Innovation

Mark Showers: Innovate in IT by applying the scientific method

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 Mark Showers, Chief Information Officer, Reinsurance Group of America


Mark Showers, Chief Information Officer,
Reinsurance Group of America

A trained chemist, Mark Showers has used his grounding in the scientific method to guide a long and successful career in information technology. As Chief Information Officer of Reinsurance Group of America (RGA), his impact has national reach. Mark has been recognized as one of the “Premier IT leaders” by ComputerWorld magazine and an “Elite 8” insurance technology leader by Insurance and Technology magazine. As companies increasingly look to drive growth through technological innovation, we asked him how all those years in the lab translate to the fast-paced world of IT.

At first blush, understanding the interplay of tiny molecules would seem to have little connection to IT, but you’ve proven otherwise. How has your chemistry background informed your approach to IT?

Back when I was a graduate student, I never knew my big break would come from applying my knowledge in a business setting. One of the biggest benefits of a classical science background is that it trains you to be an experimentalist. Toiling away in a lab gets one in the habit of formulating good, testable hypotheses.

As importantly, one gets used to things falling apart and failing. The idea of failure as the route to learning becomes muscle memory. That is enormously valuable training for anyone working in a corporate setting. It’s already ingrained that if you’re not failing, you’re not truly innovating. It makes it easier to lead others into adopting a similar mindset.

Does it also help you pick your innovation bets more carefully?

Yes, I think it does. Part of the role of CIO is helping form good strategic hypotheses that teams can pilot to extract and apply important learnings. Most businesses recognize they need to challenge established ways of working and cultivate a higher risk tolerance for experimentation. But experimentation is not the same as free-wheeling. Part of what a formal science background provides is the clinical acumen to understand risk boundaries. In a chemistry lab, the consequences of fatal errors are minimal. Not so in areas like security and data privacy. In a corporate setting, it’s important to delineate where test-and-learn is appropriate.

In what ways do IT models need to become more innovative?

The classic IT model over the last 20-plus years has focused on stability, reliability and uptime. R&D-driven organizations challenge that model. They’re more comfortable with the notion of impermanence: you don’t need to build a system that will endure for decades. They’re also more comfortable with disposing of current ideas midway through if a new and better approach comes along. That’s a fundamentally different mindset, and it’s one that can feel uncomfortable to those who have grown up in traditional IT shops.

Obviously if working on core systems like the general ledger, you don’t want to mess around. But other areas where speed, agility and innovation can add value require more dynamic iteration and a willingness to continually improve. That’s where the emphasis on risk assessment and clinical judgment comes into play.

Are there structural changes that can help CIOs foster a more supple, experimental mindset within their organizations?

I’m a big fan of people rotating in and out of IT from different functions within the business. These can be hard to work out, but it’s worth pushing to create such structures. CIOs can partner with HR and the business to create secondments that improve the company as a whole.

Here at RGA, we have senior managers working with us whose backgrounds are steeped in financial services. That’s tremendously valuable to the business lines and to us, especially given the ever-closer twinning of technology into all things finance.

Insurance companies are in the business of tamping down risk. How do you balance their innate conservatism with the need to experiment and innovate?

You have to pick your opportunities one by one. When the time is right and a project comes along where digitization stands to deliver real benefits in terms of productivity, cost-savings or customer value, that’s where you lean in and get your business partners onside. When we show how we can apply technology toward business model innovation and when we document the lift that those applications can create, then we get attention. We make it easier for our business partners to see the upside. To generate the thinking that can really have an impact, we use a mix of non-traditional partners, outside expertise and inside specialists. We push people to get out of their comfort zones and try things that require approaching the problem from very different angles. That gives us a mix of perspectives and exposes a broader constituency of people to the idea of change from the ground up.

Given how rapidly IT is evolving, what are the most important skills that you’re looking for in your team?

Hands down, it’s the ability to communicate and the ability to adapt. The ability to speak and write and translate what we’re doing in a way that’s powerful and intuitive to non-IT people is essential.

There’s a temptation for technology folks to get down into the weeds—because that’s where the complexity is and that’s where our day-to-day focus often needs to be as a result. But when speaking to the business, that kind of technical deep dive doesn’t work. We have to make our strategy, our objectives and our approach feel clear and intuitive. People have to experience the proposed solution and the pathway to achieving it in order to really understand at a visceral level.

You can talk about the theory of how something might work, but unless it’s experiential, it won’t stick. Getting that kind of experiential “aha moment” requires close collaboration and it requires the skill to draw others in and build rapport. And that ultimately comes down to excellent communication skills and an ingrained adaptability. Not everybody is going to have that kind of temperament. So, part of change is finding your team and growing the people who are going to help your group and your business grow.

Senior Writer

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