Solution Partner Views
Five Tips for Successful Agile Implementations
For CIOs, there is an inherent bit of fear involved in technology implementations that stems from things like industry rumors of failure rates, past experiences with inexperienced teams and third-party service providers, and knowledge of the complexity involved in a large-scale core administration system replacement. History tells us that core administration system replacements in particular are lengthy, costly and complex, but new project management and implementation methodologies, like agile, are available today to change all that.
Unlike the traditional or waterfall implementations of the past, agile implementations involve continuous reassessment to make certain requirements changing along the way maintain budgets and meet expectations. However, since insurers only replace key systems every eight to ten years (or more), it`s difficult for internal team members to gain any experience, or comfort level for that matter, with the basic principles and tenets driving the agile process.
It`s true that the sprints inherent to agile can easily overwhelm those not familiar with the process. On the bright side, agile allows for more flexibility and accuracy, making small incremental steps—and, adjustments, if needed—along the way. While some insurers question why there isn`t a middle step between agile and waterfall, others are gaining confidence with the process using five simple steps to propel them toward success.
1. Spend the time required for proper set up
You`ve heard the saying, “If it`s worth doing, it`s worth doing right.” In the case of the time you need to spend planning for and setting up your agile implementation for success, this couldn`t be more true. The number one answer to successful agile implementations is to understand the process before beginning. Insurers need to know that there will be internal demands, and they must make the needed adjustments to their internal structure, building new teams if necessary to support them.
Insurers may well need to allocate subject matter experts (SMEs) and other key support roles upfront. It takes more than just appointing someone as an SME, however. Key project team members must be allowed to focus on the project, effectively giving up their “day jobs.” If this is not possible, the assumption must be made that at least 80 percent of an SME`s time will need to be allocated to the project.
There are various customer team models which work very well. But, regardless of the internal structure of the company, regular roles of agile team members must be backfilled. This can be accomplished using new hires, consultants, or reallocation of other internal resources, to allow SMEs the time to focus on the project at hand, provide necessary information and timely decision-making, and source needed materials or resources. Backfilling internally has another advantage. It allows insurers to cross-train and educate existing staff, thus keeping implementation knowledge in-house.
2. Know your business, and know it well
While this may sound obvious, it`s surprising how many insurers assign low-level employees who aren`t well-versed in products, geographic regions, or even lines of business to technology projects rather than assign actual SMEs. This can be terribly painful for everyone involved and adds huge risk to the project schedule.
The agile process demands each member of the project implementation team think fast and think on his (or her) feet. This is not the place for new hires, those who may have just changed jobs internally, or those with no authority or ability to make decisions. As we all know, insurance products are highly-regulated and must be properly filed and approved with the state.
Reinforcing the first tip from above, this is where it makes a difference to do it right the first time. Rejected filings delay go-live dates, and changing products in the middle of an implementation can be disruptive and costly. By making the proper talent and knowledge available immediately—and as an integral part of the project implementation team—insurers can help channel success and aid the agile process as well.
3. Solidify executive sponsorship.Agile requires a change in culture for many insurers, and change management must start at the top in order to permeate the entire organization. This means clear, committed, active executive sponsorship. While this does not mean executive leadership needs to be involved daily, concise direction and authoritative assignments are essential to success.
By dedicating a true project owner—one who knows the business, knows something about technology, and is empowered to make quick decisions— insurers can streamline the process and make it less challenging for all involved. This project owner or champion serves as the implementation team`s go-to resource, as well as the person who will internally monitor and manage overall project scope.
Executive leadership can further help all involved parties by insisting upon full transparency, collaboration, and strong communication channels. Agile`s sprints ensure regular touch points, but executive leadership can help communicate that technology implementations are more than IT initiatives, they are business projects. Perhaps needless to say, there needs to be alignment between every insurer`s business and IT factions, but there also needs to be open communication so questions can be answered and misinterpretations can be avoided.
4. Don`t settle, seek training
As already established, insurers don`t undertake complex technology implementations often, and turnover in staff combined with that fact mean there is little in-house expertise available when the time comes. Keep in mind, this is not like riding a bike. Technology vendors maintain trained staffs who are constantly learning new technologies and techniques, ways to better incorporate industry knowledge, and who are experts in completing successful implementations, and rightfully so.
Instead of settling for a shaky ride and some skinned knees, insurers can invest in the agile process, in project success and in the careers of important employees by seeking training. First up, a conversation with the technology vendor attached to the implementation. The best vendors are those most invested in developing and implementing modern technology. These companies often have training programs which can help an insurer`s internal teams get a comfort level with the agile process, or dive deep to learn how to complete common tasks in the new system with ease.
5. Trust the process
The final and sometimes most difficult tip is to trust the process. It could be called unwise to try to boil the ocean, so take a breath and understand that all the parts come together in the end. After a couple of sprints, everyone will begin to understand how the agile process works, so it`s important to not resist or fear this new approach to implementations at the outset.
Since there is a lot riding on the success of a complex implementation such as a core system replacement, it`s assumed any insurer would conduct full due diligence on the vendor to make sure that the organizational cultures match up and that trust exists from the beginning. Once it`s established, it`s infinitely easier to follow the vendor`s lead and believe in their experience and guidance.
Just like anything, there is a learning curve to agile, and there are bound to be hiccups and kinks along the way. Having the proper expectations, structure, and knowledge in place, understanding and trusting in the process, and believing in your vendor are all ways to ease implementation pains and guide you through to a successful implementation.