Lake views from the Milwaukee innovation labs

Joe Roblee

Vice President, Distribution Strategy, Northwestern Mutual

John Ruhl

Managing Partner, Northwestern Mutual, the Ruhl Financial Group

Topics: home.

Three key learnings from our latest innovation partnership

With the accelerating pace of change in our industry, we at Northwestern Mutual, like organizations everywhere, understand the need to evolve in order to stay relevant. In our case, we also need to maintain leadership in the industry while delivering the products, services and experiences our clients expect.

Innovation is key. And as part of our strategy, we established a formal and focused innovation partnership in 2018 between our home office in Milwaukee and our field network office in Princeton, N.J. We took this step because we know if we want to create exceptional client experiences, we have to involve the people who know our clients best: our financial representatives.

It's been an interesting first year of the partnership. So far, we've considered more than 30 ideas and currently have about a dozen experiments in play. In most cases, we're experimenting with new technologies and services to improve the experience for our clients and financial representatives. Some ideas are working, and others have been cancelled because we determined they wouldn’t provide value.

Here are some key things we've learned so far in our innovation partnership:

  • 1. We can test and validate much faster. Both the home office and the network office have a strong, sustained commitment to innovation – we’re all in. The home office has the resources and experience to develop solutions, while the network office has people who are running practices and working directly with clients. And everybody understands the value of innovation and what we're trying to collectively achieve, so we can move quickly. And if something isn't working, we'll come to that conclusion much faster, without incurring the time and expense of taking it to scale.

    An idea might sound good on paper but may not translate well in reality. For example, we experimented with a technology that would make it easier for clients to recommend their advisor to family and friends. They would take a “selfie” with their client after a meeting, which the client could then post on social media as part of a referral. The concept seemed valid, but it fell apart when we put the test version in advisors' hands. They told us it was just too casual and awkward to be part of what was, essentially, a business meeting – so we decided not to spend any more time or energy pursuing the idea.

  • 2. We get buy in. Most of the time, people don't like to have solutions dropped in their laps. And that can be especially true in a distribution system like ours, where financial representatives are sometimes asked to use a tool or implement a process that's been developed at the home office without their input. This innovation partnership is built on a foundation of collaboration. It involves people in the field from the beginning to develop and test ideas based on their own experiences managing their business and working with clients. It's an approach that not only sets the right tone, invites input and encourages buy in, it also allows our advisors to flex their entrepreneurial muscles.

  • 3. We can create innovation synergies. Northwestern Mutual is a big company with a lot of things going on, so it wouldn't be unusual to have related ideas being tested in separate areas of the business. By creating a dedicated innovation partnership with one network office, we can minimize duplication of effort, connect similar ideas where it makes sense, and uncover new opportunities to innovate in a complete office ecosystem – not a vacuum.

We believe our innovation partnership is working because the people involved are dedicated to the cause. The Ruhl network office was chosen to participate, in part, because its leadership is committed to driving innovation. And while the home office has a dedicated team of innovation experts in Milwaukee, it also placed two of its people on the ground, directly within the network office, who are committed full time to the partnership. It's through this marriage of the two offices, experiences and expertise that it all works. We're learning a lot about how to work together effectively, and moving forward, we know that's going to help us build an even better discipline for future testing and faster, more transformative innovation.

Not all Northwestern Mutual representatives are advisors. Only those representatives with the titles "Financial Advisor" or "Wealth Management Advisor" are credentialed as Northwestern Mutual Wealth Management Company representatives to provide advisory services.

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