The spinning wheels phenomenon is caused by resistance to change, dysfunctional culture and assumed continuity—all dangers that can seep into agencies when owners are too busy putting out fires.
Agency owners make hundreds of decisions every single day. For many agencies, nearly every aspect of running the company rests with the owners—marketing, finances, carrier relations, human resources, technology and more.
No wonder many owners feel like they run from fire to fire. They react to demands, feel forced to make quick decisions and have little time to research the options. The bigger-picture strategic planning decisions get pushed for another day when things are calmer. The problem is that day never comes. Strategic decisions don't get made and choosing not to do something comes at a price.
If what I just described sounds like you, you're not alone. There's comfort in knowing that you're in good company, but there's also danger in it. The danger is in living complacently when the world around you is changing faster than you are. Without a keen eye on consumer trends, your agency can get left behind.
This is the spinning wheels phenomenon, and it's caused by resistance to change, dysfunctional culture and assumed continuity—all dangers that can seep into agencies when owners are too busy putting out fires.
Stuck in the Mud
Consider the image of a car stuck in the mud. Without traction, its tires spin but the car doesn't move—it is still stuck. The car is expending a lot of energy but not moving forward. Without a change in the situation, the car will continue to be stuck in the mud. Hence, the metaphor commonly used when a person or group is very busy but accomplishing very little is “spinning their wheels." Often, they are blind to the fact that they are spinning their wheels because they are so preoccupied doing their busy work—another term with a similar connotation.
An agency spinning its wheels is focused on processes and procedures, most of them well established. Commonly heard are phrases such as, “This is how we've always done it," or “It's just not like it used to be."
Here are three factors that reinforce the status quo:
1) Resistance to change. Do you know someone who opposes new ideas, refuses to budge on an issue and says it cannot be done? These are all examples of being resistant to change.
Even beloved concepts such as stability, tradition and continuity discourage change. While those concepts have a place, if they drive decisions in your agency, you may be resistant to change.
Often, resistance to change is driven by fear of the unknown, such as technology the owner doesn't understand. It can also be driven by ignorance of how to change or a lack of confidence in learning new skills. A habit is an unconscious form of resistance because after so many years of doing something a certain way, it's hard to change.
One of the most concerning forms of resistance is myopia—where you're so busy in the daily grind that you have no time to think broadly or futuristically.
2) Cultural lock-in. Renowned consultant Warner Burke defined culture as “the way we do things." Culture is neither good nor bad but how an organization lives its culture makes it an asset or a liability, a strength or a weakness.
Cultural lock-in prevents an agency from responding to market changes. An agency paralyzed by its culture may believe the service expectations of yesteryear are still adequate today. As a result, innovation rarely occurs, risk-taking is minimized and employees demonstrate little passion for their work or the agency's future.
3) Assumed continuity. Assumption of continuity means that the agency's continued success is expected. Many agencies are generational businesses, so the assumption of continuity can be very high. The attitude is, “Of course, we'll exist—we've been around forever."
Under this form of “agency egotism," the agency focuses on its processes and procedures, not on innovation or creativity. Assumption of continuity leads to resistance to change. If an agency is confident it will be around another 50 years, it is unlikely to change its business model to stay relevant.
Many agency leaders struggle in their decision-making abilities. What kind of decision-maker are you? If you're not sure, here are some pointers that will help you determine your natural style.
Consider whether you are an intuitive decision-maker or a logical decision-maker. Both types have their place. Intuitive decisions are quick, automatic, reactive and emotional. Many daily decisions can be made intuitively. Logical decisions are slow, thoughtful and reasoned. Strategic decisions should be made logically.
If your style is intuitive, you will be inclined to address all decisions from an automatic and emotional perspective. Consider the decision to permit your service team to work at home permanently. An intuitive decision-maker would consider their personal feelings about whether they liked employees to be away from the office. They may say things like, “Our clients aren't getting serviced," or “They're not giving eight hours a day at home." Likely, these statements are not based upon data. A rational decision-maker would pull productivity records and check workloads, lost business, and client complaints before deciding.
Most people suffer from biases that cloud their decisions. For instance, consider your best employee. Why are they the best? Is it because they have the best combination of knowledge, productivity, work ethic and empathy? Or is it that they have only some of those attributes and they are a personal friend?
This is called the halo effect. Due to some good traits, you assess everything they do as perfect. If you regularly apply the halo effect with employees, carriers or vendors, you may be overlooking shortcomings that impact your agency's performance.
Finally, is your decision based on quality data or the quickest data that was available to you?
Garbage in, garbage out. You can analyze the data in the most logical, sophisticated way, but your decision will be garbage if the data is flawed. This is called the availability heuristic—making decisions based upon readily available data.
Consider the decision to acquire an agency. What do you know about the quality of the book of business? What are the predominant auto liability limits and home deductibles? Do the majority of clients need reminders to pay their bills? Digging into the details will open your eyes to the actual quality of the book.
Don't let reflection turn into paralysis. It is critical to get started and take the first step.
If the list of things you need to fix is overwhelming and feels daunting, consider picking the easiest one on the list. This may seem like an unorthodox approach, but if you can address one item by taking steps toward change, you will gain confidence to tackle another.
If you've realized that you have some decision-making weaknesses, remember that you're not an island. Reach out for help. If you're the sole owner, lean on your state association, community business leaders, colleagues or consultants. The opportunity to discuss your ideas with another person always helps to broaden your perspective.
It seems that the world is changing at the speed of light. To be in business 10 or 20 years out, you have to be ready to change now. Understanding whether your agency is spinning its wheels is the first step toward addressing the issues that prevent you from recognizing and adapting to the changing market. Reflect on these questions, make notes, confide in a trusted advisor and make your first decision for the future.
Before you know it, real change will begin to happen.
Diane T. Keil-Hipp is chief operations officer at Knight Insurance Group, an independent insurance agency in Toledo, Ohio, and has spent over 30 years in the insurance industry. She is also a doctoral student at Bowling Green State University (BGSU).
If you feel like you're spinning your wheels, consider spending a few more minutes reflecting on specific questions about how you run your agency. Your answers to these questions will help you pinpoint whether your agency is spinning its wheels and how deep in the mud you really are.
- When was your agency's last innovative initiative developed, such as the creation and implementation of a new service that provides a competitive advantage?
- How many technological advances have you adopted in the last year?
- Circle the words that define your culture: creative, innovative, responsive, tech-savvy, passionate, stable, traditional, controlled, routine.
- How active are you on social media?
- How much have you reinvested in the business, whether with new producers, new technology or something else?
- How much time do you spend on strategic issues versus operational issues?
- Do you find yourself thinking, “It's just not like it used to be?"
- When was the last time your agency did any of the following:
- Overhauled your website
- Changed an internal procedure
- Evaluated the return on investment of your most time-consuming task
- Researched the most successful agency in your region
- Measured your agency against industry best practices and then did something about your shortcomings—DKH