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Financial services firm adopts agile for digital development

Clint Boulton | June 24, 2016
Principal Financial Group turned to agile to quickly build more software for its insurance, retirement planning and asset management customers.

Scholten says both Principal's business line leaders and its global IT staff of 2,600 workers were receptive to the agile move. As part of a corporate campus redesign the company built open workspaces designed to enable IT to build code in rapid sprints.

The increased reliance on agile had forced Principal to rethink its development architecture and metrics for how it measures productivity. "All of those things have had to change as a result of our movement toward agile," Scholten says.

Rather than have meetings every two months, business and IT peers met about projects within the cadence of the biweekly sprints, ensuring that the right stakeholders were present to make decisions. The result is that Principal operates like a software startup building proof of concepts and minimum viable products.

Build, launch, then watch the data

One product Principal developed using agile is My Virtual Coach, a personalized enrollment and education application for retirement plan participants. Like many bot technologies today, the coach conducts an interactive conversation with individuals, leaning on natural language processing. The app walks participants through scenarios and allows them to take immediate action as they step through the enrollment process. Another service, called Participant Experience, allots a score to participants based on their retirement preparedness and lets them allocate more funds to their 401K or other retirement plans.

While launching a minimum viable product enables Principal to get to market quicker it incurs its own set of risks and responsibilities. To mitigate the risk of launching a product with user experience gaps or other flaws, Principal monitors participants' clickstream, or how they navigated products online and from mobile devices. If several get stuck in certain spots along the way, Principal engineers and business analysts will adapt their coding sprint schedules to make the app more user friendly.

"We use data to make sure that we continually improve the process and that's where scaled agile is important," Scholten says. "In two-week sprints, we can say 'we had plans to go in this direction but we have to change it based on the data and what we're seeing’."

Reflecting on Principal's legacy of waterfall development, Scholten says that traditional model isn’t viable today. "I don't know how you could be successful in the digital world in waterfall," Scholten says.


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