Andy Breen, Argo Group

Andy Breen

The Speed of Change

Editors’ Note

Andy Breen is leading Argo’s transition to a digital business that is disrupting the insurance space from the inside. Over his career, Breen has more than 20 years of experience developing and growing products and services for companies of all sizes in the mobile, enterprise, e-commerce, media, and education sectors. Breen is an adjunct professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business. He holds a bachelor’s degree in information and decision systems, industrial management and computer science from Carnegie Mellon University.

Is the scope of the coming change in the insurance industry overstated?

Not in the least. The distribution of insurance has been pretty much unchanged for a hundred years or longer. There have been defined roles along the insurance value chain, with each of us playing one or more of those roles. Mark Watson has been saying for over a decade that this is about to change. First, digitization is altering customer expectation and behavior forever. Second, digital tools give existing players and new entrants opportunities to radically disrupt service and product delivery. Third, distribution has gotten expensive and, in some places, is overpriced. Those three factors make the industry ripe for a major overhaul.

How fast is this change coming?

Recent research proves that the change is already underway. How it’s going to work and who the winners will be is still unclear. If we just wait to see what shakes out, we could find ourselves as a back-end commodity business. We’re not going to let that happen. Our approach is to pursue what I call “wedge” opportunities. We’re dipping our oars into a lot of different streams to see what works and what doesn’t. That, coupled with our iterative development, gives us the advantage of being responsive to how the market shakes out. Try something, learn from it, improve it, try again.

How does that approach change what you need from your team?

Alongside the base modern skill set of comfort with data, analysis, and tech tools, everyone in my department has to embrace the philosophy of experimentation and risk taking. Many people are good at operating and optimizing a business, but when you’re in R&D you have to be much more nimble. I remind the members of my team that they’re risk managers, because all new ideas have some degree of uncertainty. We have to de-risk them and either get on with something or get out of it. Even when we decide to kill one product and move onto the next, we’re thankful for what we’ve learned and relieved that we didn’t waste a bunch of time, money, and effort.

How does leadership affect Argo’s speed of innovation?

In innovative companies, change must be both constant and fast. To keep it fast, you have to refine how decisions are made. Argo is doing this thoughtfully and well. There’s great strength in the executive team here. One of the ways we maintain our speed is by keeping the decision-making process lean. People at all levels are trusted to push ahead with any decision that can be reversed later if required. If it makes sense, it should be tried. The only decisions that need to go up to the executive team are those that take the company in an irreversible direction. This works because Argo has solid bench strength at every level now. As a result, our executives can stay focused on the very small set of very big things in front of them.