Defining a clear mission is essential for innovation teams, and John Geyer, Chief Innovation Officer at $71 billion insurer MetLife, can clearly explain what his is.

“We think of ourselves as catalysts who work with the businesses around the world and help them think more creatively and help them deliver unique solutions to both the customers, business partners, and associates within the company,” says Geyer. “Unlike other [companies’] innovation functions that are more like R&D labs, we are not the innovators.”

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That has meant coming up with techniques and processes MetLife executives can use to promote innovation in their own divisions, from internal crowdsourcing software to workshops that let employees brainstorm and cultivate new ideas. Often, Geyer’s team will lead an initial session — in November, for instance, the team organized a 40-person workshop in Santiago, Chile, for employees in MetLife’s Latin American region — and simultaneously train that group’s executives in how to run future workshops of their own.

Geyer, who is speaking this month at the Chief Innovation Officer Summit in New York, says his group’s role is facilitating innovation throughout the 66,000-employee company. “Obviously we want to drive innovation throughout our company and throughout our industry, but the way you do that is through driving culture and process change through the company, and that’s what my group is largely focused on,” he says.

He shared some insight into how he’s making change happen — and also on how to avoid what he dubs the “danger zone” of innovation, when all the resources and energy that you’re pouring into a new project have yet to deliver tangible results. (Below are four slides that lay out Geyer’s philosophy and what his team aims to achieve.)

How MetLife’s Innovation Workshops are Structured

MetLife calls its innovation workshops FRIES sessions, for facilitated rapid innovation experiences. They address particular challenges selected by regional leaders, and explore potential solutions, which can range from small process tweaks to entire new products. Workshop participants are deliberately chosen for diversity.

“In Chile we [had] young people and old people; men and women; people who have been with Met a long time, people who have been with Met a short time,” he says. “We [had] attorneys, HR people, IT people, underwriters, salespeople.”

The workshop attendees divide into groups to work on particular ideas, which they ultimately present to the group in a session Geyer compares to ABC-TV’s “Shark Tank” show. To make sure the best ideas don’t get lost, corporate leaders participating in the workshop immediately pick projects to prioritize.

“They come back out on stage and basically say, ‘Here are three ideas we’re moving forward with, here’s the leader that’s going to run each one of them, here’s the budget we’re going to run with, and here’s the time frame,’” Geyer says.

Previous FRIES sessions have led to the creation of entire new insurance products, like a bundle of life insurance options tailored to women and dubbed “Life for Lucy,” and an insurance package for parents and children called Snoopy Cares, both named in honor of MetLife’s Peanuts character mascots.

“For example, if a child becomes sick, and is unable to go to school, it’ll pay for a tutor for the child while the child is sick,” says Geyer. “Snoopy Cares has been very successful in many European countries, and we’re looking at now bringing it to the United States.”

Keeping the sessions targeted to particular challenges helps keep things focused, and makes it more likely that the ideas will actually come to fruition, says Geyer. Simply asking broadly for suggestions just doesn’t work, he says.

“You get thousands of disparate ideas, and it’s impossible to implement or prioritize, and everybody becomes disenfranchised,” he says. “We learned that you have to be much more precise — you have to be more targeted.”

Collecting and Prioritizing Employee Ideas

That’s the same approach the company takes on some broader innovation challenges. MetLife uses crowdsourcing software from MindJet’s Spigit unit to pose challenges to anywhere from 100 to 10,000 employees at a time. In keeping with the company’s Charles Schulz theme, MetLife’s Spigit implementation is named Linus, after Charlie Brown’s blanket-toting friend, who Geyer says is “the deepest thinker of the Peanuts gang.”

The software lets MetLife staff from throughout the corporate ranks propose new solutions, or tweaks to existing proposals.“

The platform is available to all 66,000 MetLife associates around the world,” says Geyer.

And once comments are closed, they can vote on which proposals to tackle first.

“They can read other people’s ideas and collaborate on them—say, ‘Wow, I really like your idea, and if we add this dimension to it it can be even more powerful,’” he says. “We run these Linus campaigns for three weeks—what we get at the end of the three weeks are a couple hundred ideas that are prioritized by the people in the organizations.”

The company has run about 50 Linus campaigns so far, often finding easy fixes for customers and staff problems that might not otherwise have gotten attention.

“Some of the ideas were as simple as, let customers pay with whatever form [of payment] they want to pay in,” says Geyer. “Rather than mail things to customers, let’s e-mail things to customers, or text things to customers.”

The slide below describes the three ways that MetLife ideates.

Measuring Progress and Sharing Success Stories

Since his team was founded in 2011, as part of a renewed push by MetLife toward innovation in the wake of the financial crisis, he has also pushed a measurement-driven approach to innovation, setting quantifiable goals for particular projects, whether in terms of sales growth or increased employee engagement.

Geyer’s current team includes eight full-time staff, plus a handful of contractors who help on particular projects, though he says there are other innovation-focused employees throughout the company. They meet quarterly to share ideas and successes, he says.

Innovation success stories have also helped the team win supporters throughout the organization, says Geyer. In the beginning, the team worked with leaders throughout the company who were most excited about innovation. But they have gradually won over some skeptics through their initial successes.

They’ve had help from the corporate communications department, which has documented some of those success stories in corporate newsletter posts to the MetLife intranet.

Geyer has also encouraged company leaders who’ve seen success with innovation challenges to present those successes in corporate meetings, which helps to spread the word about what his team has to offer.

“I don’t want to be the person in the front of the room talking about the successes — it’s much less powerful when I do it,” he says. “I want the business leaders who I work with to be up in the front of the room talking about it.”

And those leaders, says Geyer, can spread the word and his team’s teachings throughout their own divisions.

“We find that leaders from around the world, particularly the regional leaders, find what we do to be extremely valuable,” says Geyer. “For example, in our EMEA region—Europe, Middle East and Africa—the leader in that region has sort of mandated that the top 200 people in that region go through a FRIES session, or multiple FRIES sessions, and take back that methodology and go to run those sessions in their regions.”

The Innovation Danger Zone

Geyer says that innovation teams need to be focused on helping partners in the business produce meaningful results in four areas: generating revenue, cutting costs, increasing customer satisfaction, or making employees feel more engaged in the business. That, of course, can take time — a period that he calls the “Danger Zone,” when the effort and money being put into new projects has yet to pay off, and the work that innovation teams do can be undermined.

His tips on avoiding the danger zone:

  •  Tightly link innovation efforts to the company’s strategy
  •  Target the right “friends” within the organization (it can sometimes be easier to help an innovativeleader be more innovative than it is to convince a non-believer)
  •  Speak in business terms — projected revenue, customer satisfaction, and expense savings, as examples — and build a portfolio of projects
  •  Use failures as a learning opportunity that leads to new actions that are more successful
  •  Run small tests to verify your assumptions over days and months to avoid big failures.

You can download Geyer’s complete slide presentation from our Resource Center.