Lake views from the Milwaukee innovation labs

Stig Haagensen

VP Digital Innovation & Accelerators

Topics: home.

Five Ways to Foster Innovation

Imagine you’re on the Autobahn in Germany. You have a brand-new Ferrari with high-quality tires and a full tank of gas. It’s a nice, sunny day; the roads are dry and there are only a few cars around. With these conditions and no mandated speed limit, how would you drive? Be honest: Would you hit the gas pedal and take it to the limits of your driving skills? (I know I would.)

Now picture yourself on that same road, but instead of a Ferrari, you have a rusty, old van. The tires are bald and the “check engine” light is on. The roads are slick from rain and traffic is congested. How would you drive now? Probably much slower and more cautious, right?

In order for people to feel confident they can step out of their comfort zones and take some risks, the circumstances need to be right. The same thing applies when it comes to encouraging employees to think in new and different ways inside a corporation. You want to ensure they have the office equivalent of a new Ferrari on a beautiful day.

But how do you establish that environment? At Northwestern Mutual, we have a program in place that invites our employees to be innovative. It may seem contradictory to have a system for innovation, but in a company our size that has been around for more than 160 years, it’s important to systematically offer training, show everyone it’s OK to innovate, and back it up with available resources and methods. You have to invite employees to get involved – and most importantly, make it easy for them to do so.

Our Digital Innovation program has various techniques and methods that help our employees adopt an innovation mindset. Here are five things we’ve found that help:

Offer training. Anyone can become an innovator; it’s not necessarily a skill you’re born with, but something you can practice and hone over time. We’re dedicated to shifting our company culture so employees across the organization feel they have an opportunity to be entrepreneurial and think differently. We host ideation sessions and design thinking workshops for teams and individuals. We encourage outside-in thinking by looking at what other companies are doing – at both large corporations and startups – and explore emerging technologies to learn what is possible.

Make participation easy. One example of this is through our Enterprise Venture Fund, an internal venture fund program that solicits innovative ideas from employees in campaigns throughout the year. The program gives team members the opportunity to submit ideas individually, or work as a team. As a campaign closes, employees vote on which ideas are best and the winners move on to experimentation.

Offer funding. Typically, a department won’t have budget available for experimentation, so the corporate innovation program covers the cost of exploring these innovative digital ideas. If the value-proposition is demonstrated, backed by experimental data, it scales into full production.

Provide talent. Because one person can’t know everything, right? From product development, design and IT engineering to actuarial services or underwriting, we help bring a team together that includes the original idea submitter, who will maintain a sense of ownership of the idea and help drive it forward.

Support the innovators. It’s challenging to work on something new when you still have your regular work to do. We partner with leadership to get sign-off for the employee to pursue their idea, helping to backfill their role if necessary for a period of time while they are involved in the experiment.

If you want innovation in a large corporation, you have to systematically support an environment that allows exploring something new. By setting up a system that enables innovation, you can help create the right conditions where people feel entrepreneurial and empowered to take innovative ideas forward.

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