Can the software development strategy Agile translate to a teamwork approach in insurance?
By Christopher W. Cook
At least once a year I hear the “Old Man” mispronounce “fragile” in the classic holiday movie A Christmas Story during either TNT or TBS’s 24-hour marathon. Yes, sometimes I watch the movie multiple times. Now you know where this article’s title comes from. And knowing’s half the battle.
At last year’s Wholesale & Specialty Insurance Association (WSIA) Automation Conference (now the WSIA Insurtech Conference), I attended a demonstration panel session—moderated by Scott Montney, IT director at Cochrane & Company—on Agile. Used by software developers, Agile is a method of project management that is characterized by dividing tasks into short phases with frequent reassessment and adaptation of plans. And while the software terminology went over my head (imagine Jeff Dunham’s puppet Peanut making his “hand over his head” motion accompanied by the sound of a car racing by), the teamwork aspect seemed like a universal approach for a collaborative environment that could translate to other industries.
Could Agile work with your agency’s team? Let’s take a closer look at the process.
Agile is a methodology, and several frameworks are used in its implementation. The one discussed at the conference is called “scrum.” I can hear Buckwheat in the 1990s Little Rascals reboot saying, “You’re scrum between my toes!” Anyway, the general concept of the scrum version of Agile is breaking up a larger assignment into mini goals that can be completed in specific time frames called sprints, which are generally no longer than one month and most commonly two weeks. During these sprints, progress is tracked and reassessed during brief daily meetings, which are called scrums.
As our example, let’s say C&C Insurance Factory has a team of five relatively new producers. The agency manager, Robert Cole, decides to give his team an assignment and try the scrum method after observing how the team members frequently help each other out with questions or assist with another’s workload if that person is absent from the office.
Cole decides to give his team the task of obtaining 1,000 new clients over the next six-month period. Here’s how the scrum methodology would work:
Storyboarding. With an end goal presented, the team first storyboards ideas on how to achieve it. As a screenwriter, this writer is familiar with storyboarding, as I use this strategy while working on scripts. I hang a piece of poster board on the wall above my home computer and use index cards to represent each scene of the movie, filling each one with notes about characters and plot advancement. Whether you use a physical storyboard like poster boards or dry erase boards or type up everything digitally is up to you.
One member of the team will be selected to be the leader or scrum master, also known as the “servant leader” (but isn’t “scrum” fun to say?). This individual isn’t in charge of the team in the traditional sense but takes charge of the meeting details and keeps everyone on track. You may choose to have one scrum master for the entire project, or you could switch up for each individual sprint to provide an equal opportunity for team members to be responsible for holding the rest of the team accountable. Software developers typically keep the same scrum master for an entire project. The scrum master should be one of the group members who are participating in the assignment and not a member of the management team.
The storyboarding step should be used as a brainstorming session. The C&C team, with approval from management, decides to host a customer appreciation night at the agency and hold a raffle with prizes for current clients; the cost of a raffle ticket is one referral. Notes should be taken on the tasks needed to make this event successful: decorations, raffle prizes, refreshments, advertising the event, and so on.
But one big event can’t be the only way to find referrals. All ideas should be included in the storyboarding session. Cold calling (see the Rough Notes January 2020 Young Professionals article on prospecting for tips on this), researching current clients’ LinkedIn and other social media pages, and additional suggestions are added to the master list.
Sprint meeting and action. The next step is to hold a planning meeting to prepare for the first sprint; the C&C team decided to use a two-week sprint. The team will create detailed tasks for every individual based on the items listed on the storyboard. Essentially the purpose of this meeting is to decide which tasks from the overall picture should be completed during the first two weeks of the assignment.
A helpful tip during this step, although it also can be done during the storyboarding step, is to rank tasks from one to five—one being easy and five being difficult. Some tasks—like finding refreshments for the customer appreciation event—may have multiple steps, from doing research on companies and food options to checking availability and costs. Tasks also can be ranked by priority.
During the initial sprint meeting, planned absences from the office should be made known to the group for the first two weeks of the assignment. The team should be kept up to date when someone has a medical appointment or a vacation planned—anything that could prevent them from completing their assigned duties for the current sprint.
When using the scrum methodology of Agile, it’s important to remember that the key is to break up the larger tasks into smaller segments. Instead of attacking a large project, tackle smaller objectives that will lead to achievement of the ultimate goal. While planning the tasks to be accomplished in the first sprint, each team member should be given assignments specifically for the first day.
During the first two-week sprint, each of C&C’s five team members plans to do a one-hour block of cold calling each week; Karen volunteers to do this on day one. They also split up individual tasks to be done for the planned customer appreciation event. While all of this is going on, the five team members are also providing service to their clients and performing other daily tasks, so they make sure not to assign more than they can handle. They do have six months to reach their referral goal.
Scrum, or standup, meetings. The standup meeting is not where everyone can practice their comedy routines; rather the term “standup” refers to a brief exchange—usually held in the morning and lasting no more than 15 minutes—where all remain on their feet; this help keeps it short and focused. At each meeting, team members quickly discuss the progress made on yesterday’s tasks and assign tasks for the current day. Team members share what they finished and what they didn’t and indicate if any roadblocks interfered with their tasks. All finished and unfinished work should be documented in a daily report to monitor everyone’s contribution to the project.
For example, during the first day of the sprint, Karen’s son went home sick from school and she had to leave the office. While she worked remotely, the duties of caring for her child interfered with her assignment of cold calling for one hour. Karen will be working remotely until her son returns to school and won’t have time for additional tasks aside from servicing her clients. During such scenarios, the team can regroup and plan the daily assignments knowing that they’ll be down one person. Videoconferencing allows Karen to participate in the daily scrum meetings and be kept informed of the team’s progress.
Report and review. At the end of the two-week sprint, the team should report its results. Was everything finished? If items were left on the table, the team should analyze why and how things can be improved for the next sprint. As sprints continue, look for patterns in the results. Are items not being completed because too much work is being assigned at the beginning of a sprint? Is the team finishing the workload early in each round because not enough was assigned? Whether the sprint is successful or assignments are carried over to the next sprint, continue to provide support and encouragement for the team members. Management team members can attend the sprint review meetings to get updates on the team’s progress.
How well did the team work together? Take note of any communication problems or conflicts and make suggestions on how things can be improved for the upcoming sprint.
Another item to track in the sprint report is work that was added after the sprint started. Maybe a team member thinks of another way to bring in referrals mid-sprint and shares it with everyone, and they decide to put it into play. When this happens, the new suggestion should be added to the backlog to be ranked among the items previously listed and then discussed during the next sprint planning meeting. With Agile, the key is to stay focused on the work assigned for the current sprint.
After the first sprint ends and the results are recorded, the scrum master sets up the next sprint, breaking down what is to be accomplished in the next two weeks, and the process continues until the six months are over, by which time ideally the goal has been achieved.
Remember that Agile is used mainly by computer programmers, and the process involves technical aspects that I left out of my example because they didn’t fit with my insurance industry narrative. Will Agile work for your agency? If you have a collaborative team or a goal-oriented project in the works, give it a try.
As for C&C Insurance Factory, it had a successful customer appreciation night and acquired a plethora of leads through referrals provided by the clients who attended the event. Unfortunately, halfway through the project, Karen won a one-month “must take now” all-inclusive family vacation to Europe in a radio contest and couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Even with additional effort from the remaining four team members to pick up the slack, the group ended up three referrals short of their goal. Thanks, Karen!