Case Study: Swedbank’s Anki Ahrnell on Managing Complex Projects
When managing a complex project, leaders must play the part of producer, director and stage manager. Take a cue from show business and set your team members up for success in three phases:
- Get stakeholders aligned and assemble the right resources (producer)
- Clarify the “what” and “how” of success (director)
- Help stakeholders see and adjust to the inevitable changes along the way (stage manager)
Swedbank: A Case Study
Anki Ahrnell, Swedbank’s head of marketing and online banking, knew exactly what her goal was:
Help branch office employees, as well as central support staffs, to help the right customer, with the right need or problem, at the right time, and in the right channel thereby improving customer satisfaction and loyalty, and at the same time growing sales and revenues.
The bank, which serves both individuals and companies in Sweden, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, had a customer database analysis system that was quickly becoming obsolete.
She wanted to do something more than just replace it. She wanted an entirely new system that put information, and thereby power, at everyone’s fingertips. With 6,500 people in the branches, that’s a lot of empowered fingertips. At the same time, she wanted better central sales support providing the branch office employees with ready-made customer selections for both targeted sales efforts and customer care activities.
Drawing on what she’d learned from her time at IBM and Cambridge Technology Partners, she broke this massive project into digestible chunks with realistic milestones. At a high level, these included:
- Vision: Get all aligned around the vision and scope
- Resources: Create and prove a working concept, assemble the resources and negotiate partnerships
- Requirements: Clarify the needs into detailed requirements specifications
- Model: Data modeling – building the well-structured pile of necessary data (which is gigantic)
- Design & build: Adapt the QlikView software to Swedbank’s needs with both “free analysis” features to empower branch employees to follow their hunches and insights, and central sales support empowering bookmarks
- Test & scale
- Implement: Educate ambassadors and provide self learning tools
Ahrnell deployed very different types of leadership at the different phases, much along the lines of putting on a show.
In the early phases, Ahrnell acted like a producer, getting people aligned, drafting the vision and the concept and assembling the resources – both internally at the bank and externally including the team – from QlikTech. Ahrnell told me:
A vision is like a guiding star – you have to paint a picture and make it visible and understandable what we want to achieve. Important was to get everyone together from business people and users to programming specialists and IT architects and make them see and understand the same picture. And allow for jamming – letting people participate in the creative process.
Ahrnell’s invited everyone to an island in Stockholm. Prior to that, those involved had been used to working in a series of phases. Nobody gave the programmers a big-picture view. This was different. Bringing everyone together, including the architects, allowed them to see the same overarching strategy as the leaders, what the branch people would see and understand how they needed to sort their clients.
In the “good old days,” the data was not accessible on branch peoples’ computer screens. Instead, someone in a branch would go to a specialist with a specific request. The specialist would sort the data and come back with a list. While the branch person could request as many lists as he or she wanted, the data could not be manipulated.
There was no “free analysis.” This was one of the reasons Ahrnell and her team chose to work with QlikView. Instead of just making reports, the new system gave users the ability to try things over and over again until they found what they were looking for – or something else.
In the middle phases, Ahrnell acted like a director, guiding the requirements, data modeling, design and build, test and scale, and implementation milestones. She describes this as, “Taking the vision from the abstract level to the understandable level.”
She said, “This is the most difficult process – taking the vision down to concrete requirements specifications and then designing and building the functions supporting them. Even though we had a very powerful software tool to build from, it can be applied in many different ways. The recipe here is an agile process identifying the most important functions for the users and building them step-by-step.”
She continued, “We must all get better at defining the 20 percent of the system that delivers 80 percent of the impact. We needed to get that right and then go on to the next phase. We had to be quite disciplined. Staying focused on what’s most important for the end user.”
True to agile development, she managed the group in two-week sprints. At various points along they way, she got everybody in the same room and actually had them develop together. To Ahrnell, milestones are prioritization, leading to step-by-step building.
While this is always important, it’s especially important for a project dealing with such massive amounts of data. Multiply 10 million clients by 230 types of clients, by 50 types of agreements, by 40 million agreements, by 85 history terms and 15 history periods you get to a very big number very quickly. Given this, if you don’t get the data modeling right, you can’t get the system right.
Finally, once the show had begun, Ahrnell acted like a stage manager, working behind the scenes to help people adjust as required along the way. She said:
This is more like sitting in a customer service function where you have to identify the customer reactions and see if there is something you can improve. Luckily the system has proved to be extremely good and it is also very end-user friendly so the improvement activities has been focused on the ways of working with the sales support.
At no point was Ahrnell the one on stage writing the code and building the technology herself. She was always in front of, next to or behind the stage. Even though she had the vision, she knew the combined team would be that much more effective if she let others be the stars. And she had five eminent co-drivers, or “project managers,” with different responsibilities like business, internal IT, QV technique, application building, etc.
Here are some additional reflections from Ahrnell on business information and intelligence:
I do believe we are now facing a third paradigm shift regarding information. The first one was Gutenberg and the invention of the printing press – making it possible to duplicate and distribute information. The second one has been Google and the social media/Facebook/Twitter tools making information available and shareable all over the world. And now I think we will see a third one coming with ‘knowledgeware’ tools making it possible to structure and organize the information and curate the content in collaboration making it possible to build new knowledge faster – collective brainpower.
Ahrnell continued, “Today it is easier to find information about anything in the world than finding and analyzing information about our own businesses – from customer information in the front end to financial data in the back end.”
“That is why QlikView is such a powerful tool giving end users the power to get access to and freely analyze data making it possible for them both alone and together climb up the knowledge ladder from raw data to refined and cultivated data to analysis and conclusions resulting in relevant actions.”
[Note: This is an expanded version of an article on Forbes.com. Follow this link for other articles in The New Leader's Playbook.]