Dealing with Core System Implementation Fatigue

Agile organizations often talk about sprints, but insurers need to prepare for these programs like they are a marathon to ensure long-term success.

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CIOs often ask me how other insurers maintain momentum during multi-year core system implementations. Implementing a modern policy administration system can take its toll on the morale of key project members. It’s more like a marathon than a sprint: insurers need preparation, pacing, and some old-fashioned encouragement to get to the finish line. Motivating and retaining project team members is critical to program success and ongoing support of the solution.

Many insurers abandon best practices for maintaining a healthy organization due to the priority and intensity of these programs. Agile organizations often talk about sprints, but insurers need to prepare for these programs like they are a marathon to ensure long-term success.

Too Long to Perform, Too Much for One Person

Many factors can impact team member morale and retention during multi-year core projects. The first challenge is duration: multi-line, multi-state implementations can take up to five years for some companies. Organizations often ask key personnel to split their time during these projects, maintaining their old roles and their leadership/SME roles for the program. This is not sustainable.

Less obvious is the role that heroes can play in adding risk via burnout. Key people often make substantial contributions, but organizations must guard against individuals who do not train others, share knowledge, or enjoy being the one to solve all the program’s problems.

Outside Influence, Inside Politics

Changes outside the project can also have a negative impact. Executive-level changes and market changes can affect the program’s priority, especially for later, low-volume products. Passive resistance from acquired companies or isolated divisions can also take its toll as the program moves from phase to phase.

A lack of professional development can also be a factor. The priority and the pace of these programs can cause organizations to forgo development and training for individuals related to their career aspirations. Team members’ perceptions of compensation and recognition inequity can also impact morale. Transition team members often see consultants as having more freedom, opportunities for growth, and higher compensation. They may also feel that their compensation has not kept up with their skill development and the marketplace.

Failure to celebrate success at milestones and the tendency to move immediately into the next phase can also have a negative impact. These programs have always been challenging, but the additional stress and anxiety people are experiencing due to COVID-19 exacerbates the problem.

Communication and Clarification

Insurers need to include best practices for organizational development in their program plan and leadership objectives. This holds whether insurers contract SIs for most of the work (to focus on the business side) or they do the configuration work internally. Whatever insurers can do to clarify roles and accountabilities will go a long way toward reducing and managing frustration.

Insurers should work with each employee to define a career path and career objectives. Organizations often omit this step to prioritize the MVP. In reality, communications of this nature indicate an interest in the employee and help set expectations. Insurers should encourage discussions about the skills they want employees to develop during successive phases of the program.

Resource Planning and Staffing

Resource planning is also a best practice. Identifying the type and source of each required resource for each phase is essential. Identifying backups for crucial roles and training plans for support teams and new hires can help ensure successful transitions. Backfilling temporarily for product owners, SMEs, and other key personnel will improve team productivity and help develop backups or future leaders.

Insurers often resist backfilling due to the increased cost or the lack of trust that there will be a role for the incumbent after the project. Insurers need to consider the cost reduction they can achieve by adequately staffing key positions: Increased commitment creates faster decision-making, lowering the consulting dollars wasted waiting for resolution. Placing individuals who develop skills during the project is rarely a problem, given the post-implementation demand for digital and analytics capabilities.

Pace and Productivity

The program pace and duration can be unavoidable due to market pressures. Novarica recommends that insurers allow time to address technical debt before initiating subsequent phases.

Another technique to avoid burnout is to shut down development for a week around holidays, giving everyone time to recharge. The manufacturing sector uses this practice, recognizing that productivity decreases when people take vacations. Short down periods allow everyone to refresh and enjoy their time off rather than work on vacation.

The Value of Visibility

The most impactful thing that organizations can do is provide their teams with visibility and access to executives who demonstrate an interest and concern for the project, provide feedback on the user reaction to new functionality, and celebrate successes. Conducting live demonstrations at the end of a sprint is a best practice. Carriers can increase the value by encouraging all team members to attend these sessions on a rotating basis.

Employees appreciate simple recognition of the effort they put forth. One way to achieve this is to send a small gift to the home of an individual to recognize the impact that long hours can have on significant others or families. Communicating business impact and value with the team tends to increase organizational commitment along with helping to drive scope and feature decisions.

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Chuck Ruzicka // Chuck Ruzicka is a Research Council Fellow at Novarica. He has expertise in insurance IT leadership and business transformation as well as technology strategy for personal, commercial, workers’ comp, life, and specialty lines. Prior to joining Novarica, Ruzicka served in senior technology management roles including VP at Progressive Insurance, where he was responsible for financial system architecture, billing, divisional policy, and financial systems; both CIO of Agency Markets and VP of Infrastructure Software and Security at Liberty Mutual; and CIO at several regional insurance companies. Most recently, Ruzicka was an independent consultant, using his experience to complete roadmaps for application portfolio upgrades and information management strategies as well as to lead core system software selection projects. He also has board member experience for mutual property/casualty, specialty lines, and software development companies. Chuck has an MBA in Finance from the Ohio State University. He can be reached directly at    

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