Leadership & Management70

Shaping Business Agility @ Amerisure

Shaping Business Agility | Amjed Al-Zoubi (Amerisure) and Pete Behrens (Agile Leadership Journey)

Pete Behrens, Amjed Al-Zoubi

April 26, 2022


Amerisure, one of the nation’s leading commercial insurance providers, has been on a 3-year journey to shape their culture inside-out towards improved innovation, speed, and customer service. Their journey highlights the critical importance of involving top-level leaders not only in the discernment process, but in the ongoing engagement of the execution itself, especially as steps in the journey impacted every area of business including field marketing, risk management, claims, operations and more.

For three years in a row, from 2019 through 2021, a cross-business agility team and leadership engaged in a cultural assessment highlighting key strengths and gaps. This transparency helped communicate the need for change as well as inform the direction of change. Key focus and experimental initiatives were tied into the cultural direction and allowed them to evolve their business agility journey in their own way. Thus, rather than instilling a particular agile practice or scaling framework, they developed new structures, policies and measures that fit into the future Amerisure culture.

While the Amerisure business agility journey has positively impacted a number of critical performance measures including reducing Time-To-Market by 30% and improving Net Promoter Scores, it is not simply a feel-good story. Rather, this case study illustrates the importance of leadership involvement, cultural awareness and transparency, a cross-business agility team, a long-term orientation, an experimental mindset, and celebration of marginal gains.

About the Speakers

Amjed Al-Zoubi

Amjed is a strategist and business leader with over 20 years of experience delivering results by bridging the business-technology gap. Amjed joined Amerisure in 2018 and currently serves as CIO with accountability for IT, User Experience, Digital Innovation, Business Agility and the PMO. Prior to joining Amerisure, Amjed held a diverse set of roles at USAA, CUNA Mutual Group, and PwC, all of which allowed him to address business challenges and devise strategies from multiple angles. Growing from these experiences, Amjed brings a unique ability to see the big picture and apply the right solution at the right time. Under his leadership, Amerisure is undergoing an agile cultural transformation, a digital transformation, and is modernizing IT, improving solution delivery and business outcomes.

Pete Behrens

Pete Behrens develops leaders to transform themselves and their organizations to improve business outcomes. Pete is the founder of the Agile Leadership Journey, a collaborative community of leadership trainers and coaches built on a philosophy that agile organizations only emerge from agile leaders, and who share a passion to build better leaders.

Pete is the host of the (Re)Learning Leadership Podcast, for leaders, by leaders. Podcast episodes explore real leader stories and experts who help diagnose them for all of us to learn to be better leaders.


Business Agility Conference 2022 - Photos

Photo of Amjed presenting on stage at Business Agility Conference 2022Photo of Amjed on stage at Business Agility Conference 2022

Photo of Pete in discussion during deep dive at Business Agility Conference 2022Photo of Pete on stage at Business Agility Conference 2022

Video Transcript

Good day, everyone.

It's great to be in New York City. I really love the energy here. The only challenge I have with New York is I always had that Alicia Key's song new York, New York in my head. And so I'm hearing it right now.

-So you don't want to hear me singing it.

-Are you going to sing it?

No. You can, I won't. I'll spare you.

I'm the CIO, Chief Information Officer, at Amerisure Insurance. I'm thrilled to be here today to share our multi-year Agile transformation journey with you all.

And my name is Pete Behrens, founder of the Agile Leadership Journey. Our goal is to enable leaders like Amjed, not to teach Agile, or to guide their transformation, but actually to teach them how to fish and to let them do it themself. And so that's what we're here to share. A little bit like Hans and Franz, we're here to pump you up.

Amerisure is a property and casualty insurance company. We protect businesses and policyholders from everyday business risks. We are a 100-year-old company, I think I mentioned that. And we've got a long track record of resiliency and success. We started this journey back in 2018 when the pace of change... Evan did a great job talking about what the environment was like. I'm not saying we knew there was a pandemic coming, but we were getting ready for it.

We kicked this transformation off because of the pace of change, because of VUCA. And we want to engage our customers differently than we have and increase the speed of innovation. And that's when fate brought Pete to our lobby. Yeah. And we work through partners. In this case, we work through Michigan Technology Services, which services the Midwest. Rob Khalman was critical in getting us connected in what we were doing. And what was interesting is when we got brought in, they had already done some interesting self-discovery. It wasn't all about pain. It was a little bit also about opportunity.

