by Edward Qualtrough

Aviva International CIO Fin Goulding interview – Bringing Agile flow to ‘Jurassic’ insurance sector

Jan 18, 2018
Financial Services IndustryIT Strategy

Aviva’s International CIO Fin Goulding is trying to bring the cut and thrust pace of the dotcom era to the centuries-old insurance sector, buoyed by the opportunity to be disruptive having previously ruled out returning to the financial services sector where he started his career.

Goulding, who worked as CIO of Lastminute and Travelocity before his appointment as Chief Information Officer at Paddy Power in 2012, left the bookmakers to become CIO of Aviva in Ireland in April 2016.

“Aviva CEO Mark Wilson goes on the record quite often that the insurance business is Jurassic, that the organisations are like dinosaurs and that if we don’t disrupt ourselves, we’ll be disrupted,” Goulding said.

“I thought that was really inspirational. It could be the end of my career, or it could be the beginning of something better.”

The role of International CIO was carved out for Goulding in April 2017, the role created to make Aviva’s international businesses less siloed.

“We’ve got a Group CIO, then we have CIOs for Asia, the UK, Canada and International; I look after Ireland, France, Italy, Spain, Poland, Lithuania, Turkey and India,” Goulding said.

“I’ve got CIOs in each of those countries. More often than not they’re directed by their CEOs, but they’re smaller markets and the idea is to bring the smaller groups together. My job is to get commonality across those teams. We’re doing stuff globally, we meet all the time and it’s quite fun. We were very siloed in the past but not anymore.

“I ensure that we join the dots across all those groups.”

Technology transformation

While Goulding’s passions are closer aligned to innovation, strategy and inspiring people to do the best work they can, the CIO role at Aviva has had to tackle the complex challenges associated with the British multinational business which has been involved in a number of mergers and acquisitions – a company with a history tracing back to the Hand in Hand Fire & Life Insurance Society which was founded at a coffee house in London in 1696.

“It has been a challenge, because these large organisations are difficult to traverse,” Goulding said. “The technology is quite old.

“Large organisations are generally the result of a number of acquisitions, or they are bringing together different organisations, so you have a lot of duplication with systems, and your main challenge is actually getting everybody to understand where you’re going, what the strategy is. But then you have a lot of stuff to simplify, a lot of old technology. There’s some technology older than me, and that’s a concern.

“These are the things that will hold us back in the future.”

Goulding said that much of his focus and strategy is around ways of working and people – as well as how leaders can influence an organisation in much more subtle ways such as their dress and behaviours.

“A lot of my digital transformation comes from cultural transformation. Inspiring people to do the best work they can, building up capability and actually enjoying it,” Goulding said.

“What is quite funny is that I don’t own a suit. I was a bit worried about that, but as I started to dress down, which I’ve always done, now other people are doing it. You can actually see you have a shadow as a leader. The things that you do actually change the behaviours of other people.”

Indeed, he explains these viewpoints were the prompt to start writing a book about culture and digital transformation – particularly through the lens of Agile. Goulding’s book Flow, ‘A Handbook for Change Makers, Mavericks, Innovation Activists and Leaders’, supposes that the Agile concept has been largely hijacked by the mandarins and as such poses the question, ‘if Agile is dead then what’s next?’

“Agile has become bogged down in certification and consultancies telling you how to do stuff, and scaled frameworks that no one understands,” Goulding said. “People are monetising Agile.

“It was all about being simplistic, making things simpler and continually learning, and cutting down on the bureaucracy; but now we’re adding to it.”

One of the benefits of the approach has been releasing new products and an increased release cycle and cadence to the CIO’s department. With the mandate from CEO Wilson to self-disrupt, Goulding’s interpretation is that means Aviva can build new products and do things in a different way.

Goulding said that product cycle times were previously in the months, and that they have brought down the time from having an idea to a product to between two and four days. Having heard about other companies, outside of the insurance sector, where this cycle time to functionality is less than 12 hours, Goulding is on a mission of continuous improvement as epitomised by the Agile ethos.

