There's an old joke that an expert is someone who keeps learning more and more about an ever-narrower subject until he knows everything about almost nothing. The joke is funny because it's an exaggeration that has some truth in it. When tackling major technology upgrades, most insurers rely heavily on subject-matter experts -- fine-grained specialists who know a certain area of business or technology cold, whether it's billing, or claims, or policy processing.
But when specialists are asked to assume generalist and even leadership roles in major initiatives, they often don't have the broad vision needed. While both types are needed on projects, you must have generalists with a grasp of system architecture and business issues directing the overall strategy. Otherwise, it's like putting up a big building without a lead architect and relying on the electricians, plumbers and carpenters to do the job by themselves.
The scorecard for many of their major technology initiatives can be summarized succinctly: Big projects, Big expectations, Big investments, Big timelines, Big teams, Big delays, Big failures, and Big ledger write-offs.
What went wrong? More often than not insurance carriers make the mistake of assuming that the more product and technical specialists they have on their teams, the better the overall outcome. In fact the opposite is true. Insurance carriers need to rethink their reliance on specialists for their larger initiatives and instead focus on using "coarse-grained" generalists who bring a more holistic and enterprise view of the initiative to the table.
For decades the IT profession and the insurance industry have encouraged the development of narrowed skills that require specific technical expertise and certification. Insurance carriers hire specialists, and once on board they tend to further specialize, coalescing their talents around the specific and often unique application and infrastructure platforms in use.
As a result, these fine-grained specialists are often uniquely qualified to support and maintain the carrier's status quo platforms. Unfortunately, they are also just as uniquely unqualified to manage and execute a major upgrade or change to those platforms. It's not surprising that someone who has spent a career becoming more skilled in a narrow area probably won't succeed when thrust into a role demanding broad technical, leadership and business skills.
The symptoms of impending failure -- such as lagging behind schedule and failing to meet budgeted parameters -- are obvious but that does not make them any easier to deal with. These symptoms usually point to deeper problems that revolve around team structure and dynamics, particularly when a number of product and technical specialists are involved. Because many specialists do not have the experience required to work in broad and experientially diverse project teams, they tend to cocoon from a team perspective and only engage on what is important and understandable to them.
This can lead to issues such as a lack of role clarity on teams, poor team integration and effectiveness, ineffective communication, individual priorities that compete with those of the team, and a decided lack of ownership and accountability. Over time, all those problems fester, grow and interact with each other. You could call it negative synergy. Eventually, the project goes off the rails.
One answer is to form smaller teams of coarse-grained people who are complemented by a limited number of product and technical specialists, whose insights can be invaluable when harnessed correctly. The coarse-grained team members who are more broadly experienced in program management, business process, communication and collaboration, technology, and the like, are then held accountable for the overall effectiveness of the team and the success of the initiative.
Think of these teams as being analogous to an NBA basketball team. The most successful teams generally have one or two players who do many things well -- shoot, defend, rebound, ball- handle, etc. -- surrounded by role players who might specialize in just three-point shots, or defense or rebounding. The multi-skilled players can pull all of the role players together into a cohesive team and get the most out of them.
CIOs and other IT leaders should seek out these coarse-grained generalists wherever they may find them, and place them at the center of their most strategic and impactful initiatives. The results are often exponentially better than otherwise, and such approaches tend to open the doors in organizations for much more agile and responsive development and team-building approaches. Done well, this approach delivers what the organization needs and desires, just as a well-constructed and managed NBA team delivers a championship team to its owners and fans. There is nothing better in IT than turning Big failures into Big successes.
About the Author: K. Ram Sundaram is a senior principal of X by 2, a consulting firm in Farmington Hills, Mich., specializing in enterprise and application architecture for the insurance industry. He can be reached at [email protected]