Penn Mutual CIO on the transition to continuous delivery in IT

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Greg Driscoll is SVP of Service Operations and Chief Information Officer of The Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company, which he joined in 2004. Currently, Greg is responsible for delivering on business results for the company through ever-increasing operating capabilities that are powered by people and enabled by technology. He plays a key role in helping Penn Mutual meet strategic and operating goals through collaboration across the organization and aligning the organizational talent with current operations and accelerating pace of change. Greg’s previous positions include senior technology roles at CIGNA and Vanguard. Greg graduated from Drexel University with a BS in Information Systems and earned an MBA from St. Joseph’s University. Greg was interviewed for the Novarica Update in 2018; Novarica granted Digital Insurance permission to republish this interview.

Penn Mutual was recently selected for an Impact Award by the Novarica Council for its digital customer experience initiative. Can you tell us a little about that project and how it was executed?

The initiative, which we call the Accelerated Client Experience or ACE, is focused on the purchase process of our Life Insurance products. We launched last August, and currently about 35% of our application and issue volume is coming through this environment. The initiative was born from discussions related an accelerated underwriting project. The conversations led us to consider the overall end-to-end experience for both our Advisers and their clients. We realized that going at the underwriting component exclusively did a disservice to these audiences and did not align with one of our strategic goals, namely providing a positive personalized experience when engaging Penn Mutual. We pivoted very quickly and decided to view it not only as accelerated underwriting, but as a full advisor-client digital experience.

We present our full spectrum of products on the ACE platform and, when discussing this new experience with our field, we are very considerate of how different ACE makes the advisor/client application process. Our focus is on making that disruption positive and one that is attractive to all parties. One question we needed to ask ourselves was, ‘how quickly are we going to get a few thousand people to adjust how they work’? Some adapted very quickly. For others, the change in process was not seamless. We are continuing to refine the experience to grow adoption.

What was the project like?

This project was unlike anything we had attempted prior at Penn Mutual in many ways. And we recognize that our “project” will never be done. ACE represents a go to market approach that we have moved into our operation and continuous delivery model.I have come to believe that we operate in world without projects as the expectations shift to a model of continuous delivery based on business value. In ACE we have built a platform, not a product, and we did so not as a project. This is our go-to-market model and we need to constantly explore and enhance how we present ourselves. So far, we’ve done fifteen or sixteen releases and have a sizable backlog to continue to build from.

How has the shift from projects to continuous delivery changed how you and your team work?

Many in the organization have strong support for the evolution we’ve taken. They’re enamored with the idea of driving value, forcing continuous prioritization, working on those functions or features that are of the highest impact to the company and engaging in those conversations on a continual basis. I feel this shift has empowered our associates. We pride ourselves on a very low turnover rate and I feel that satisfaction in the work we do is strong contributor to our associate stability. We’re creating an environment that strong performers want to work in.

Has it changed your relationship to budget and planning?

I have very open dialogue with my budget and planning team and across the C-Suite. Our approach to key initiatives and goals has moved away from traditional calendarization to more fluid dialogue and this approach allowed us to be successful with ACE and extends into our approach to areas such as budget and forecasting.Of course, this all sounds good but there are trade-offs and challenging decisions to be made around where to invest. For example, do we focus our time and money trying to squeeze a couple percent higher clear rate out of the existing underwriting model, or will we divert resources to work on new algorithms and see if we can move the needle further 12 to 18 months from now? These are hard conversations, but we feel they are the right ones to be having. In an old project mindset, I don’t believe you have them as fluidly as we have them now.

Has the shift to continuous delivery affected how your team is organized?

While we are strongly oriented to our future and being viewed as a leader in the life insurance marketplace, there is still a traditional sense to our firm and, in turn, our organizational structure. While we are fully Agile across our delivery spectrum, we are still organized in a traditional manner. The focus of resource leaders is shifting from managing tasks, as this is done by the Agile team, to more responsibility in managing talent, understanding where key initiatives are going, and identifying needs within the team. These changes have allowed us to flatten our hierarchy over time.

A significant change has been the migration away from having a PMO. We established a team titled Business Transformation a little over 2 years ago and they are responsible for bringing expertise to help business units achieve their outcomes. They’re being stretched to drop what I would call “traditional titles” of BA, Scrum Master, Product Owner, and we are currently working to generalize focus on “Agile Specialists” that can bring skills needed and morph into what’s required for a particular delivery.

These changes do bring day-to-day challenges. We have asked many associates to be vulnerable and to become comfortable with an acceleration of change. As a leader I need to be available to take any and all questions on why these changes are the right thing for Penn Mutual to undertake at this time. A focus has been on risk acceptance and allowance for failure as I believe it is important to allow our associates to make smaller, more frequent decisions, and know that we can course correct those times we make a decision that is not favorable. Honestly, I’d rather have an occasional bad decision than a bunch of OK decisions. A poor outcome is a learning opportunity and I feel will make us better over time. But that requires giving ourselves permission to take a chance.

How have you and your team leveraged your relationship with Novarica?

I enjoy that Novarica has people you can speak and develop a relationship with. These relationships prove that for Novarica it is not just content. At Penn Mutual, we believe in the power of human relationships. A belief we have is that Penn Mutual is “powered by people, enabled by technology,” and I sense that Novarica is a firm that is powered by people. Being able to interact directly with the Novarica senior team and have real dialogue is valuable to us.We want to be a firm leading our industry, but we don’t want to fall off the edge of the cliff! I often gain insights from Novarica when discussing different insurance verticals. Although we are in the life and annuity vertical there are valuable insights to be gained from P&C and specialty lines activity. Of course there is also strong research. I try to participate in your surveys because I am interested in what comes back. The Novarica relationship has been beneficial for us, without question.

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