From Idea to Execution: How We Bring Innovation to Life
As Senior Director of Digital Innovation at Northwestern Mutual, my job is to help our teams experiment and bring innovative ideas to life. Our Digital Innovation team has been delivering prototypes, proof of concept (POC), and new products and services to pilot for the past decade, and over that time our process has matured significantly. People are often surprised to learn how very detailed and regimented the process of innovation has become, but having structure helps ensure we're pursuing ideas that deliver value.
Here's our five-step process, in a nutshell:
Step 1: Gather Ideas
We receive between 450 and 600 ideas each year, most of which come from the enterprise-wide ideation campaigns we run as part of a ground-floor, strategic effort to foster and activate a culture of innovation. Ideas come from every part of the organization – from underwriting, risk selection, actuarial, investments, accounting and facilities, as well as directly from our financial representatives. Other ideas originate from hackathons, Reverse Pitch MKE events, venture capital pitches and our product innovation teams.
Most ideas aren’t fully-baked when they're submitted, but the idea authors will have answered a few key questions: What is the opportunity or problem? How can technology help? What is the experiment/how can we test a hypothesis? Are there business sponsors already aligned with the idea? What's the value/ROI in delivering a production system? (In our next blog post in this series, we’ll talk about how to shape and deliver a good idea and business case.)
Step 2: Narrow Down the List
We can't possibly pursue all the (hundreds of) ideas generated during these campaigns, so to narrow down the list, Northwestern Mutual employees and contractors can cast votes for the ideas they believe will most impact our company. After voting closes, we take their top 10 ideas and assemble a diverse group of leaders from within the company to review the top 10 and determine if others should be added to the list as well. Ultimately, we arrive at a list of up to 20 ideas that we will potentially pursue. This list is prioritized based on several factors, including innovation risk, horizon, ROI, experiment size (research, POC, pilot) and strategic alignment.
Next, we determine how these new ideas compare to the backlog of experiments we're already working on. Do any of them offer greater potential value to the business or address a more current or pressing need? If so, some existing experiments might be moved. In fact, ideas get re-prioritized and the list is refined constantly throughout the year. (Some ideas that move down the list may be re-entered into new campaigns for voting.) Ultimately, we end up experimenting with about 15-20 ideas each year.
Step 3: Evaluate the Business Opportunity
For each idea that makes the cut, the first step is to assign a "discovery team" to assess the business opportunity. The team includes three distinct cross-functional skills; a product manager, a user-experience lead and a software engineer. Together, their goal is to evaluate whether the idea presents a true business opportunity. We actually close a lot of ideas during this phase; the discovery team may find out, for example, there isn’t a substantial return on investment, the idea is not strategically prioritized, or it lacks a digital implementation.
This assessment phase typically lasts six to eight weeks and at its conclusion, the discovery team will present its findings and a recommendation in an “Innovation Tailored Business Case.” Essentially this business case states, "If we build this digital product, the resulting effect on the business might be X." The outcome could be a reduction in costs or vendor dependency, new or increased top-line revenue, a reduction in cycle time through automation, or a change in user experience. The last measure, change in user experience, is often difficult to measure and correlate concretely, but according to McKinsey’s Kevin Neher, if you get customer experience right, you drive loyalty, you drive reduced churn and therefore, you’re driving new revenue and incremental revenue.
Before moving on to the next step, an idea must also have an executive sponsor from within the business area that will be accountable for the eventual support of a viable digital product – we don't want to spend time building and testing something to just leave it on the shelf. Alignment helps take the idea to production with support and budget, however, only after running a pilot experiment.
Step 4: Build and Pilot a Minimum Viable Product
The next step is to build and test what's called a Minimum Viable Product, or MVP. A new piece of software, for example, may ultimately require 100 different features, but if we start by building just the top 20 main pieces of functionality, we'll get a pretty good idea of whether it's viable.
During the MVP build, we work as an agile scrum team and plan out work in two-week sprints. We build a few features at a time, demo them to stakeholders, get feedback, decide or pivot on what to build next, and repeat every two weeks. This process keeps us from going too far down a potentially wrong path and gives us an opportunity to pivot to other higher-value features.
Once we’ve built enough features, we’ll enroll pilot users to test-drive the product, where we’ll often uncover new features and functionality we didn't originally think about. We will pilot long enough to test out the functionality of the system and gather feedback on the user’s experience, which could be two weeks to two months. Altogether (including build), this phase is typically a three- to nine-month process, depending on the idea, risk and scope.
Step 5: Transition the Product to the Business
Ultimately, we hope every viable product idea will transition to the appropriate business area. At this phase, having an executive sponsor (as mentioned earlier) is critical. But this step is not without its own challenges as it relates to product IT development support, supporting budget dollars and re-prioritizing the business area’s backlog to welcome the product and added workload that comes with it. As our team and processes have evolved over the years, we’ve learned how to reduce these hurdles during transition – and we’ll highlight those learnings in a future blog article in this series.
This is the first in a series of blog articles highlighting the Digital Innovation team’s process for delivering experiments. Future articles will discuss what makes a good corporate digital innovation idea, and how to test and operationalize corporate innovation.