Agile Infusion

Benjamin Marais, CIO, Liberty Group South Africa, Johannesburg, South Africa





ORGANIZATION: Liberty Group South Africa

LOCATION: Johannesburg, South Africa

Organizations in legacy industries that don't adapt get swept away in a current of change-driven startups. So when Benjamin Marais joined financial services and insurance company Liberty Group South Africa in 2017, he received a direct and ambitious order from the CEO: “Turn the business around.” The transformation plan not only represented a change initiative in itself. It also meant embedding change readiness in the organization's culture.

Leading that disruptive journey for the organization's IT unit fell on the shoulders of Mr. Marais.

What did Liberty Group's organizational change involve?

In January 2018, we began to consolidate the Liberty Group business units’ corporate functions: IT, human capital, finance, risk and compliance, and legal. The operating model changed from siloed to unified. We redesigned the organization to be more agile and flexible. And we completed the model change at the end of 2018. It was quite an achievement.

What did that change mean for IT?

We lived in a fragmented world with multiple IT teams and IT budgets, which led to complications and duplications in our systems and applications. We had to become one unit. So we consolidated the IT teams and their budgets, and we embraced agile approaches and started training people in agile. I also gave the IT team a matrix structure. Now it has a dual key performance indicator: one on delivery to IT and one on delivery to the business.

Did the organization's project management offices likewise consolidate?

When I joined Liberty, it didn't have an enterprise-wide project management office (PMO). It had scattered project offices and teams. The CEO gave me the task of implementing an enterprise-wide PMO, which is not just an IT thing. We got our various project offices to communicate with one another, we collected data from them, and we asked them for feedback. We haven't encountered pushback because we included them on this journey. And we became more agile.

What led to the organizational redesign—and the embrace of agile?

The insurance industry is under a lot of pressure, and Liberty had lost market share. We wanted to turn that around and grow the company. We quickly came to the realization that we have to fail fast and fail forward. And unless we changed the way we worked, that wouldn't happen.

We saw that we had to become agile and use an agile approach. We had to start working in sprints and respond quickly to the needs of the market and of our clients. Some Liberty projects still don't use agile. But when it comes to client-facing projects and tools that improve the ways that our clients and financial advisers interact with us, we use agile.

How did you successfully transition to agile?

More than half of Liberty is owned by Standard Bank, one of South Africa's largest banks. Standard Bank itself has gone through an agile transformation for the past four years. So we had that organization provide us with lessons learned. One thing it suggested was to start small—with agile basics, like the standup and visualization. We had our teams begin to implement agile approaches for the digital enhancement of tools that support our interactions with our clients and our financial advisers. People started to see successes and deliverables come out of this change. Word-of-mouth started to spread. And every two weeks we had showcases of the agile teams’ work. Anyone could attend them. That also started to create buzz.

What was the main challenge for you and your team during this transition?

Culture—getting people to think differently. The redesign is the easy part; that's a paper exercise. But all the money and technologies in the world won't matter unless you change the culture and communication—retraining, reskilling and repurposing people so they want to address challenges. So we can become an innovative company.

What enabled the culture shift?

The biggest thing—and unfortunately IT people are not always good at it—is the people skills piece. It's change management. It's addressing issues and concerns when they come up. It's showing successes to our customers and getting their feedback.

How do you as CIO help turn strategy into execution?

The CEO gave the executive team specific strategic focus areas, like people engagement or improving the engagement between us and Standard Bank. My strategic focus area is digitization and data.

We drive these areas by creating committees that give direction to the business. One thing that came out of my committee's work was that we need to enable our employees to start using digital tools. We have to embrace the cloud not just as an upgrade but as an opportunity to solve internal problems and process issues. The strategic committees started working in the beginning of 2018. In the first half of 2019, we took their work and made it business as usual. PM


Small Talk

What one skill should every project manager have?

The ability to adapt to change.

If not your current career, what would you do?

I would be a life coach. I enjoy helping people achieve their goals.

What's your biggest pet peeve?

Being inactive. Waiting for someone else to tell you what to do.

What's underrated?

Access to young minds. We underestimate the power of fresh, new ideas to help enable change.

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