Most insurance companies have embarked on some sort of transformational initiative. Whether it’s core systems transformation, big data and analytics, implementing a digital strategy, or just trying to be more innovative, there’s a lot going on. And whether or not the software development methodology is waterfall, agile, or something in between, there’s usually a very important position at the center of it all – the project manager.

Project manager is an elusive term, and because of that it’s often been difficult for insurance companies to figure out just what sort of resource should occupy this important position. The default has been to appoint people with certifications in project management, and while this is reasonable, there are some other characteristics and competencies that might be considered.

One of the dichotomies of insurance IT initiatives is that they fail, or at least fall short of their stated expectations, at an alarming rate. This seems puzzling given the fact that most every medium to large initiative has one or more project managers attached to it. If the project managers are certified and qualified, what’s going wrong? There’s an easy analogy to understand that illustrates the issue: In the National Football League, how many teams win consistently with inexperienced quarterbacks? The answer is that while it happens from time to time, not many teams win consistently with a younger quarterback, and the same is true for insurance companies and project managers.

One of the typical practices in insurers is to identify a talented, rising project manager within the organization and assign them to lead large transformational efforts - but this is extremely risky. Like an NFL season, large transformational projects are complex endeavors with many unique challenges and hidden obstacles. It is imperative to have a project manager, or a quarterback, with prior experience in such large transformations to lead the effort. In this case, practice does not only make perfect but is essential. Without the time to develop, to gain experience, and to acquire the most essential quality of all – leadership – most project managers tend to be rote play-callers following a game plan, but are unable to adjust or inspire when things don’t go according to the game plan, which happens to be almost always. So what’s the answer to this growing dilemma? A good start would be for insurance companies to gain some clarity on what they really want out of a project management role, especially for larger projects. If the answer is that they want the project to be successful, either by delivering the envisioned value to the company and its customers, or by meeting the functional requirements and the budgetary guidelines, or both, then a project manager with just a certification or two is probably not going to fit the bill. On the other hand, if a company focuses on a project manager that already has a track record of success, understands the complexities of the business domains being addressed, has some hard-earned respect and even clout in the company, and can effectively communicate a vision and direction for the initiative, then the overall chances for project success are increased markedly. Of course this is no easy get, as all the discussions around a lack of IT talent in the industry can attest. But it is still worth trying.

One way to go about this for a company is to its their business and IT rosters for people that possess the leadership and domain skills necessary for success, and then teach them what they need to know about the mechanics of project management. That’s much easier to teach than the wisdom that comes with the bumps and bruises that go along with experience in the company. An experienced project manager, like an experienced quarterback, has to be able to survey the whole field constantly, and adjust in real time, even if it means calling on audible to the set play. Experienced quarterbacks are constantly adjusting on the fly to what their opponents are doing. Likewise, experienced project managers must do the same; only their opponents are things like budgets, timelines, resource constraints, technology hurdles, etc. That also means that project managers must lead from the front – not from behind a spreadsheet – and be able to conceptualize a complex initiative, abstracting and decomposing the work threads into logical and digestible chunks.

The overall emphasis should be on a qualitative approach to the initiative as opposed to a quantitative one. It doesn’t help anybody if all of the weekly status reports are checked off but the overall project is drifting sideways. Most importantly, good project managers must possess the two "C"s – confidence and courage – so that they always have and can communicate a realistic assessment of the current state of the initiative at any point in time. Finally, for large transformational initiatives especially, experienced project managers should insist on a good deal of responsibility and accountability for the ultimate success of the initiative. If the quarterback isn’t willing to shoulder the responsibility, then there’s no reason for the rest of the team to give it their all. That’s simple human nature, but is often overlooked by insurance companies.

For companies that are investing heavily in large transformational initiatives, the time to plant the seeds necessary to grow good project managers would have been some years ago. If that didn’t happen, then planting those seeds now can pay dividends in the future. In the interim, it might be time to shop for some experienced project management free agents – your transformation may depend on it.

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