SURA building entrance

Suramericana S.A. (SURA) was founded in 1944 focusing on risk management and has grown today to be Colombia’s leader in insurance and risk management, with operations in San Salvador, Dominican Republic and Panama. In 2016 the company extended its presence in Latin America due to its’ acquisition of RSA operations in Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Colombia.

We were aware that SURA was one of the first companies in Colombia to start an Agile transformation, so we paid their head office in Medellin a visit. We sat down with the Chief Product Owner Natalia in SURA’s Agile Salon, a big room completely decorated to support SURA’s Agile ways of working. White boards, tables you can write on with markers (I must admit that I did get very excited by the drawing tables, I should get out more!), post it notes, collaboration areas and much more.

Once I got over my excitement of the Agile Salon (and they dragged me away from the drawing tables), we could get down to business and have a chat with Natalia to see how she experiences Agile and Scrum from a Product Owner point of view. We discussed what challenges she and the Scrum team encountered and how they try to overcome them.

With 5 different business divisions and 1 Scrum team supporting those divisions, one can imagine there have been challenges in the past with regards to prioritisation and decision making. The Vice President of SURA wanted to make sure that everyone moves in the same direction and work towards the same company goal.

A synergetic approach was agreed. Each business division has its own Product Owner but there is only 1 overall backlog for which Natalia is responsible. Every quarter a strategic meeting takes place where the POs from each business division come together with the VP and Chief PO (Natalia) to set the strategic direction for the next quarter and decide what initiatives to focus on. During this meeting the group also analyses the impact of the last quarter’s initiatives and achievements, as the outcome of these can change the direction of the future strategy.

Initiatives for the next quarter are ordered and go on the backlog. This backlog is not a static list and the quarterly strategic planning is at a high level with the aim to guide the strategic direction and create synergy between all divisions. During the quarter, the POs continuously work together with Natalia, the Scrum Master and the development team to keep the backlog ordered and in shape. Story mapping takes place, stories are broken down and refined together with the development team. It is important that all team members truly understand the products and how they are being used. Often a development team member goes on secondment to work in a business division for a short period of time, to experience how users work with the products on a day to day basis.

The strategic planning of initiatives on a quarterly basis has been working well for SURA. Metrics are in place to measure the value of initiatives delivered, and the company vision is more transparent. It has been challenging for a few business managers to completely adapt to the more structured approach of product management. Although they understand this is for the greater good, old habits die hard. Occasionally a business manager will still go directly to the development team and ask for a favour, surpassing the PO and Scrum Master. This however happens less and less, especially now that management starts seeing the benefit of working towards a common goal.

SURA PO Team Structure

The Scrum team exists out of a pool of 9 development team members, a Scrum Master and Natalia as Product Owner. They take care of test, configuration and SAP. Additionally, they are also responsible for production support. To avoid disruption from development work, team members rotate onto the production support rota on a quarterly basis. So, there is always a fixed number of people that support the users and legacy systems.

The team works in 2-week sprints. User testing is done within the sprint and the team does not have to wait until the end of the sprint to release to production. When a story is signed off in a sprint it can go into production with the next scheduled release, usually these are at least once a week. Instead of one big Sprint review at the end of a sprint the stories are reviewed continuously with the POs, users and relevant stakeholders during the sprint.

Capacity is reserved for innovation. SURA call it “The Innovation Lab” where developers engage in research and prototyping of ideas. These outputs are fed to the VP and Chief Product Owner who create new product backlog items for ideas they see as worth pursuing.

Our take away was that SURA’s success is not that they have a large development team, producing thousands of lines of code. Instead, they have a small focused development team, working efficiently on the most highly valued items that can be turned around quickly. The key is well thought out and smart product management resulting in minimal waste in the development process.

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