“According to Darwin’s Origin of Species, it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”
— Leon C. Megginson, Civilization Past and Present, 1963This quote, often attributed to Darwin, was, in fact, offered by Leon C. Megginson – a Louisiana State University business professor who was the first to suggest that organizations, like species, must adapt to their markets to survive.
The analogy springs from the 1960s, but still perfectly describes the central challenge facing the insurance industry in the 21st century. To thrive in a post-pandemic world, it is no longer safe to assume that insurers with the strongest capital base or the most sophisticated operations will be best able to negotiate tumultuous times – particularly those companies hampered by hierarchical and obsolete organizational structures.
Insurers must evolve, and for many, agile working could be an answer. This form of organizational development emphasizes individuals and interactions over processes and tools and relies on small, multi-disciplinary teams to innovate. In other words, it is tailor-made to help companies adapt to change.
An Industry Under Pressure
And change has been constant in recent years. COVID-19 emerged at a time of tremendous transformation in the insurance industry. The digital revolution continues to place immense pressure on distribution, product development, and operational systems. An industry that prides itself on data management has, in some areas, struggled to keep pace with tech-savvy startups, and long-term low interest rates compound macroeconomic pressures on many insurers. At the same time, insurers must contend with rising public and investor calls to combat climate change and demonstrate social responsibility.
The foundational values of insurers —stability, consistency, and strength—have successfully steered the industry for centuries, but overcoming these modern headwinds requires insurers to rapidly test and explore strategies and tactics.
Agile working can help. First, agile working is not the same as flexible working, but the concepts are related.
A New World of Work
Flexible working defines when and where people work. Agile working refers to how businesses organize to deliver results. It’s about moving away from hierarchy and toward empowering employees to address complex problems. Of course, the pandemic has dramatically changed how millions of employees throughout the world approach their jobs. Cities have emptied in favor of makeshift home offices and teleconferencing; commutes have disappeared and hybrid working arrangements have abounded. Resulting uncertainty has prompted many companies to start seriously discuss the future of the office.
Reimagining work opens an opportunity to rethink more fundamental assumptions and frameworks. Traditionally, large insurers, like many enterprises, are structured around static organizational pyramids: Governance is led from the top and decisions flow down the hierarchy.
Agile companies, on the other hand, are organized around a network of often multidisciplinary, small teams operating in a fluid environment. These groups share a common purpose and can come together to achieve certain strategic objectives. Those closest to the information and insight make decisions, regardless of formal titles, freeing senior leaders to focus on what’s most important to their role of creating and communicating strategy. This flatter structure is designed to break down layers of approval that can sap motivation and to improve outcomes by enabling employees to innovate and deliver results.
Implementing Agile Working
According to a 2018 study by consultancy Wemanity, 83% of large corporations in Western Europe have adopted this model, and COVID-19 has only accelerated adoption. The internet is brimming with examples from consultants and academics. In Ready, set, go: Reinventing the organization for speed in the post-COVID-19 era, the management consultancy McKinsey describes how organizations across the world have had to redeploy talent, implement new business models, improve productivity, launch products, and shift operations in response to the pandemic. This was accomplished through “streamlining decisions and processes, empowering frontline leaders, and suspending slow-moving hierarchies and bureaucracies.”
How? McKinsey suggests five factors to consider:
- Senior leadership must have a clear strategy that is clearly communicated. For example: setting out a list of strategic initiatives that need to be delivered on an annual basis. This is not very different from a traditional, hierarchal way of working; however, from here things change.
- Managers must learn to “let go” and share decision-making power and control of resources. Initiatives are rarely just delivered by managers supported by their team, but rather by an agile cross-functional team that comes together with the sole purpose of delivering goals. Managers still have an important role to play supporting and developing talent. Each manager must also empower his or her employees to serve on agile teams that are led by others.
- Teams must have clear rules of engagement. Companies must design and clearly communicate a framework that defines the way agile teams will operate, including establishing roles and decision-making processes. While strategy and planning are both key aspects of agile working, these objectives can’t be achieved without intentional, clear communication—both horizontal and vertical.
- Managers trust their employees and resist the urge to micromanage. Once the goal has been clearly communicated, the framework has been designed, and the team has been established, employees should feel empowered to do their jobs.
- Insurance is a highly regulated industry, so it’s critical to incorporate regulatory functions, including risk management, into agile working approaches. Without representation from these functions, initiatives are unlikely to succeed. Indeed risk management is more important than ever in uncertain times.
As established insurers deal with the many effects of the pandemic, all while competing with energized startups looking to eat market share, the prospect of a fast-moving, adaptive organization should be highly appealing.
At RGA, agile working has succeeded when:
- the desired outcome is clear
- managers are flexible
- each employee understands other team members’ roles, as well as how decisions are made and how they will be communicated
- milestones are measurable and follow a “find, execute, and validate” approach
- post-mortems are conducted to capture and share lessons learned
While there is a framework to follow, companies cannot adopt an agile workplace overnight, and there is no “one size fits all” approach. The biggest issue facing the insurance industry is perhaps best summarized by the economist John Maynard Keynes: “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.” It is time for the insurance industry to fully embrace agility.
This abstract comes from a paper presented as a part of the RGA Leaders of Tomorrow program at the International Insurance Society (IIS) Global Insurance Forum, an annual gathering of leading global insurance and reinsurance executives, regulators, academics, and policymakers to discuss the issues shaping the future of the insurance industry. Learn more about the IIS and the RGA Leaders of Tomorrow Program on the IIS Global Insurance Forum website.