Innovation through ownership and culture

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Posted by Jess Faulkner on 21st Feb 2017

The speed of advancing technology and the shift in how customers access information, products and services are transforming the landscape for all service providers.

The insurance industry is no exception. Connected cars, smart homes, sharing economies and telematics-based services are among the rapid industry disruptions we are seeing. To remain competitive in a digital world, companies in all industries need to leverage technology, transform their business model, and, most importantly, bring innovative products and services to their customers with the speed and quality they expect.

For the team at Allstate, technology is changing faster than ever before. By using innovative tools and processes, we will be able to deliver new technology capabilities significantly faster and with higher quality.
To meet these challenges, Allstate has been going through a global transformation in terms of both the business and technology. We have moved towards a culture of innovation by having a product mindset and a customer focus.

"The PMO leadership has encouraged the community to ‘lead and live in the grey’: to take action and drive successful change in times of disruption and enterprise transformation. We’ve advocated the ‘do it and ask for forgiveness later’-attitude to give ownership to our people. As a result, we have seen a growing culture of courage and ownership, helping eliminate the blame culture that can inhibit innovation."

Maura Kelly explores how the project management office can use technology and agile practices to drive through a major business transformation. We have a look at how Allstate managed their change program in the context of the approaching APM Conference, 'Making the Mould', to be held in London on April 27, which will be challenging the project profession to harness new technology and develop new ways of thinking.

The role of the PMO

Our project management office (PMO) is central to the transformation. The product-meets-project mindset and the introduction of multi-methodology projects have brought both challenges and opportunities for the PMO.

At Allstate Northern Ireland, our PMO community has a headcount of more than 120, covering a number of key project management roles and supporting a global Allstate PMO community of 400. In partnership with our technology teams, the PMO is leading transformation across the enterprise, enabling and driving both innovation and cultural change.

The PMO is working through:
• adopting new agile practices;
• moving to a product mindset;
• core system integration with new tools;
• educating the PMO community and technology teams;
• implementing a seamless experience across integration points; and
• scaling agile across the organisation.

The PMO is also working on integrating tools, systems and ways of working to remove complexity and non value-add processes. These will continue to provide transparency to technology and business leaders, and an independent view of portfolio health and spending.

A big focus for us has been shifting the culture to create an environment that empowers our people, encourages experimentation, and enables staff to fail fast and share their learning.

A centralised function

We embarked on a major transformation programme to establish ‘One PMO’, a centralised function to support 1,500 projects being delivered annually.

The transformation focused on key objectives to deliver a single independent view of project health.

Looking outwards to our industry and beyond, we started redefining roles and team structure, and ultimately designed our new operating model. Giving ownership to our people, we have shifted from being mere ‘project journalists’, recording events, to entrepreneurs, influencing outcomes.

With a need to streamline processes in product management and development, and increase speed and quality, a significant standardisation effort began. We focused on having the right people, sourcing the right work and ensuring we have the right skills.


Training and education are paramount to the success of the transformation, and the PMO is developing training to ensure the learning spans leadership, practitioners and delivery teams in both the business and technology areas.

The PMO has taken the lead on embedding innovative practices. We have developed and implemented a scrum framework and have transformed some skilled entrepreneurial project managers into ‘scrum masters’. Programme managers have also transformed into key negotiators, communicators and integrators between the waterfall, scrum and extreme programming (XP) work efforts.

Another initiative was to create a ‘PMO boot camp’, through which we have successfully trained 440 PMO employees, 70 vendors and 200 delivery partners. The boot camp provides the PMO community and others with the tools needed to operate efficiently and effectively within Allstate, and helps create champions of quality, consistency and security in the delivery of projects and products.

Among the many topics covered are: stakeholder management; estimating; work breakdown structures; Microsoft Project to manage project schedules; managing risk, issues and change controls for a project; reporting project status; and some of the soft skills required to deliver projects.

The boot camp is continuously updated and has recently been redeveloped into a two-day process for more experienced project practitioners.

Our agile transformation journey

We have developed a number of other training programmes that explore the theory, roles, process, events and deliverables of agile working.

The PMO created a single-user interface and dashboard. This has helped ensure teams are using the same tools and have access to online learning, giving them consistent information that’s easily accessible.

During an enterprise transformation process, it is common for the PMO to be seen as a ‘blocker’ due to process and documentation requirements, so our team is working hard to establish itself as an integrator and collaborator.

Working with industry leaders to learn more about agile transformation has been key to making the right changes. Partnering with agile development consultant Pivotal and technology educator Galvanize, we are ensuring the changes we are making are in line with industry-leading practices.

Technology strategy

In 2015, Allstate launched a major digital transformation technology strategy to secure competitive differentiation in US markets. The key outcome was a radical new way of thinking, acting and delivering software that is essential for sustainable growth and significant competitive differentiation. Named CompoZed, it is both a global network of empowered agile teams and a mindset.

We are transforming our application developer community through the use of modern tools. This is revolutionising how Allstate codes, builds, tests and delivers our business solutions.

Now we can react fast in a digitally dynamic world. Our tools and infrastructure are ensuring our people innovate and deliver user-driven, high-quality digital solutions. Our agile development labs, CompoZed, are empowering our in-house innovators to deliver quality products by following lean practices. CompoZed, with its innovation-driven mindset, also provides the ability to incubate and create a product start-up, and deliver core, sequential systems focused on stability.

In addition, agile methodologies, including scrum and XP, are driving ownership and innovation within Allstate.

New ways of thinking

The PMO leadership has encouraged the community to ‘lead and live in the grey’: to take action and drive successful change in times of disruption and enterprise transformation. We’ve advocated the ‘do it and ask for forgiveness later’ attitude to give ownership to our people. As a result, we have seen a growing culture of courage and ownership, helping eliminate the blame culture that can inhibit innovation.

Looking beyond hierarchy and giving people and teams ownership of their work have been central to our transformation, helping us find more efficient, effective and innovative processes and ways of working.

Allowing our people to take risks and question the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of their product or project has helped improve output quality. It has also been great for producing collective innovation among teams. We found giving formal and informal avenues for abstract ideas and improvements, and then celebrating the success, has helped cement a culture of continuous improvement.

Not all ideas are going to be revolutionary; a lot will fail, but it’s crucial to fail fast and move on. For us, when our teams prioritise customers and users and understand their needs, that’s when innovation breakthroughs can happen. Innovation and wins come from taking the pulse of the marketplace or landscape and reacting to it.

In setting about enterprise-wide transformation, we are establishing goals to stretch us by aggressively rethinking the business model, team structure, processes and inherent culture. That’s the challenge for companies such as ours as we continue towards an innovative, technology-enabled enterprise.


Maura Kelly is a senior manager at Allstate’s project management office.

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