Last month, I had a great opportunity to interview Howard who shared his passion for finding new ways of doing things, innovation, and continuous learning. The keys to his success as a change agent by helping others to grow. Howard works in one of the largest insurance and asset management companies in Europe. His company was part of a well-known financial group that spin-off its insurance and asset management business in 2014.
After the 2008 financial crisis, Howard’s company has been facing changing market conditions not to mention the recent pandemic. First, the amount of regulation increased considerably, which bloated their fixed costs as they had to invest a lot of money and time to comply with new regulatory requirements. Then the impact of the spin-off on their brand legacy as before they were under the umbrella of the large international group. On top of this, the business model is also changing drastically, as customers are adopting a passive investment model, where computers replicate benchmarks using data analytics and AI. These new models are squeezing the margins and reducing the price of their core business.
Why did Howard become a point of my interview? Howard’s company realized beforehand the need for a drastic change. They knew that they needed to organize their technology operations area into new methods to innovate and catch up with market dynamics. This is where I came crashing in on Howard’s brain so you can take home a few pointers from his experience that will also help after the COVID-19 crisis.
Q. Bringing agility to your company brought unprecedented success. How did you come with the idea?
Howard illustrated that it took a while for his company to realize that their working methodologies were out of date. Before 2016, we would go for a contract-based system to bring in any kind of change. We would talk to the IT department and describe our eventual goal and the timeframe. Then, they would get it done. However, the scope of changing decisions on the fly was not there and we ended up making a wall on the wrong foundation.
Therefore, this time we decided to change in an agile form. Thus, we said “Hey, we don’t want a contract system. We want to work together and we’ll keep delivering in small increments”
Today we are achieving around 60% of our projects with the agile method.
Q. There must have been a lot of obstacles while you implemented “agile” methodology. Can you share some of them?
On this transformation journey, Howard has been an advisor and specialist in getting the innovation going. He summarized the obstacles in 3 points
1. Understanding the real meaning of being agile
Some people think “agile” means that you can be intellectually lazy, which translates “you don’t need to analyze and don’t need to innovate”. This is not the meaning of agile. Agile means to quickly test your assumptions, go to the client, test your MVP, and test again till you hit the jackpot.
2. Ensuring strategic focus while at the same time being decentralized and autonomous
We have an asset management company and we want to deploy our internal resources on tasks that create value while at the same time we want to ensure autonomy. What this conveys that the work of our IT teams do should either contribute positively towards performance enhancement or client experience. It is very difficult for autonomous teams to take in the terms. Sometimes, the team believes that is even conflicting within their existence and this creates fear. Why will the team stop doing some work? if they do, maybe the next thing will be, « Hey, you guys are redundant. “
3. Transforming the heroes’ culture
We have been surrounded by a culture of heroes. Imagine you are running a hospital, the hospital has a specialist for liver or kidney and they are rewarded for their individual achievements only, but they’re never rewarded for working together or bringing in routine patients and curing them. Can you imagine that? That should be unsustainable. So, the real struggle we had was finding ways to make our heroes collaborate and work for small outputs as hard as for big breakthroughs. Getting these various functions to deliver the complete value chain, as one unit of the cross-functional teams was a big challenge.
Q. A number of actions are involved in change friendly and agile culture in a company. What is your experience in this regard?
Howard explained, the top five tested methods that helped him and his team to bring a change and accepting “new” culture
1. Implementing Step by Step
We adopted agile governance first and now we are moving towards bizdev ops. So not only have its teams come under the agile governance but slowly we are going into the business areas. Business teams are now being organized into agile teams as well.
2. Reducing Red Tape
Many companies suffer because there are a lot of people between the field guy and the strategic planner. Therefore, we ensured that excessive red tape was removed from within the floors. As a result, we reduced at least two managers between the CEO and person on the lowest tier. This saves time in relaying information on both ways.
3. Encouraging mentorship management
Today managers are being encouraged to be more like mentors and not like decision-makers. Decision making is being pushed as much as possible to the people who are doing things on the ground. This has led to mixed results. So, you do need the wisdom of the people at the top, especially from a strategic thinking point of view but the manager needs clarity about our strategy to make decisions. Today we communicate the strategy more proactively so that once people know the strategy that has been formulated from the onset rather than running without a goal or just with personal goals.
4. Linking every change to a strategic initiative
The key ingredient of being successful in this transformation was that every change was linked to a strategic initiative. However, we also need to consider what business value is, and sometimes the answer is not in black and white.
5. Changing physical Space
Another element that had a positive impact was to change the internal space. We removed all the solid walls, and these solid walls have now been replaced by glass walls so everyone can see everyone.
Q. Being an agent of change is not an easy role within a traditional company. Where do you think your motivation can come from?
My entire career has been a change. I had my bachelor’s in engineering where we kept looking for new ways of doing things. I then entered into a research Master, even though I did not finish it, but the focus on the research master was always extending my agile habits.
“I think I just grew up with this education to keep challenging the status quo and finding new ways of doing things that make more sense than before”.
The earlier education is what that leads me to the agile side and all my career has been a roller-coaster ride since.
Q. What’s your advice for corporate innovators trying to change the status quo?
- Communicate, communicate & communicate. Be it internal or external, although internal communication first is more important than ever. One important learning of not being alone was also that the communication team can be your best friend in innovation within big corporations. They can change everything in terms of storytelling, which helps your employees get the limelight and aligned.
- Find people who have a growth mindset. Another key element was to find people who are willing to change their habits for the betterment of themselves and the company. Once we found this bright lot, we stuck with them and made them in charge of making more people like themselves.
- Stick and fight it out together. Once the team was created, it was important to give them an adhesive idea so they stick together with a common goal. These guys were so it became easier for the management to provide them the plans for change. Once we had the perfect team, we unified them and ran the whole operation.
It will not be easy so patience is a definite virtue to have in the whole process.
There is an African proverb that said: “If you want to go fast, go alone but If you want to go far go together”. Howard shared with us how sustainability was key to the success of his company transformation.
“We needed to take everybody on board before we moved forward”
His company did not want to go fast, they wanted to go far. It was very important for them not to have a few heroes. But to develop heroes to inspire others. So, Howard’s role was to make heroes out of others in the longer run.
Howard also recalls us, It is important to make a choice between creating an external identity for being innovative or running it in-house.
“We decided that we are not going to create a ministry of innovation within our company. We will make sure that even if it takes longer, we will embed the culture and slowly make it work for us”.
They learned from other business units that created a separate company or organization altogether to manage innovation. They could achieve some results very, very quickly. But these results were empty prototypes. Once they faced the challenges of the real world, they did not live up to the benchmarks they created themselves, let alone our standards and targets.
I thank Howard for his time and for sharing his expertise on innovation, and agile workforces that bring about a change friendly environment. His advice is no less than gold as it can be a strategic guideline to lead to success, be it a corporation or a small startup company.
If you think you have connected with Howard’s ideas of agility and innovation, you need to get in touch with us through the comment section.
Be the change you want to see in the world
As requested by Howard, all names and identifying details have been changed
Thank You, Howard