That's right. We're in a strategic offsite. All of the senior leaders, maybe 30 of us, in the same room, and we were talking about that pace of change. We reflected on what we wanted to do different and also on the symptoms that we had in the organization. We had long-running projects. We like predictability. Heck, we're an insurance company. So managing risk, having some certainty in what was going to happen, or at least containing it was really embedded in how we operated.

But that was the thing that was embedded too much into our culture. So we wanted to affect that and we want to affect that differently. Having the leaders together, all of us together, business/IT across the organization was really powerful to help start that journey.

Now recognize where they're starting from. Their goal is not agility. Their goal is a business goal. It's a transformation goal of, in this case, increasing speed of innovation. So when we think about critical success factors, that's number one: don't let Agile be your goal. Agile is a means to accomplish a business goal.

Now, as part of this, you guys saw earlier, what are the biggest barriers and impediments and things you want to do? We'll build a culture of experimentation. And what we do is try to make culture more visual. We try to make culture more tangible.

So how do we do that? We leverage a tool called the Competing Values Framework, which allows leaders to see and visualize, not only their existing biases, strengths and weaknesses, but also directionality. Where do we want to go? What did this mean to your leadership team? This visual was powerful.

We weren't surprised necessary that we were skewed towards control. And I'll add that none of these quadrants are bad. It's a function of where you are and where you want to be. So to make it visible like this really opened our eyes. Seeing where we wanted to be today versus where we wanted to be tomorrow, enable us to focus on what outcome that we want.

And it also made it clear to us two things. That we are coming from a good position of strength, if you will. Our collaborate versus compete quads, we're pretty good there, so we don't have to affect that. Again, focus. The other was the employee population that took this and the leadership population that took this were directly aligned. That was awesome.

So we all were hoping and planning for the right thing, and this really helped us visualize that and focus on the outcome. What was interesting is when we present this information, when we engage leaders. When I think about critical success factor number two, it's not just leaders who sign checks. It's not just leaders who have a sign off who say, "Yeah, go do that Agile thing. Have some fun. Come back to us when you have problems."

What it is, is leaders taking personal responsibility. And I think Evan and Ahmed said that really well this morning. You have to change thinking and change behavior. So when you think about things like policies, financial policies, insurance policies, whatever, that comes from leaders. So unless we change the leadership, you don't change the organization.

Well, the tone is set at the top and people watch what the leaders do. Especially in a control culture like ours. If the leadership behavior didn't change, well, we weren't going to change. So this is a picture of when Pete kicked us off. And what we did out of this session is we brought a cross-functional group of leaders, the executives, and we formed an Agile Practice Group. And this group was charged with changing the culture of the organization.

Sure, they were Agile methods and behaviors and practices that we rolled out as well. But we really had an emphasis on culture, what to do differently, what leaders needed to do to lead differently. And we created a V2MOM, a vision statement with measures, obstacles, and metrics. What this allowed us to do is establish,via vision statement, where are we going,why are we going there? And getting alignment across the leadership team was really powerful.

Critical success factor number three, have a powerful counsel that can help make decisions. Now, this does not mean top-down. This does not mean bottom-up, supreme court. What this means is somebody that can actively drive, and help remove, some of those boulders from that journey. What this does is this pattern, something we call using Agile to be agile. And I think you've heard of that. I'm probably speaking to the choir here, so to speak. But what they did is they weren't just a council. They were a team implementing Agile methods. In fact, they took one of their senior business process consultants, and she was the Scrum master for this team. So this was something that they were living and breathing the Agile through this leadership body.

And that experience for the other senior leaders that never went through an Agile implementation, or didn't know what Scrum was, was really eye-opening. Frankly, they had the breath taken away at the outset with how fast the sprints went by and how much engagement was required to get it done. But they also saw the quick turnaround and the value in delivering that. Through this APG, the Agile Practice Group, we created a roadmap. And this, again, was a very important artifact for us because culture change takes time. You all know this.

And we didn't want to set out to be the flavor of the day, the project of the year. This is going to be, and currently is still, a multi-year journey where we wanted to start small and focused, grow from there. And then you see, even with our max point on the roadmap, stabilize and grow. So we wanted to create a platform from which we could continue to grow from. Yeah. We're not here to celebrate. We're not done. And I think all of you recognize that.

What was really surprising to me… I don't know if you picked upon the last BAI, the Business Agility Institute report. They said two years to step-wise change in business agility. Two years. What leadership team has patience for two years? They said eight years on the journey created 50% more business agility than those below.

