Lake views from the Milwaukee innovation labs

Karl Gouverneur

VP Digital Workplace & Corporate Solutions

Oct. 02, 20186 min read

Topics: featured.

The Business World Needs More Explorers

Leaders of today’s startups and incumbent enterprises are embracing digital transformation and pivoting their organizations to create engaging customer experiences and create net new sources of revenue powered by digital capabilities. Instead of waiting to be disrupted by some outside event, startup or traditional competitor that reactively forces them to adjust their business model, they’re proactively choosing to disrupt the way they do business to deliver higher return for their stakeholders.

Interestingly, they’re going about it in different ways. Some engage with startups, others form a venture fund, perhaps a proclamation of “doing digital” and yet many others choose to invest first in swanky facilities – a “lab,” a hip, modern place where explorers can innovate.

In regards to the lab, that’s nice – but to me, that’s just furniture and space. A good architect and visits to other companies will help bring this to fruition and that’s easy. What’s hard, and I mean really, really hard, is creating the incentives, the permissions, exhibiting the behaviors and the desires to innovate. Changing mindsets!

This is such an exciting time to be alive – and I think the near future will be even more incredible. Why? Because people, companies, industries and society are willing to step outside the box and explore.

In transportation alone, people are dreaming about futures with self-driving cars, shareable motor scooters, shuttles to Mars, rockets to the sun and drones that deliver the mail. Every industry sector has dreamers and innovators that are disrupting their space.

At Northwestern Mutual, we’re committing ourselves to  create the industry’s greatest client experience.

To help shape the future – in whatever industry you’re in – we all need more than just an innovation space. We need beliefs and boldness! To move forward, we need to democratize innovation culturally and make it a habit – a lifestyle.

This is easier said than done. There are challenges and barriers that needed to be faced at Northwestern Mutual and any company. Culture, incentives, politics and a lack of sponsorship, empowerment, diversity, collaboration, focus – all of these obstacles can hold organizations back.

That’s why we focused first on changing mindsets. Our employees are encouraged to think bigger, look up and out and leverage their digital savvy to explore different perspectives. Through our corporate digital innovation program, we are continuing to understand emerging trends, encourage ideation and iterative experimentation to bring ideas to market faster.

Honoring the first place team at our recent Fusion Hackathon. Almost 170 employees, contractors and interns on 29 teams were challenged to build prototypes fusing data with technology – with a timeline of just 30 hours.

To us, innovation is all about taking an idea and transforming it into a new or better way of meeting our clients’ needs and financial goals. Our Digital Innovation & Research Team leads this charge through tiger teams, hackathons, labs, and experiments funded by our internal crowdsourced innovation framework we call the Enterprise Venture Fund (EVF).

In 2009, we introduced EVF to engage employees and give them a way to explore ideas to help our company win in this industry. EVF provided time, money, talent and methods to help hundreds of ideas become experiments – many of which were scaled into solutions improving our back-office, as well as our advisors and client experience. More than $100 million of value has been realized since this inception. The program has engaged more than half of our employees, democratized innovation across ideas, and empowered intrapreneurs to experiment on their own ideas with company support.

Building on success, this week, we’re hosting Innovation Week at our headquarters with a variety of activities:

  • An Innovation Fair will bring together people across the company to showcase and demo all of the new innovative technology that the company has implemented, is being created, or experimenting with.
  • A special tech talk with Milwaukee Bucks Senior Vice President Alex Lasry will highlight how the team is using technology in its new stadium to innovate the fan experience and player’s performance on the court.
  • And the grand opening of Cream City Labs (yes, we got our new space too), a 17,000 square foot creative space designed to inspire our employees and community members to solve challenges and search for new market opportunities. Located within our downtown Milwaukee, WI campus, the lab has dedicated spaces for internal innovation teams to experiment, for mentoring, collaboration, co-working and innovation-focused events to help us transform the way we serve our clients.

In the lab, employees will engage in problem-solving, run ideation sessions, participate in innovation-related training and have opportunities to move-in for the duration of an experiment. Startup companies that we invest in through Cream City Venture Capital may co-locate in the space.

Internal teams will run ideas through the Cream City Labs Accelerator, a program designed to help develop ideas from conception to market value. And tech leaders from across the region will attend events such as hackathons, community meetups and speaker presentations.

The activities and new facilities encourage everyone to “explore what’s next” – to shift our culture to one that celebrates exploration and rejects lazy excuses within our risk tolerance.  

This culture change isn’t just happening within our walls. We’re partnering with companies across southeastern Wisconsin to shift mindsets and  shape the Greater Milwaukee Region into a thriving tech hub.

Innovation requires behaviors to fuel breakthroughs. To move hearts and minds and ignite innovation, I recommend three belief statements:

Be an explorer. Experiment. Test things out. Build a culture that’s comfortable with tinkering, with pilot projects, and with trying new things. Be bold and courageous. Manage risk responsibly. Have a growth mindset. Get outside your comfort zone. Stand out from the crowds or prevailing thinking.

Don’t pass judgement on ideas. We’ve all heard the phrase, “This is how it’s always been,” or “we will never change.” We have to give space for breakthrough ideas. Keep your mind and eyes open for the chance to create a new future, mitigate risk, find new sources of revenue, solve business challenges with a new idea or simply establish a new method to push the issue through.

Be an extreme prioritizer. You can’t explore everything all the time. You have to focus and with a vast number of ideas, prioritizing and focusing on those that meet your particular criteria is best. Scattering yourself across too much will not create value.

I’m excited about our new lab. But even more, I’m excited about the innovation mindset that has catapulted from this company – because of the cultural commitment we’re making.

What would enable or embolden you to live life as an explorer – personally or professionally? Let me know.