Blog

Ken Weigend

Assistant Director, Product Management

Hannah Scherkenbach

Progam Manager

Stand Out from the Crowd: Seven Steps to Get Your Innovative Idea Noticed

Topics: Cream City Labs.

Innovation comes in many different forms and can manifest as products, services, methodologies, ideologies, technologies, and even more “gies” words than we can think of right now. Northwestern Mutual strives to pursue innovation across multiple disciplines, but perhaps none so boldly as technology. Each year, our Innovation team works with partners within our home office, across our field force and in the community to collect, cultivate and curate innovative ideas to experiment around.

Our ideation campaigns generate between 400-600 ideas each year. And while our team welcomes and appreciates all the enthusiasm, we can't possibly pursue all the ideas that come our way. Ultimately, we experiment with about a dozen ideas from each campaign.

As part of the team that evaluates submissions, we've seen everything from exceptional ideas to ones that aren’t really a good fit. Based on our experience, here's what you can do to give yourself the best chance of advancing your idea to the next level and, potentially, bringing it to life.

  1. Know the requirements. A well-run campaign will typically have a set of guidelines or criteria to follow. For example, one requirement might be that the solution needs to incorporate technology. If you were to propose an idea that suggests shifting to a four-day workweek, that idea would not be considered. While it might be a great idea overall, it wouldn’t be a good fit for the campaign because it doesn’t involve technology.

    It’s also important to ensure your submission addresses a business problem that exists, versus developing a change solution purely to pursue change. In our case, we only pursue ideas that solve known problems or take advantage of identified business opportunities.

  2. Frame the benefit story through the eyes of a user. One of the most powerful ways to talk about the value of an innovative idea is to tell a benefit story through the use of personas. Create a representative user and then describe how that person will be positively impacted by your idea – or negatively impacted by the failure to act. If possible, include quotes from actual, potential users that validate the problem or opportunity. User-centered design tools, such as empathy interviews and persona development, will allow you to understand your user and validate the problem you are attempting to solve.   

  3. Estimate the broader ROI. Beyond the value your idea may have for an individual user, what's its potential impact on the broader business or industry? If you don’t have any hard-dollar estimates, that’s fine, but try to at least describe the impact that solving the problem would have on the business. This insight and perspective will allow the people who evaluate your idea to assess the value hypothesis and projection. There are several factors that feed into experiment prioritization, but value is certainly a key variable.

  4. Develop a testable hypothesis. Innovative ideas often require us to do things differently or change the way we engage with users. This change needs to be defined as a testable hypothesis. Be sure there is a way to test the idea with a sampling of actual users to validate its impact. This will provide the confidence needed to develop and deploy the solution at scale. Without a testable, measurable hypothesis, the idea may not be advanced. Our team has passed over multiple idea submissions because they didn't allow for a testable hypothesis.

  5. Be open to multiple solutions. While you may already have an idea for how to solve the problem or take advantage of the opportunity you've identified (which is great!), don't hyper-focus on a single solution or technology too soon. If you stubbornly adhere to a single solution and it ends up not being the right solution, it can kill the entire effort. Instead, be open to ideation, incubation and exploration. And always keep the problem you are trying to solve as the focus. Our experience shows some of the best and most efficient solutions surface organically as the idea is being evaluated.

  6. Get buy-in from business sponsors. Every idea needs an executive sponsor from within the business unit who will be accountable for the eventual support of a viable product. We don't want to spend time building and testing something just to leave it on the shelf. Make sure you have the alignment with a business sponsor with the desire and funding to take the solution through – and beyond – production.

  7. Show passion. If you don't feel strongly about your idea, it will be challenging to get others to care about it. Don't shy away from expressing your passion about the problem you want to solve or the opportunity as you see it. You must rely on that passion to get other people engaged.

We evaluate hundreds of innovative ideas each year. What we've learned through our experiences is this: If you want your idea to stand out from the crowd, take the time to follow these best practices and you'll put the odds in your favor.

Searching for the Next Great Solution: Reverse Pitch MKE

Northwestern Mutual is participating in our third Reverse Pitch MKE. Entrepreneurs, startups and other creatives will compete virtually this year to help solve some of today's most pressing business challenges.