Think Like an Innovator: Applying Past Lessons in a New Role
When I came to Northwestern Mutual five years ago, I joined the newly-formed Digital Innovation team, where I helped establish many of the different mechanisms we use to develop ideas to this day. A year ago, I moved over to product development. It's been an interesting transition, and I've found that the skills I developed on the innovation team are helping me succeed today – mostly because I approach my product work like an innovator. Here's what I do:
1. Make sure the idea solves a problem. Everybody has ideas. When I started working on the innovation team, we had a ton of ideas but didn't always fully understand the problems we were trying to solve. We had guesses but were basically throwing solutions out there, hoping something would stick. What I learned over time was the value of taking a step back and asking: "What is the problem I'm trying to solve? Is that problem significant enough to offset the costs associated with finding a solution?" It takes time to answer those questions, but it's the only real way to ensure you're not wasting resources or going down a path that won't be successful.
2. Develop empathy for the customer. One of the best ways to make sure your product is solving a problem is to develop empathy for your customer. We’re very good at thinking about our own problems, the ones we encounter every day. But if we want a customer to buy something from us, it needs to solve their problems, so we need to put ourselves in their shoes.
To do this, I start by talking to the people across the company who are closest to our customers – specifically, our financial representatives. Then, I talk to the customers themselves and ask about their biggest needs. Once I'm clear on why I'm pursuing a solution, I write it down on a sticky note and post it to my computer monitor so I never lose sight of what I'm trying to solve for.
3. Build buy-in. When you work for a big company like ours, it's easy to get caught up in your own silo. What I learned during my time on the innovation team is that the enterprise is so intertwined and connected, every decision we make has ripple effects – whether we realize it or not. Plus, for any significant innovation to be successful (product or otherwise), you're going to need a team of people to advocate for your idea and, ultimately, help bring it to life. So, you need to start involving people across the organization early and often. I prefer to do this in person whenever possible.
Now that I'm on the product side, I think the strategies and skills I developed during my time on the innovation team are helping us to stay focused and set us up for success as we work to improve our product offerings in ways that will delight our customers.
I also know what I'm learning on the product side will, in turn, make me a better innovator. I'm learning a lot about the way we do business, how our products work and how we create value for our customers. I think that knowledge gives me important context. In fact, I'd encourage anyone in any company to find an area of their business they're unfamiliar with and learn about it. The broader your perspective of your company, the better innovator you’ll be.