Eight years. That's two President terms here in the US. No leadership team has that kind of patience, but that's the kind of patience going to the gym day after day, week after week, month after month, quarter after quarter, that it requires.

What I loved about what they did, they recognized the patience and the investment this was going to take. So how did we kick off this journey They got going. They got the elements here. And we were really focused on three key things.

One is, what does this look like in the macro - projects? What does this look like from a leadership, from a culture perspective? And then what does everybody do? As we saw with the circles conversation here this morning, I thought that was really awesome. How do you get this embedded into all of the people? That's right. We had a couple of key levers wanted to pull, and it created a virtuous cycle. To innovate, you've got to experiment. To experiment, you've got to have safety to fail.

Again, going back to a control culture with predictability. Failure can be kind of a four-letter word. And so we really focused on that,really making it safe. Again, we're dealing with people and people make this happen, but people can also make it not happen. So we intentionally had conversations with folks who've saying, "It's okay. It's okay to fail. "We celebrated failure. Now, of course, we don't want it to be catastrophic failure, and that's why we do small things. But as we experimented more, we saw the impact to delivery lead time, things started to be implemented. And so that virtual cycle really helped pick up momentum.

And recognize, this is an insurance company. Failure is a four-letter word in an insurance company, right? This concept of focus —speed of innovation. That takes experimentation both internally and externally. So, let's talk about the project.


You see a few projects here that we ran and some of the key points that we decided to do different. I'm not going to drain the whole slide, but I will tell a couple of stories. We wanted to go after specific pain points and target them and experiment and learn and go quickly. We had an initiative to increase or improve our risk profile. We had a contractual date to hit. We weren't sure how we were going to hit it. We unleashed the team on that and we set them free. And they actually delivered early. They figured it out without having to define the whole plan road map and hit that dang plan.

We were thrilled with these results and we celebrated the results. Another really good one. I'll highlight on this. They're all good. With the billing experience project, we're rolling out new capabilities to our customers. We did demos. We never did demos before. And in one of the demos, we shared part of the roadmap.

And something further out, our customers said, "Hey, that would be more valuable earlier." So we were able to reprioritize and get that value to the customer sooner. Again, eye-opening for us to experience that way and put back into the system. Look what's going on here. These aren't IT projects. You've got people that are in claims. You've got people that are in underwriting or legal or finance that are dealing with problems and change. So when we're talking business agility, this is a holistic business involved in this.

So important to include everybody in this and bring it together, because if it was an IT thing, you all know this, we'd be pushing rope. It wouldn't be as effective across the company. So think of this as the macro, the macroculture.

We're starting to address the policies, the measures, how our projects run. These are critical experiments going on in the business. At the same time, we're encouraging every single leader to think and behave differently. This is what we call microculture. Every decision, every conversation, every meeting changes culture. And when you get enough leaders changing their behavior, that changes culture.

What we do with leadership teams is we help you understand how you're thinking and behaving, creating that awareness personally and how that starts to shape the individual culture in those different departments.

The session with Pete really opened all of our leaders' eyes to how we could lead differently and really helped us have a language around it. And you hear that in our hallways, in our meeting rooms every single day. So this leadership agility focus was important.

We also had a focus on everyday agility. What can employees do across the organization, regardless of whether you're running a Scrum team or not? And so we actually created a program called project… Sorry, a training program called Everyday Agility, rolled it out to all employees. We also did bite-sized things we rolled out on Internet with email blasts to talk about,

"Hey, if you're having a problem with too many meetings, here's a meeting guide. Do you need to have that meeting?" So things that we could put on people's desks for them to take tangible action that was meaningful to them. And again, think about we've seen failure top-down, we've seen failure bottom-up. This is neither. This is what we call inside out.

You're starting with culture, you're starting with values, and you're feeding that out into the structures and the processes of the organization. But again, that takes an entire ecosystem to accomplish.

Now, critical success factor number five, if we're keeping our numbers right, is sustainability. How do you continue the journey past one year? Because what I've found with senior leadership teams is they're like kindergartners. ADD is incredibly powerful for senior leaders, and they'll get distracted and go on to the next thing. So how do you create focus?

Well, the way you do that is you have to re-envision. You can't just take that vision and keep going for three years. You got to take a checkpoint and move on. And we did. And that proved both beneficial from recognizing, "Hey, we have made a dent in the universe of the company. We have started to, in this case, shift culture towards a more creative dimension." We're seeing it year over year, a shift.

