Agile Teams Collaborate to Produce Positive Results

Terree Korpita, Technology Capability Officer, Colonial Life & Accident Insurance Company and Unum
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Terree Korpita, Technology Capability Officer, Colonial Life & Accident Insurance Company and Unum

In today’s tight economy, companies must get the most value for their dollar, and no one understands an investment like an IT organization. It takes time, energy and resources to integrate new systems and make improvements while maintaining productivity and stability.

"Business and IT teams deliver business value in phases while serving customer needs using an agile approach"

To streamline system processes and develop software solutions while simultaneously serving the evolving needs of our customers, many businesses—including ours—are transitioning to Agile.

Our transition to Agile started in 2014 with 12 pilot teams who leveraged either Scrum or Kanban to learn more about Agile and to inform our approach for standing up and training teams. With 115 teams across operations and development, we needed flexibility for individual team needs and core guardrails to maintain consistency across the organization. In April 2015, we started standing up our first teams and successfully stood up 93 by year end. All teams, including leadership, attended boot camp training.

What It Means to Be Agile

Agile is a way of working and thinking that emphasizes continuous collaboration between business and IT to deliver business value in small increments on a regular cadence. These increments allow agile teams to demonstrate working software often and quickly for customers while obtaining valuable feedback. Rather than taking months or years to overhaul systems, Agile results in frequent milestones and creates adaptable plans to deliver better results in less time. This transition has already helped problem solve and created faster responses to customers’ changing needs while adding more business value.

Agile involves dedicated teams, which include experts from different areas and the business area that requested the work. The teams, which focus on priorities, are often located together to facilitate collaboration and teamwork.

Teams are empowered to make decisions, remove impediments and determine the best solution in a given situation and partners with management to make them a reality.

Delivering products and results

We’ve seen the benefits of agile principles on numerous projects. Strong cross-collaboration among teams working on different aspects of a project avoided duplication of effort and ensured efficiency. The teams collaborated to see what work had already been done, what additional steps were necessary to complete required changes and redirected work to correct team members.

We’ve also delivered product development projects faster. Because insurance is regulated at the state rather than national level, we often must develop dozens of state-specific variations of each type of insurance policy we offer, as well as special plans to meet certain customer needs. The Agile team supporting product development delivered state activations and special plan design variations faster while adapting to changes and communicating more openly. For example, a new disability product was coded in 25 to 50 percent of the time it normally takes. An advantage for using Agile for this particular code release was the constant interaction among IT, testers and the business. Each area held daily face-to-face interactions for updates on impediments and project progress.

Agile not only better meets our business and customer needs, it also has tremendous benefits for our IT staff. It advocates for teams to operate at a sustainable pace and encourages IT employees to continuously refine and develop their skill sets so team members can back each other up. In the end, the team as a whole is responsible for delivering on commitments regardless of their job title.

In the past, the work of many specialized teams bottlenecked when it came to delivering business initiatives. Agile teams consist of multiple skill sets, so the team becomes more self-sufficient and minimizes dependencies on other teams to deliver business value. This makes IT more efficient, which strengthens our ability to deliver more value to our customers.

Creating agile Environments and Workspaces

As part of our transition, we created modern workspaces for our Agile teams to help them collaborate more effectively. Walls with glass upper panels were installed to allow light to flow across the floors. We also created team and individual spaces for more than 120 employees within a few months to allow flexible collaboration or focus for individual assigned tasks. We have transitioned more than 60 percent of all IT employees on Unum campuses to the new workspace design.

The team spaces allow employees to conduct daily stand-up meetings, business planning sessions and team discussions. The individual spaces are great for focus time and collaboration with one or two peers. The design makes it easy to stand and talk with a neighbor or walk across the floor to work together to resolve an issue, which eliminates extra emails, meetings and unnecessary wait times.

What’s Next?

We’re still very early in our transition to Agile and expect to mature over time by developing a culture focused on continuous learning and improvement. In fact, we’re applying Agile principles to our transition effort itself, inspecting and adapting as our organization learns more about Agile, and we continue to strengthen our managers’ coaching skills so they can better engage and support their Agile teams.

We are defining and rolling out metrics that will help us identify constraints and quantify the value of the Agile transformation, which include better business outcomes, faster delivery, predictability and efficiency.

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