HARD CONVERSATIONS ABOUT EASY THINGS: DATA, CULTURE, AND INNOVATION IN PRACTICE – EPISODE 032
In this episode of The Digital Broker podcast, Steve and Ryan unpack the contents of the talks they gave at the Executive Management Program of the Applied Net 2018 conference. By listening to this episode, you will learn:
- How to tell bad data from good and develop an eye for data quality.
- How to identify soul-sucking tasks and enlist the help you need to remove them.
- How to find and evaluate the solutions you might not even know you have, such as customized API’s.
Talking about data management is as easy as talking about exercise: everybody agrees it’s good for you, but to work it into everyday life is more difficult.
Fortunately, Steve and Ryan delight in demystifying anything that assists operational excellence. That’s why, at Applied Net 2018, they were both invited to give talks at the Executive Management Program, an exclusive, one-day affair where agency principals heard from several experts on issues ranging from mergers and acquisitions to the Insurtech landscape and more.
(4:05) All of those things are important, but when it got to be Ryan’s turn, he had to stress that data is the cornerstone of almost every successful initiative. If you can’t quantify what you’re doing, how do you know it’s working?
The answer is that you don’t. You’re going on gut feeling, or guesswork, or some metaphysical measure of success understood only by you but alien to everyone else in your organization. Agencies need to have a uniform data management strategy. This is not a controversial opinion, and dashboards hurry to address the issue by providing pretty visualizations of data, but this is only a partial solution. (5:22) A dashboard is only as good as the quality of the data put into it.
Suppose you get a set of data from an agency management system and tell five different people to enter it in a dashboard. Do you expect to see the same visualization each time—or is each person going to come up with a different visualization? The latter is often the case because different people use different terms to describe more or less the same data. How many terms does your agency use to refer to incoming revenue, for example? Written? Booked? Estimated? Collected? Billed? Maybe you know that some of those designations overlap, but the dashboard doesn’t, and the moment it yields an inaccurate or imbalanced view of the information you’re trying to get at, it ceases to be merely useless and becomes dangerously disinformative.
(6:42) The key is to normalize data verbiage within your organization. Before you do that, ask yourself these two questions:
- Do we use data to make decisions, or do we not?
- If we do, do we need to get better at it?
If you’ve answered “yes” to both questions, simplify your data as much as possible. Try to distill the multitude of measurables into just a few that you really care about. Ryan has it down to two: booked revenue—what’s already been collected or invoiced—and estimated revenue—what to expect to collect over the span of the policy term. Yes, there are nuances within those two categories, but they’re worth addressing only after you have laid out a data management strategy at the outset.
As with anything worth doing, this is tough and takes time and effort. Brace yourself for several conversations with your employees about what they measure, what they call it, and why they think it matters. (8:41) Innovation is seldom possible without a dialogue like this in place. We’ve made of innovation a kind of cartoon, a superpower of the most cutting-edge corporations, but you don’t need to be Apple or Amazon to be innovative. At heart, innovation is about solving problems.
It’s important, therefore, to know what those problems are. (9:46) What is keeping your organization from being operationally excellent? What are the processes that you know to be slowing you down, and how can they be expedited or removed entirely? A company that’s on the lookout against those soul-sucking tasks has a strategic advantage over one that isn’t.
Some of the best advice Ryan gave at the Executive Management Program is to always keep a list of the top five tasks that are high-effort but low-value. If you’re having trouble assembling this list on your own, ask your employees what they don’t like to do. (11:15) Once you’ve got your list of problems, you can look at the options you have, which are probably plentiful; we can’t recall a time when there were these many solutions available. It used to be that if a technical problem hindered your organization, you’d buy a boxed product, hoping it would work. Now you have networked platforms that communicate among themselves. Furthermore, if a software you’ve acquired isn’t getting the job done, you can leverage customized API’s to see if you can get it to do what you want it to do. If you don’t have an internal coder for this, or you don’t even know what API stands for, you can outsource the work on platforms like Upwork, to people you trust and for a price you’re willing to pay. Ryan describes how he evaluates problems and solutions beginning at 15:00 of this episode.
No matter what you decide to do, don’t forget how hard it is to implement solutions—any solution. Technology seldom fails; implementation often does. Consider the case of the person at 12:56 who complains about being unable to find a CRM software that works: “My agency has been through five CRM’s, and they are all terrible!” Listen, if you’ve gone through five different CRM products that other organizations have put to work for them, and you can’t get them to work for you, what’s the common denominator here?
It’s unlikely that this manager has a CRM problem or even a technology problem. More than likely, we’re up against an accountability problem within the culture of that organization. (13:59) Some of us are in the habit of throwing technology at problems because it allows us to evade personal responsibility. Be honest with yourself, and try to dictate your culture before it dictates you.
At the Executive Management Program, you could tell which agencies were being honest with themselves. They were asking questions, admitting their problems, and wondering out loud whether there was an easier way—everything indicating a seriousness about getting better. This restlessness is totally justified. The market is always moving: if something can be done, it will be, and if you don’t do it, someone else will.
The customer isn’t gonna wait. And neither will your competition.