Now, you might say, "Oh, that seems pretty small, Pete." But when you're inside and you're starting to feel it, that's a whole different ballgame. Yeah, we're definitely feeling I mentioned about talking about it in the hallways, but we're moving in the right direction in the create quadrant. But also, if you look at the control quadrant, this is a really interesting story. Where we thought we wanted to beat the outset has shifted as well. So that's interesting. It's a function of control's not bad again, but what's the right control for us?

One department should have more than another as an example. And that realization is showing on this slide. And we're shrinking the gap. That's the most important thing. The gap between where we are and where we want to be is being reduced. And that's thrilling to see the results this way. Something we find fascinating, shaping culture is not just changing behavior. It's changing perceptions of what the behavior should be. And that's what you're seeing here.

Hey, control is important. We need it. And when there's a huge gap, that's when there's dysfunction. When we start to get alignment, that's when you can start to get effective.

Let's talk about the results. These are the fun slides.

Here you see a scattered chart of all the innovations we've been rolling out in the last few years. 2018, pretty dry, pretty desert-like. This set is cool to see. I'm happy to say in two weeks, we're rolling out a brand new business. And that's something we're rolling out in about six months, something we've never been able to do before. Before we started this journey. So it has materially affected our ability to innovate and include value to our customers. So I'm thrilled with that.

Share the story you shared with me this morning. I thought that was really fascinating. In 2019, you tried a project that really struggled.

-Do you mind throwing that out there?


In 2019, similar theme. We wanted to start a new business, and we kicked it off in the January, February time frame. It took us almost 10-12 months to get to a no-decision. No, in and of itself, wasn't bad. But the fact that it took so long is what was troubling. So we learned from that, and we applied those learnings to this, and we went from start to finish in about six months. And it's a yes decision, not a no-decision. So that's pretty powerful.

Yeah. That's innovation.Now, also lead time. It's not just about innovation, but it's about speed. And so the one way you were measuring was through lead and cycle time.

That's right. And these are for our major initiatives. When we started, we pulled our portfolio projects and we said, "How long is it taking to even start the project, and then how long once we start to deliver?"

We measured that. So you see, over time, the relative improvement has been really good. Now, you might say in an absolute basis,175 days is not great. Hey, we're taking it. It's great for us. We're going to continue on this journey and continue to mature and apply more of our DevOps transformation to this, too, because we want tooling to help with that. But that's another talk.

Hey, why did you have a bump in 2020? I think it was called the COVID-19 pandemic? So we shifted our focus a little bit in 2019 from an APG perspective on more on making sure our company and our employees were effective in a remote environment. So the APG took a bit of a detour. This is actually a really powerful example of how agility works in an organization. Here you have in a highly effective team, their Agile Practice Group. They pivoted. They changed their focus from what they were doing in their strategy to say, "We got to get a remote engagement happening or we're not going to have anything."

That's an incredible example of business agility in real-time here. And it wasn't just proven internally. They have a lot of feel-good internally. And again, they're not perfect. There's no panacea, but they've been proven through market, through the industry.

Yeah, that's fair. We love to get the external perspective. Novarica and Celent are some couple of well-known insurance research and advisory firms. You see year over year, including the announcement just last week, we won another innovation award for what we're doing in the industry and what we're doing for our customers.

This is fantastic. And notice the titles on there. They're getting awards not only for the innovations they're creating, technology AI; they're getting awards for their process, innovation process, Agile Practice process. That's pretty cool to me.

Just a couple key reflections on this journey. I mentioned, this is not a panacea. This is not something where we're putting up in Amerisure, "Quit your job, join them today." I'm not saying that. What I'm saying is this is a very real step in a direction of a journey, and they're on a milestone or they're on a step in that path. It could be another eight years, and they're going to have ups and downs. And that's okay. That's part of the journey. That's why we call it a journey.

That's right.

When we kicked it off, we were worried about change fatigue. We recognize that through the journey. We have those conversations with our folks. And people wanted answers. A lot of folks that once we got the training out to them, they wanted more training and it was more available.

Let's get started and we'll learn as we go. So those were the continuing realities we look about the winning ingredients. I don't know that I have a favorite here, Pete, but I will say holistically, the idea of knowing where you are and where you want to go, knowing what is right for your company is so important. Then you can apply these. These work for us. They are the winning ingredients for us.

But really applying it the right way is important. I'll just highlight number seven; self-directed. If you want ownership to move beyond one year, you need to have the pain at the gym. You can't just bring in BCG, McKinsey slash whoever and have them do the workout for you. This is about going through the pain yourself that gets the payout in the long run.

-Thank you

-Thank you.

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