How agile helped Direct Line get its ‘innovation mojo’ back

Mark Evans, Direct Line Group’s managing director for marketing and digital, reveals how agile delivered the interdepartmental collaboration needed to transform and innovate

When would you say the best time to adopt a total work culture transformation would be? During a period of relative economic calm where you can change at your own pace and on your own terms? Or, when the world is about to be thrown into a time of unfathomable turmoil, the likes of which anyone of today’s working age will never have seen?

Direct Line Group somehow picked the latter. “You couldn’t make it up,” says Mark Evans, managing director of marketing and digital at the insurer. “So soon after we triggered [agile], we have a pandemic reaching the shores of the UK and we’re all working from home within 48 hours.”

To suggest that Direct Line switched from a standard working culture to an agile one in a couple of days is an exaggeration. In fact, the company had been dipping a toe in agile for several years, albeit limited to a separate digital silo.

“We did have a bit of a following wind, with 10 squads that had emerged organically, and our digital function already operating in full-blown agile. There was data and evidence to do it wholesale,” he admits.

Though propelled somewhat by circumstances, the move to agile was a considered one and the result of a series of business evolutions. In the middle of 2019, Penny James was named as the group’s new CEO and a new executive committee meant it was time for change.

“[New leadership] is always a bit of a reflection point. We recognised that we needed to be more innovative and increase the speed of delivering that innovation,” says Mark. “At the same time, we wanted to reduce the cost of change. We were getting feedback that this was a sticky place to get stuff done. There were too many handovers. It didn’t take a genius to work out that agile promises to be a solution to these things.”

But, he adds: “It’s a pretty big change in terms of ways of working and it’s not to be taken lightly. We worked with McKinsey and spent a lot of time with ING, which is a comparable business. Then we spent over 100 hours thinking about the architecture – what’s in scope, what’s not.

“Phase two was then, how do we land this in the business? We had to put swathes of head office into consultation and then, 10 days later, lockdown hits,” he adds.

Covid impacts

Lockdown was a challenging time for Direct Line, as it was for many other businesses. But Evans says the company was lucky to not have to furlough staff, which he admits would have put extra “stress on the system”. Instead, lockdown gave Evans more time to do communications around what agile would mean for teams, explaining how it would work and creating immersive ‘bootcamps’ – training that would help staff understand agile methodology. It took the business nearly a year to get it off the ground in the end.

Everyone’s job changes… With that comes a level of excitement, intrigue, concern and adjustment

Even with the diligent groundwork, Evans admits it was “a big jolt to the system”.

A big jolt perhaps doesn’t quite do it justice. “Everyone’s job changes. Fundamental ways of working, new teams and team leaders – everything is new. With that comes a level of excitement, intrigue, concern and adjustment,” he says.

Perhaps surprisingly, with all the unfamiliar language that accompanies agile, Direct Line’s staff didn’t seem to have too much difficulty adopting the new tools and techniques. “Scrum, sprint, storypointing – all that tangible, evidential stuff. The adjustment to that is quick. We have smart people and it’s not voodoo. Breaking it down into manageable chunks which allowed for experimentation in a contained way meant all the very visible stuff was quick.” What took time, Evans reveals, was changing hearts and minds.

“In the same way that Drucker says ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’, mindset eclipses methodology. There are intrinsic concepts that are an even bigger adjustment, not least genuine accountability. As a squad, you have your mission and come hell or high water, you are on the hook for stuff. Autonomy, mindset, independence, accountability – maybe that should be easier than process, but it’s not,” he warns.

Flipping leadership on its head

The shift to agile was also a challenge for Evans personally, and his fellow leaders. “I think we’re pretty good in terms of being an empowering culture but [the switch] to servant leadership, for me and everyone else, was quite an adjustment.”

Servant leadership essentially flips the traditional view of what leaders do on its head. While traditionally, leaders’ main aim was to ensure their business succeeds, in servant leadership while this is still the ultimate goal, the leader’s aim is to focus on the growth and well-being of the organisation’s people. The Robert E Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership defines it as follows: “The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”

For Evans, this meant letting go of his traditional roles, such as decision-making, and handing over much more autonomy to his teams. “You set the frameworks but the translation of that intent into work, you’re just not involved in that detail as much. You can’t become disconnected, but there’s a bit of a fine line – knowing when to get in, and out of, the way.”

In the pursuit of being faster and cheaper there’s a disturbance to the system where you’ll be the opposite

Not everyone drank the Kool-Aid straightaway. Evans is clearly an impassioned advocate of agile but he recognises it’s a significant step away from the norm for many. “The most important thing was that we all stood shoulder to shoulder to say ‘this is our future reality’.”

As Evans noted, Direct Line had the benefit of a portion of its business already operating successfully using agile methodologies, so some of the convincing argument was already made. They still brought in agile coaches and support, particularly when the ‘honeymoon period’ was over and the expected dip in outcomes came along. “In the pursuit of being faster and cheaper there’s a disturbance to the system where you’ll be the opposite. It’s in years two and three where you start to see shifts in output and impact,” he explains.

For those approaching agile cold, Evans notes that pockets of experimentation can indeed be a good thing, although he warns against locking them in silos. “Department by department defeats the object. Interdepartmental [collaboration] is where the magic lies.”

Now well into his third year post-agile transformation, would Evans say it has been a success? “We retain the mentality of never perfect, never done. It can always be improved. But we’d never go back, so that in itself is a success.”

The evidence, he suggests, is in classic examples of agile innovation. Direct Line had never offered cycling coverage but with the cycling boom during the pandemic, an open brief to a squad launched a product in a month that would have taken a year in the old system.

“[Disruptors] is who we’re up against. We are vulnerable to disruption but this is how you get your innovation mojo back.” And for those who still wonder if agile is out of their reach he has a parting shot: “If you can do it in the highly regulated world of insurance, you can probably do it anywhere.”