The Power of Three Smart People

May 28th, 2010 | Posted by

I was talking to a CIO at the LOMA ACORD Systems Forum in Las Vegas recently. The conversation went something like this.

“What do you think of providing chat capability, so agents in the field and underwriters can interact directly in real time?”

“We’ve had that since 2004.”

“How about e-delivery of policy documents?”

“We’ve been doing that for a long time. We set agent-level preferences for who gets paper and who gets electronic copies, and our agents can update their profiles at their convenience via the portal.”

“How about faxing or emailing of correspondence and other documents?”

“CSRs can do that from their desktops, without ever printing a thing.”

These and other tidbits from our conversation suggested that the increased focus on building relationships with agents has resulted in service improvements. By paying attention to how people get things done, the industry is evolving.

But the interesting thing is that this was not a conversation with a visionary, Tier 1 carrier. I was talking to a Tier 5 carrier, with a staff of perhaps 100 people, total. And the solutions being discussed are nearly all custom builds, done on the cheap by smart, creative staff.

This story illustrates the Three Smart People theory. (Credit for articulating the theory goes to my brother Kevin, a technologist outside the insurance industry.) Three Smart People says that problems are best solved by putting three smart people in a room and turning them loose, unencumbered by layers of management and the mental constraints that companies often place on their staff. The alternative of throwing bodies at problems in proportion to their size introduces uncertainty and risk, and almost never improves solution quality. More heads are better than one, but only until you reach the count of three.

Proponents of mega projects tell me that TSP is naïve. But I think that if three smart people are not able to solve a problem, it is quite possible that the problem has not been defined at a sufficient level of granularity. Got a big problem, with sweeping implications for business processes and a host of integrated systems? Break it down into components that can be digested by groups of three people over a period of weeks, not months. Then stand back and watch your company’s evolution accelerate.