Agile operating models



This blog post has been written in collaboration with Semita Sourcing, the sourcing advisory business and partner of Oxbow Partners.

When Oxbow Partners was founded, one of our points of differentiation was the use of Agile principles in project execution. We called our approach Agile Strategy™ and described it in a blog post. Agile has become something of a buzzword since then and in our 2019 Impact 25 we noted that our clients use the word to mean anything from its intended definition to ‘hot desking’ and ‘flexi-time’.

We regularly point out that Agile cannot be imported directly into an insurance change environment – at least not without making a fundamental change to the structure and governance of an organisation (which some companies like ING have done). In their current form, insurance companies are too complex for true Agile to work, and there is also regulatory and reputational risk to manage. One of the things we have done over the last four years is to identify principles from Agile that can be applied to applied to traditional insurance strategy and change projects.

Either way, the trading environment is forcing insurers to become more responsive – or agile with a small ‘a’. In this blog post we consider three external drivers; provide a maturity framework for a business’s use of Agile principles; and finally share thoughts on how incumbents can move forward in their journey to Agility.

Three external drivers forcing incumbents to become more agile

Agility is often discussed in terms of project execution – but what is forcing organisations to become more agile? We believe three external drivers explain much of this impact: politics, technology and climate change. These forces are raising costs, changing demand and realigning the regulatory environment at a breathless pace and with unprecedented severity. Businesses need to become better at weathering big challenges or risk becoming defunct.

1. Politics
In recent years we have witnessed political trends such as the polarisation of the left and right, increasingly unstable national politics and the rise of protectionism. This has led to economic disruption, costs and operational complexity. For example, the French Gilets Jaunes roadblocks disrupted critical supply routes and retail outlets and  overall the protests slowed the country’s economic growth. The US-China trade war has encouraged business to move into neighbouring countries with more favourable tariffs – most notably Vietnam – and Iranian sanctions have required marine insurers to pay particular attention to tracking the origin of their cargoes. Successful businesses will need to be able quickly to respond to unpredictable and fast-moving events like these in the future.

2. Technology
Advances in automation and artificial intelligence are also challenging business models. Operations, pricing and distribution are changing; for example, technology is augmenting and expediting human advice in the long-term savings industry and non-life underwriting. Businesses need quickly to integrate technology partners. As these tech ecosystems grow there will be new legal, moral, ethical and privacy policies to follow.
3. Climate change
Most disruptive, perhaps surprisingly, is climate change. Moderate sea level rise is estimated to impact global GDP between 20 and 30 percent within less than half a dozen years and our response – for example moving towards zero emissions – will both create new industries and destroy existing ones, along with a host of other economic, social and political issues. A 2018 study – which forecast a global economic benefit of $26 trillion by 2030 through rapid de-carbonisation – gives a good indication of the scale at which climate change might affect new industries. Businesses will again need to respond quickly to the impact of adverse weather events, altered trade routes, changing demand patterns and new regulation.

Agile Operating Models: responding to business disruption

To become more agile and so mitigate the disruption posed by these external factors, companies must reassess their operating models along four dimensions:

  • Strategy and governance: organisations will need to become quicker at taking decisions. Management teams in Agile organisations will set an overall vision and delegate decision-making through governance frameworks that allow goals and objectives to be reprioritised as new data emerges. We would also expect to see a broad set of measures to manage and assess the effectiveness of business operations, for example lead as well as lag indicators.
  • People: Features of an agile operating model include a flexible resource model capable of bringing in specialist skillsets as and when required. It may also include multi-disciplinary, integrated teams – for example a business analyst, operations specialist and product engineer – working closely together to enable quick and efficient outputs.
  • Process: Agility in processes requires alignment between strategy and delivery, the standardisation of non-core processes with best in class economics, the rapid implementation of new processes (including the release of MVPs as soon as possible and frequent iterations / regular releases of improved propositions), operational flexibility (e.g. the ability to deliver from multiple locations), and regular re-evaluation of priorities.
  • Technology and data: Here we would expect to see exploration of new technology in collaboration with existing legacy systems. This might include modular, best-of-breed components linked together through APIs. The embrace of experimentation and data-driven decision making are hallmarks of agile technology and data.

The road to Agility

Adapting a business operating model is not an overnight task. Incumbents wishing to start on their journey to Agility can do five things:

  1. Set a clear strategy and communicate, communicate, communicate
  2. Run experiments to create stories of success
  3. Look (carefully) at sourcing options to get access to best of breed
  4. Get started on the technology agility journey
  5. Start to bring in the right talent

1. Set a clear strategy and communicate, communicate, communicate
Declaring the need for an agile operating model is an important first step. Leaders should clearly explain why a holistic transition is so important and urgent for their business – and why introducing Agile piecemeal is not enough. It will be important to show that Agile is no longer just the preserve of change or IT teams, but a critical tool for a company to achieve its revenue and profit ambitions – and implement effective risk management.
2. Run experiments to create stories of success
Communication is effective when the messages are specific. Leaders should introduce pilots early, set clear KPIs (using both lag and lead indicators) and measure progress closely. When pilots hit their KPIs, communicate stories of success to persuade staff that Agile is more than a buzzword.
3. Look (carefully) at sourcing options to get access to best of breed
Partners can offer incumbents quick access to best of breed capabilities. Service providers can cherry-pick the latest and best practices across industries and use pre-existing frameworks – for example for processes like contracting – to both expedite and ensure the success of projects. This means incumbents can turn on and off capabilities quickly, with confidence of success, and without long-term investment in order to respond to the external environment.
4. Get started on the technology agility journey
Most incumbents have legacy systems that are too costly to simply rip and replace with newer, more agile technology. Incumbents can, however, combine the two; for example, a next generation claims front-end can be put on top of the legacy claims system, with functionality migrated to the new system over time.
5. Start to bring in the right talent
Agile operating models require specialist expertise and multi-disciplinary teams – in some cases at very short notice. This is often a leader’s greatest challenge – not least because of the industry’s overall challenge recruiting the top talent. Insurers must invest now to create the right environment for these specialists to work, and build their recruitment brand and pipeline into new areas.
Oxbow Partners is a management consultancy that works across strategy, operations / claims and technology / digital. We have extensive experience in operating model design and agility – being firm believers in practising agile methodologies ourselves. Get in touch if you are considering redesigning your operating model to become more agile.
Semita Sourcing is a sourcing advisor with vast experience of advising on complex and multi-geography BPO and ITO deals. We have extensive experience in implementing best practices and operating agility through sourcing arrangements.


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About the author

Lucy Alphonse is a Consultant at Oxbow Partners. You can reach her at

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