to the success of any Digital Transformation program. Some of the expectations include

  • Coordinate with stakeholders to set expectations, garner support, awareness, and development activities as programs tend to impact all areas of the organization
  • Set high-level program direction
  • Define business requirement priority and confirm they are aligned with the business case and organizational direction
  • Playing a pivotal role in building the business case for initial funding and subsequent funding if needed
  • Responsible for ensuring the necessary resources are available when needed

It is the executive sponsor that sets the tone and maintains the direction for the team to deliver.  The sponsor must continually reinforce the business value and ensure the development team meets the business objectives.

Business case showing the value

Although defining a business case is not an agile concept, it is a critical piece of the puzzle for success.  Programs that have a well-defined business case should include:

  • Drivers of the benefits and the costs associated with the program
  • Used by the project team to define the scope and approach for delivery
  • Determines development priorities based on business impact
  • Ensures objectivity in achieving the final goal

The most successful programs are the ones that have a clear business case used by the team to guide the requirements prioritization process.  There is no shortage of reasonable requirements, but there is a shortage of value-adding requirements.

A single team of Business and IT

Business and IT sponsors, and teams need to be acting as a single unit to implement complex initiatives such as a Digital Transformation.  The team dynamics need to be set up to ensure each area can bring its expertise to solve the problem while complementing the other team members.  Some of the critical team-building points include:

  • The business team needs to provide resources including product owners, testers, and User Acceptance Testers who will become part of the team, providing valuable input and direction
  • The IT team must provide experienced resources to guide the business team through the development process and ensure quality standards are met
  • The team must represent all areas impacted to gather input and impact
  • The business owns the overall success of the implementation of the program to the end-users

Having this combined team with the right skills and knowledge will make obstacles easier to overcome, paving the way to realizing the business value and achieving the desired outcome.

Well-rounded Scrum team

The scrum team is the focal point of the ability to deliver under Agile. This means it’s essential to have fully dedicated resources with no other competing priorities.   Many companies tend to stretch resources thin and ask that regular job responsibilities be juggled alongside  additional program work.  This causes a conflict when there are production issues or other high priority items that cause the resource to focus on production instead of the tasks on program delivery.  The only resource that can be part-time is the product owner, as their duties do not require 100% dedication.

While the ideal goal is to allow resources to only focus on the program, it is not a realistic expectation due to specialized knowledge, unique experience, or capacity constraint situations.  To help mitigate the risk this we suggest

  • Review the backlog of projects with the business and make a joint decision on which project can be delayed, slowed down, or even stopped to free up capacity. Involving the business in the decision creates more of a team environment and doesn’t cause angst between IT and the business.
  • Pair the critical resource with an outsourced resource. This will enable the essential resource to direct and oversee the updates and changes while the outsource resource performs the actual work. This approach is recommended for longer-term programs due to the ramp-up time required.

You may not always be able to dedicate a resource fully; it is important to plan and be aware of the impact of part-time resources, which can sometimes mean no effort is expended for a period of time and delaying the project.  If you must have part-time resources, it is best to lay that risk out at the start of the project and the possible timeline impacts.

Thoughtful and clear epics

One of the biggest criticisms of agile is the free-flowing of requirements that can cause a program to go off track.  If the focus is on the next two sprints, the long term view is overlooked.  This risk can be mitigated by

  • Ensure the roadmap has a clear view of how to move from the current state to the future state
  • Develop a high-level milestone plan and technology map demonstrating the path of development
  • Define each epic to support a business case benefit before the start of the building of the application
  • Epics need to provide a clear description of the expected behavior, interactions with 3rd party systems, and desired functionality.
  • If epics require changes, ensure all parties are aware of the reason for the change and account for the impact
  • Allow time for changes due to regulatory impacts
  • Use your strategic partner to demonstrate newer proven techniques for delivery

At the start of the implementation, take some time to develop clear epics to provide the team with the map of the development efforts. This will enable the team to develop user stories that align with the overall vision and keep the project focused on delivering the value of the business case.

Demos of the product early on

Too often, we see requirements were provided, but what was built didn’t match the requirements. The business is disappointed in IT, and IT is upset at the business for not being clearer.  Agile’s demo after each sprint provides an excellent way to reduce this risk by showing all stakeholders a part of the final product that can be seen. A few key tips for the demos:

  • Don’t be afraid to say something isn’t done
  • Show what has been done and talk about the vision for the balance of the development
  • Demonstrate from a business process point of view and not focus on technology
  • Be ready for changes in current and future requirements

Demos are a very powerful tool to allow the stakeholders to see the requirements come to life.  They also provide a chance to receive direct feedback on the development efforts and make adjustments when the impact of the changes is less.

A trusted partner to bring expertise

Implementing programs like digital transformation require a specific skill set in managing the change, understand the technology impacts, and harnessing the latest trends, which usually does not pair well with running the daily business operations.  Using a trusted partner can not only increase confidence in delivery but also improves the quality of the final product.  Some things to look for:

  • The partner has a collaborative approach to deliver creating a single team with a depth of skilled resources
  • Focuses on solving the business challenge with a variety of options and not just technology
  • Identify partners that have delivered for companies similar to your size and complexity
  • The partner is willing to implement “three in a box” for critical leadership roles of having a business, IT, and partner to provide well rounded and informed decision making while reducing risk
  • The partner is willing to co-lead and take responsibility for the effort working with your resources to identify potential pitfalls and have proven mitigation plans
  • Has both on and offshore resources to provide ideal costing

Using a strategic partner enables you to extend your team, fill in gaps of skills, and bring focused delivery experience to the program reducing risk, cost, and increasing deliverability.

Define a Strategic Foundation for Agile

In conclusion, Agile is a compelling methodology that easily accommodates change during the program delivery.  Agile can also fail by providing something that is different than was defined in the business case.  To ensure delivery success, a good foundation must be built that includes a clear business case outlining the value, a roadmap of how to realize the value and all needed project, epics clearly depicting the business requirements of how to enable the vision, demonstrations of the functionality as often as possible to gather feedback and changes required. When implementing large-scale programs such as digital transformation, it is essential to have a trusted partner that can guide you through the process, bring specific expertise, and fill in resource gaps to develop one complete team.

Contact RCG for a discussion of your digital transformation roadmap.