Global business Agility report: AXA 31 August 2021

Maria Martin san Cristobal, Digital Transformation Manager at AXA Madrid International Hub, outlines the areas where Agile has transformed the insurer.

As financial institutions recognize the need to respond faster to changing customer habits, they have turned to Agile. An Agile way of working equips employees and teams with the methods and processes to fail fast, learn, and bring solutions to the market quicker. For this report and series of interviews, we collaborated with ADAPTOVATE, a leading global transformation consultancy. We spoke with transformation leaders from institutions all over the world. We asked them to describe their successes and challenges in adopting Agile.

María Martín San Cristóbal works for the AXA Madrid International Hub and her scope includes entities across many different countries. While AXA is an Agile orgnaization, some countries are at various stages of their Agile maturity, and her team typically works with entities in Latam, Turkey, and Africa. 

What does the term "Agility" mean at your institution? Does it correspond to a specific function and responsibility or is it a cross-cutting philosophy that structures the transformation of your organization? If the latter, who is ultimately responsible?

The capacity to deliver new solutions and use cases that can bring real value to customers or the business. It also means that if other functionalities that we have delivered are not bringing the expected value, we are able to rapidly react, identify that they are not hitting their target, and change the solution, process, or scope. Because of that we need to implement clear KPIs from the beginning of a project and if the results are not met, then we react quickly and we find an improvement. That is agility for us. 

Each entity is responsible for their own transformation. Some entities might not be very mature so we, as a transversal team, approach them to create an agile mindset. We provide the tools and skills to different entities so they can start developing this culture. For example, in one of our Entities, the teams had never used Agile before. We supported the local team in developing local skills and changing their mindset. The result is that they are now delivering more projects and use cases using Agile methodology.

In your quest for greater agility, which areas are most likely to be transformed? Which areas, on the other hand, do not require immediate transformation, either because they are already "agile" or because they do not need to be transformed?

The first teams that we are approaching are in operations, including data and technology. Normally, our projects contain people from those departments, so they can act like sponsors and spread the methodology across the organization.  If we have people from operations that have this mindset, then we can expect the business teams to start to take on this mentality. 

In terms of areas that may not require immediate transformation, I would say that certain projects are not ideal for Agile. For example, a core implementation might not be the best place for it. However, having an agile mindset across the organization is needed in order to adapt to changes that are happening. For example, with wearables, IoT and new communication channels like WhatsApp or chatbots, these new technologies require speed to appropriately react. So having an Agile mindset from all departments – not just in operations, helps us move faster. 

Among your agile transformation projects, which ones have been (or still are) the most difficult to lead, but for which you feel that a major step has finally been taken? What was the difficulty and what has finally enabled success on these projects?

Agile is a great methodology and a great mindset, but it doesn't work when it comes to big legacy systems or trying to change a core system. Some of our entities do not have extensive experience in implementing Agile projects, so when you try to change a legacy with this mindset it doesn't work. We tried that in one of our entities and even with a vendor with a lot of Agile experience, the result was a poor collection of requirements, a delayed delivery of the project, and half of the expected functionality. 

What we have done is implement a hybrid methodology. That means that we close the scope. We don’t let the scope open up. We do a clear and immediate collection of requirements at the beginning of the project, but then we organize these requirements by sprints and we deliver by sprints. Maintaining a clear scope has been key to success on these projects. 

How would you describe the benefits of increased agility? Have you been able to measure them? Can you share some figures on how you are able to capture benefits?

First, it's the the capacity to collect quick results. With Agile, we're able to test and learn, and we have the capacity to fail fast and and change rapidly. We are not tied forever to a solution or use case that doesn’t work. 

The second benefit is the change in mindset. We need this to adapt to the changes that are happening in the industry. We are not siloed and we are collaborating between departments so everybody is part of the solution. Additionally, teams proposing new solutions, use cases, and functionalities. The good thing is they are not concerned when the result is not what we initially expected, because this is part of the mindset. You can fail and you can change it. 

Finally, a third benefit is people are more motivated because there is a more transversal ownership of delivery. People feel part of the solution and as a result, are more motivated. 

Regarding how we measure benefits, from the AXA Madrid International Hub, we measure the results of the project. What we've done is have different benchmarks between entities. Then we are able to compare them to each other so we can see the pace of transformation and identify the gaps where entities may lack support and then provide what they need.  

Can you provide examples of obstacles that could not be overcome in your agile projects – such as regulation, technology, social constraints, or other challenges?

For me, the main challenge is the legacy system. Not only changing a legacy system, but it is very difficult to bring a modular solution to legacy systems which are obsolete, rigid, and difficult to integrate. 

Second, one of the main obstacles is the change management of people. Everybody wants to be the owner of the solution and make the decisions by themselves. Now, we work together and are not siloed, and sometimes it might create some frictions. But in the end the solution is enriched with everybody's experience. Speaking of mindset, some people are not able to work without a clear and detailed picture of the final solution. It can be difficult to work with the uncertainty that exists in an Agile project. From the AXA Madrid International Hub, we try to coach them and communicate the benefits of working with Agile. We share experiences that other entities had with Agile and we put them in touch. We create a community to transmit the benefits of having an Agile mindset.

In terms of agility, could you provide one or two examples of successful collaborations between departments in your institution, or between your institution and external service providers?

For me the best example is the one we presented at the Efma awards. It was an end-to-end transformation of the claims process, defining the target customer journey, and leveraging AI solutions to improve the customer journey. To do this, we launched different MVP’s in different countries. We were a mixed team with people working from the AXA Madrid International Hub but also from the entities in Turkey, Morocco, Mexico, and the Gulf. In each entity we had teams from operations: including technology, data and transformation; but also people from the business and claims. It was a big project, challenging to implement, and it was new for all of us.

This was a great example of collaboration between departments and institutions, because we had external, internal, four different entities, and four different departments, and it worked very well. We launched the MVP in Morocco and Turkey and, most importantly, they are now more autonomous and launch their own use cases.

This, for me, is a great success and we have even increased the scope of the project. It was motor claims and now are moving into health and also doing it in Colombia. 

What organization and incentives have you put in place internally to ensure the success of agility-related projects? Which of these were the most successful?

We launched initiatives such as the complexity matrix that aim to collectively understand how our entities are transforming. We benchmark them against one another, including more advanced markets. This helps us to identify the gaps and bring them to a level where they are more competitive in their markets. In a certain way, what we ultimately try to do is help these markets become more mature and be online with the rest of our organization. 

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