Adapting agile for the corporate environment


This article is an extract from the Oxbow Partners InsurTech Impact 25.

Agile has become a common term in the insurance industry – but what does it mean? Our clients use it to mean anything from ‘hot desking’ and ‘flexi-time’ to its intended definition.

One of Oxbow Partners’ founding beliefs was that agile principles can lead to faster and lower risk project execution in corporates. We observed that clients often spend too much time developing strategies and plans, and not enough time considering the practical levers that make them real. If strategies fail, it is as a rule not because the upfront market size analysis was slightly incorrect, but because the complexity of the IT change was underestimated.

It is not, however, true that agile methodology can be imported directly from technology development (where it was invented) to business change. Insurers’ change projects sit within highly complex ‘legacy’ organisations: for example, they have matrixed networks of stakeholders and ‘waterfall’ processes such as budgeting.The regulatory and reputational risks of uncontrolled and misdirected change are significant. Facebook’s famous mantra of ‘fail fast’ doesn’t work for many listed companies.

Agile can, therefore, only be used in corporate change projects with significant adaptation. Incumbents should consider how the twelve principles of agile can be applied to their change processes. This is illustrated in the exhibit below.

There is no single, ‘optimal’ adaptation. Every organisation will need to find its own flavour based on its operating culture and project context.

Equally important is that organisations don’t try to be ‘too agile’ (which is a misuse of the agile principles). Agile does not mean that discovery, design or implementation planning should be compromised. Far from it; organisations need a clear strategy before they embark on any change or build programme, comprising a direction of travel, expected benefits, costs and resources. Embarking on any project without these building blocks can be catastrophic.

The pertinent question that corporates should be asking themselves is: when do they have sufficient confidence in their discovery, design and implementation planning that they can start executing a series of rapid but clearly defined delivery ‘sprints’. Put another way, when does the primary execution risk move from being a lack of knowledge about the opportunity, to a lack of knowledge about their practical ability to execute on it. The answer is often sooner than many corporates think.

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About the author

Chris Sandilands, ACII is a Partner at Oxbow Partners. Chris advises (re)insurers and brokers on a range of strategy topics and M&A. Chris started his career as a D&O underwriter at Munich Re, before joining Oliver Wyman, the consulting firm. You can reach him at

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