Culture of innovation

As part of Aviva’s digital transformation, Goulding is trying to create an environment and culture for innovation, where staff can be bold, and allowed to fail fast or pivot quickly. The CIO says where these forces meet is at the intersection of innovation.

“Without those things you get fear and apathy,” Goulding said. “If you’re not bold and brave, nothing happens, and if you don’t have a high degree of trust in your organisation, then there’s fear if something goes wrong.”

Goulding said that Aviva employees have been bringing ideas to the fore through hackathons and the company’s seed investment-style Hackbox initiative. Hackathons, however, are too limited according to the CIO.

“Hack days are just 24 hours to fix stuff that should have been fixed previously,” he quipped. “Or small ideas; 24 hours is not enough to bring innovation to the fore.”

Aviva staff are encouraged to think more like customers, with Goulding explaining that the organisation “eats its own dog food” as he described the Hackbox concept.

Teams are encouraged to take a box which contains some seed money, circa €1,000, and some guidance of how to become like a startup. They are trained, given access to entrepreneurs and mentors, and given six weeks to take an idea through to something which could be tangible for Aviva.

Goulding believes the recent ideas and propositions from “Millennial-type teams”, which were shared with the CEO and C-suite, were not the sort of innovations feasibly conceived during a hackathon. The second stage of the Hackbox is to supply more investment for the strongest ideas, whether that investment is people, time or money, to help deliver the Hackbox concepts.

“There’s been a big of a shift in our organisation,” Goulding said. “At other companies they send people on innovation courses and they expect them to come back with some great idea, and there’s no room to bring it to life.

“You create an environment to make it happen, but you have to get away from measuring people on a day-to-day basis for their productivity. That’s what I think stifles innovation more than anything else.”

This attitude is set from the most senior leadership at Aviva, and not just from the CIO who refuses to wear a suit.

“Our CEO goes around at about 6pm and tells people to go home,” Goulding said. “Presenteeism is not good. That’s such old-fashioned behaviour; it’s all about outcomes these days.”

Enterprise AI

Goulding is tracking changes in artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and other emerging technologies, but believes while there are interesting uses in the insurance sector related to prevention by utilising sensors and predictive analytics, it will be at the intersection of the latest developments where the real disruptive innovation will come from.

“I think it is the case of three or four technologies being brought together,” Goulding said. “So it’s the Internet of Things, AI, natural language processing – all these things combined that will give you that insight, not on their own. At the moment they are on their own, people are not actually pulling this stuff together cohesively.”

Away from the enterprise applications of the latest innovative technologies, Goulding describes himself as “quite techie” and is a keen runner who took part in five marathons in 2017. He has completed 27 since he took up the hobby in 2010, and in 2018 will be running in Tokyo in February and Chicago in October as part of his goal to “complete the majors by the end of the year”.

“I’m pretty obsessive, I take a lot of that information about myself and analyse it,” he said. “I gather the data, analyse it and see how I can actually improve my performance.”

Goulding also confesses an unhealthy interest in “Alexa-type technology”, owning both the Amazon device and the Google Home equivalent. These virtual assistants, chatbots and speech-to-tech developments lead the CIO to believe there are major developments on the horizon which will eventually lead to the death of the browser.

While family friends might find it somewhat bizarre when he is talking to inanimate devices, he notes that as well as being fun, being engaged with the latest consumer technology and communities makes him think about use cases that could be applicable to his professional life, as well as looking beyond the traditional tech event circuit to find more fringe-style gatherings.

“As a CIO you spend a lot of time at the other end of the scale in terms of interacting with business, doing financial analysis, and getting your hands less dirty than you used to do in the past as a technical person,” he said.

“I think it’s important that you go out there and do these things. I go to a lot of Meetups; there’s an Amazon Web Services one and a blockchain one, a DevOps one and Lean Agile one I go to. That’s how I learn, I’m constantly learning through those – it’s my profession and that’s the way I look at it.”