On the first day of the event, I had an opportunity to give a talk about BGL’s journey towards business agility in which we shared how we started, what our approach was, where and how we failed and how we managed to succeed. Here’s a summary of our talk:
Welcome to the mid-90s!
This is when BGL’s journey starts. It was the final year vr6 Carrado was in production. Frappuccino made a world entrance. The Spice Girls formed and were about to hit the big time. Michael Jordan comes back from retirement to play in the NBA. Toy Story! Ebay! John Major! Discmans! What a time to be alive!
Making colleagues productive
It was the year when Windows 95 launched (with some very impressive dancing routines by Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates)
Robust and reliable mainframe technology
The insurance industry at the time was dominated by (what was seen as) a robust and reliable mainframe technology like AS400…
Change delivery - best practice
Delivering projects was about Prince2 and PMBOK, structure, requirements, documentation and waterfall. It was about robust governance and strict change control.
‘Online’ was becoming a thing. Amazon launched its online book store in the summer 1995 and within two months grew to a staggering $20,000 in revenue per week!
BGL has always been different
BGL has always been a disrupter in this space, even back then. BGL had many number ones in insurance: First to have insurance over the phone; Meerkat adverts; Flash back to the 90's and we were mobbing, writing code on Apple computers… long before it was cool.
The disruptive, ambitious spirit has remained in BGL. It’s what drives us forward to challenge the fundamental ways of working and adapt to the latest technical challenges we have.
But the challenges of the 90’s still exist:
How do we still boost productivity? Actually, it’s not about outputs anymore, it’s outcomes
How do we try things fast? We want to leverage the latest technology alongside our mainframe
We live in an unpredictable world where many small experiments win over large projects
As we want to move fast, we find we need to change how the organisation is designed. Functional silos simply don’t work effectively in this context.
How do we grasp hold of the exponential change that is happening across the world in consumer demands and technology innovation? How do we get smarter not just about how we price, but tap into the latest tech so we know our customers are always covered? Who are our customers anyway? We have autonomous vehicles around the corner so with changing insurance models it’s key we build teams and systems that can react and change.
We decided we need to work hard on the environment. Starting with transparency and candour. We have been very open to the whole department (250+ people) about the struggles we are facing having, mistakes we as individuals have made and also about things that need changing. Being candid enabled us to build trust which in turn means being able to work better together and address any issues more directly and effectively.
We’ve really pushed flexible working across the organisation. Fundamental for success here is trust in people and this is something we’ve shown from the top. We challenged managers to measure people on the result of the work, not where they did work or what time they clocked in and out.
We also encourage innovation and improvement, always asking people to make things better. One of the small ways we’ve given people a platform is in innovation days. We had one recently, with these folk signing up as advocates to help prepare for the day and be on hand to provide expertise. It wasn’t just IT either, we pushed this across the business.
We made mistakes too
Move from Prince2 to agile was outsourced. Four years ago, we brought in a consultancy to take us from Waterfall straight into Kanban. We dropped discipline, ceremonies or symbols. Chaos ensued, pace fell through the floor and quality collapsed. They also trained really junior people to become scrum masters with no background in the subject and no models to learn from. As a result, people never made the transition and got stuck between the Waterfall and Agile with neither set of benefits. Fragile.
We tried to get the commercial teams to prioritise their demand into a backlog. We started to see all the work we wanted to do. But in this step forward, we ended up having a weekly meeting in front of a board of over 100 carefully prioritised epics (all of which had taken an age to pull together). Each week people would add to the list by carefully placing new requests into a specific position, spending ages debating whether the new story was more or less important than the item at number 76….. we never got beyond delivering the top three items.
We certainly learned that visibility is important, but we need to take on few things and finish them well.
In one of our largest and most complex programmes, we went through a period where we would deliver for a month and then spend three weeks working out how to better organise the team and works (during which time everything stopped). We must have gone through that process six times.
Plans Are Worthless, But Planning Is Everything.
No plans means no alignment, too much planning and nothing happens.
We have learned a lot on the way
Any business which is used to relying on process-heavy frameworks and approaches is likely to find it hard to let go of the perceived order and clarity.
Processes are important, especially for organisations that operate at scale and whose success depends on an outcome of a coordinated effort of many people. But it is the outcomes, real business outcomes, that really matter. Processes should be assisting in maximizing value delivered, not hindering it.
We also found that sustainability and pace matter as much. Pace of delivery is vital as it brings business advantage. And sustainability is basically the capability to keep and increase pace in the long run. Sustainability requires, among other things:
- keeping the tech stack healthy
- good collaboration
- inspect and adapt attitude
- focus on quality
- commitment to work-life balance
In any organisation, it’s people who are making things happen. It’s people who deliver value.
For us, one of the key things was to establish a shared identity and purpose. What does it mean to be part of the BGL Tech community? What do we stand for as a team? What kind of things matter to us? The image below is our Tech Employee Value Proposition — created by the team themselves. It represents how we think about our business, our culture and our way of working.
Collaboration within teams and increasingly between teams — as we scale, optimising value delivery across the organisation is ever more important. That’s why we use insights like flow and cycle time to help us identify how we can optimise how we work and collaborate.
Continuous learning — we aspire to become a learning organisation. We encourage and promote learning at all levels — not in an addition to the day job, but as part of the job. This means practices embedded with teams and communities around specific disciplines. It means leadership — technical leadership and people leadership. It also means learning within teams themselves and from each other.
We think about technology as a real enabler and differentiator. It is a capability that creates new opportunities.
Healthy stack means being able to deliver sustainably and innovate at pace. For us, keeping the tech stack healthy is not something that the TechOps team do. It is everyone’s job — from good coding practices, secure engineering, and focus on quality to delivery teams taking ownership for any vulnerabilities and incidents.
BGL, like many other businesses, has a legacy tech estate. Legacy tech has often been neglected for many years yet remains critical to the success of the business itself. As a result, legacy tech becomes a huge burden that prevents innovation and sucks up costs and slows everything down. We decided to face into this challenge early and adopt a multi-faceted approach that ranges from a major re-platforming project of our front end stack to a careful and selective remediation of key capabilities and components bit by bit.
As we learn and experiment, our structure continues to evolve but our general approach at the moment is based on this model. Our tech team is organised into four broad areas each of which work very closely with the others.
Each area has a number of cross-functional delivery teams supported by Practice Leads and Practice Coaches who are typically embedded in each area and drive improvement, coach, mentor and support across domains like quality, engineering, architecture, agility and delivery.
Another critical component is engagement with Product Owners. We think about product ownership as a critical organisational capability and that means Product Owners are very much embedded with our teams, more often than not sitting in the same area.
Our aim is to enable easy knowledge sharing and collaboration and minimise siloes and handovers. Do we always get it right? No. But we are happy to explore different models, assess what’s working and adapt as needed. Our teams are quite vocal about what’s working and what’s not which is a good feedback loop into this process.
Was it worth it?
We have seen a really positive impact on pace of delivery, quality and throughput. All these things really matter, but real results come from engaged people. Given in knowledge work like ours, it’s paramount people feel empowered, trusted and skilled to do their jobs. We’ve made big changes in the past few years and we are pleased with what we’ve achieved. Employee engagement is 11% up in the last year alone. People are excited about where we are going.
There’s so much more to do. In terms of our tech stack , the journey continues — cloud, reducing reliance on old tech, reduction in tech debt etc. We continue to focus on ways of working and cross team collaboration and embedding agile mindset across the business. Enabling fully remote working will give our people even greater freedom to work and collaborate in a way that works for them.
The journey never ends, but we are excited about what lies ahead!