Fergang acknowledges that Agile development fits well with his IT philosophy, but he insists it is not merely for the typical reasons. "What really gets me excited about Agile is the way it allows the teams to be self-directed and creative," he confides. "We want risk takers and entrepreneurs, and assuming they're appropriately compensated, these people care more about the autonomy and creativity you afford them than anything else, and that's pretty much the structure by which we manage."
The value of providing that autonomy was demonstrated in an initiative to introduce a new business owners' policy and craftsmen and tradesmen product built on a new rating engine, with 200 new classes, a new rating algorithm and embedded predictive modeling. Fergang describes the project as incompatible with the incremental approach of Agile because of the all-or-nothing nature of the product launch and an urgency on the part of the business. "Management came to me and said, 'OK, Michael, we love what you're doing, but we have no idea when you're going to give us what we need,'" he recalls.
Fergang says he dispatched two teams to estimate how quickly the work could be done, and while both came back with 10-month timelines, in the end, they got it done in seven months. "With their own creativity -- without me or the resource managers' intervention -- they figured out how to reduce the time by 30 percent," he reports. "That's tangible. The business was thrilled."
Fergang also grants his team the freedom to reward their colleagues' achievements, including those of external consultants working within the team, with peer bonuses. "If any associate thinks that another associate has either gone out of their way or come up with a good idea, they very quickly can go to my admin, they pick up an Amazon card and they give it to them to thank them for their effort," he explains.
In addition to giving ambitious staff freedom, Fergang also oversees so-called "Skunk Works" projects, innovative explorations led by IT rather than the business organization. A team member will proactively take ownership of an opportunity, invite others to participate and see the project through to completion. "One of these efforts resulted in a web application used by the claims department to display a geographic map depicting the path of a wind event interlaced with claims data, which has aided the claims department to assess the impact of a storm," he recounts.
Fergang also instituted training and networking sessions inspired by the innovations spawned in European coffee houses in the 17th and 18th centuries. "Grange's Coffee House" meetings are held on a quarterly basis and allow IT team members -- no management allowed -- to gain exposure to new technology and to meet other IT professionals within the organization.
Grange also runs quarterly "Hands-On Meetings" that provide a forum to share general updates to ensure the entire IT organization is informed, receive feedback from Skunk Works and Coffee House venues, and share updates on innovation-driven activities, according to Fergang. The result, he asserts, is a highly creative organization that generates strategic value. "If you have the right IT people with the right business mind-set, the team will achieve solutions unforeseen by the business," he insists.