How an Agile Approach Delivers Value to Product Development
Written by Drew Lazzara
Sammons Financial Group
When it comes to creating business value through technology, Kelly Coomer has a clear point of view. “I think about it from the user perspective; do our users have the access they need when, where, and however they want?” Coomer, chief information officer for Sammons Financial Group, has spent more than 20 years in insurance and financial services focusing on these pillars of user experience and creating the right technology organization to support them.
This focus on the end user leads Coomer to embrace a product mindset for technology delivery, which she encountered in her past leadership roles in the insurance industry.
“My first experience with the idea of a product-based approach goes back about ten years, right as many companies were adopting agile methodologies,” Coomer recalls. Agile utilizes incremental delivery to demonstrate value quickly, but Coomer points out that “agile alone doesn’t necessarily deliver all the available benefits. The product mindset resonated with me as it incorporates aspects that surround agile: having business-value metrics to determine how you should be investing and demonstrating how you get the value out.”
Fusing a product approach with agile principles also appealed to Coomer because of the potential impact on consumers. “It fits the total customer experience – in web and mobile apps that customers actually use. And it became a mantra for me: Do they have it? Do they use it? Do they love it? That’s really why we’re in business.”
Setting the Groundwork for a Product Approach
It is precisely this mindset Coomer has worked diligently to foster at Sammons Financial Group in the 18 months since assuming the CIO role. “I saw that we were not yet where we wanted to be with our focus on end-users and looking closely at IT in terms of value versus investment,” she says. “We were always thinking in terms of big projects and a focus on cost-benefit analysis, but were lacking a sound way to measure the end-user benefits.”
Coomer found some project decisions were centered on cost or financial, bottom-line impact, and only a high-level sense of benefits that were consistently tracked. “We needed to start seeing our technology more holistically; tech debt, automation, and regular updates are areas business people historically didn’t think about. They would never get funded because the cost-benefit was not clearly defined.”
A product-based approach is successful in large part because it promotes ownership of technology within business lines rather than through IT. Coomer’s first hurdle to this kind of ownership was a lack of clarity around IT spending. “In my experience, finances were often a ‘big, black box,’” she explains of tech budgets. “Business units would get their yearly allocation, which some of it they controlled, and some they didn’t. However, there was no granular breakdown to help them. It was framed like a cost center, which doesn’t mean much on the business side.”
Reorganizing finances around product lines increased visibility and gave business units a greater sense of control. “We aligned applications with services or sales to break them down, and we said, ‘Based on last year and what was spent, here’s how we classify those expenses,’” says Coomer. This helped the business to better understand the minimum investment necessary to keep an application suite going and better understand what incremental changes would have the greatest impact.
“This leads to good conversations with the business,” says Coomer. “They can see the investment, and I can ask, ‘Do you think you’re getting at least that in terms of value?’ If not, we can size it down; we can recognize if we are putting too much tech in one place that isn’t adding value. It helps the business make great decisions – invest more in this product line, less in that one. You’re getting buy-in because you’re giving business partners transparency and choice.”
Product ownership also makes traditional agile methodologies more impactful. When you have product owners rather than project managers, “you can begin to do things in pieces. No more six-to-eight weeks of scoping and estimating only to find that what you want takes too much time and money. No more going back and forth.”
Instead, Coomer says that product owners are closer to metrics that are essential but opaque, like speed-to-market. “Owners can begin to see that the process may take longer than they would hope, and because they are the owners, this is a metric they need to care about now. They can see that it’s due to something like a legacy technology that needs a change, and they seek a better way to do it.” Like transparency into financials, this view of KPIs creates a clearer view of benefit and value for tech investment. Decisions are guided by what’s best for the business instead of the project.
Challenges and Opportunities
Coomer is quick to point out that Sammons Financial Group’s transition to product-based delivery is a work in progress, and she is focusing on a few key next steps in the journey. “The hardest part of the product mindset is getting to good KPIs,” she says. So, she’s targeting those areas that are most quantifiable.
“Some product lines lend themselves to better KPIs that matter to the bottom line. For example, a product line focused on sales,” says Coomer. And she’s also been able to re-energize the old cost conversations. “Some product lines are more about cost, but we can view cost-reduction with more sophistication now. Not just spending less, but also understanding how changes we make lower the operational and people costs that come with maintaining service.”
Most importantly, Sammons Financial Group is becoming a more data-driven organization. “We’re exercising new muscles,” says Coomer. “We’re using real data to guide decisions versus saying, ‘I think our agents would love this,’ only to do it and not track the value. Now, we are saying, ‘This is the data,’ and determining if those are the right metrics and if we are getting what we want. Our approach is building that kind of data-analysis model.”
Coomer also supports the organization through leadership challenges that come along with the product mindset, especially for middle management. “Our managers in IT are very good operational leaders, very good at managing work, people and budgets,” she says. But a product focus comes with an entirely new set of expectations.
She explains, “We now call them ‘engineering leaders,’ and in that role, we need them to start looking outside at what’s happening in the industry, at what I call the art of software development.” Coomer relies on these managers to keep up with changes in engineering practices and how startups and agile competitors operate. “I’m pushing them to understand how long their current technologies will last, when should we change tech, and what’s coming to the market that could be better. It’s about looking more outward instead of inward. It is a huge shift.”
Coomer supports this transition through outside education opportunities. “We use outside research firms like Gartner to give us insight on what an effective version of our program might look like. Where do we start? How do we develop standards and provide the tooling so our teams can then adapt and adopt them?”
The growing expertise on her team allows her leaders to educate other parts of the business, and the close relationship between engineers and product owners has had the biggest impact on that area most near and dear to Coomer – the customer.
“There are needs that customers in our world really want and require,” she says, “and now we can start to bring those good ideas forth. We have the right mechanisms in place to foster those ideas and get them to a product owner for consideration. We can start to identify backlogs and build roadmaps that function really well. We can get way more of those ideas than we could through an older, outdated model.”
Special thanks to Kelly Coomer and Sammons Financial Group.
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