Advice from Manulife Exec Jesse Bean on Delivering Impact

July 6, 2017

Jesse Bean has a strong perspective about how innovation teams don’t deliver results in large companies.

“What you don’t want to do is create an ivory tower, where [your people] are responsible for innovation — and nobody else is,” Bean told InnoLead on a recent conference call. Instead, “we want the whole company to be thinking about [innovation.]”

Bean is the Chief Experience Officer and Head of Innovation for Global Solutions Delivery at Manulife Financial, the $53.3 billion financial services group that operates as John Hancock in the US. In his current role, Bean is focused on creating a more agile organization that can meet the current and future needs of Manulife’s business clients, and he was central to the launch of Manulife’s “Labs of Forward Thinking” (or LOFT) in Boston, Toronto, and Singapore.

Bean discussed with us the mandate for his role, engaging senior leadership and middle management, the benefits of the DevOps approach, Manulife’s experience with hackathons, and more. 

Who is Manulife? People in the US know us as John Hancock, but Manulife Financial is our global brand. We span almost every continent. We have a major presence in Asia, Canada, and the US. We offer not only insurance products, but wealth and asset management, and private-asset, institutional investments.

Reporting and staffing I was given a mandate to launch the Labs of Forward Thinking (LOFTs), to bring in new ways to think about things and also research and look at forward-looking technologies.

I actually sit in the technology area. I sit under the CIO for the firm, but I also have a dotted-line to our chief innovation officer. He’d be responsible for strategy and so forth, but we need to actually look at it from the technology lens, because we believe innovation is an intersection of business need and new technology.I have a team of about 40 people across the globe. We have three different incubation labs: one in Toronto, one in Boston, and one in Singapore. We basically split it down the middle. [Half of the people are] working on incubation teams, so full-stack teams, that work from a product-manager perspective all the way down to engineers. Then the other half of the team is what we call a programs or an enabling team, and these guys go around the globe teaching lean, design thinking, basically training the trainer and spreading new ways of thinking at the firm.

What we do in the labs We opened up new spaces that differ from the corporate norm. I know a lot of folks have opened their own labs. We wanted to create a place where we could experiment with different ways to set up incubation teams.

The labs are not set up exactly the same. We have one spectrum where the lab is wholly inside one of our corporate buildings, and then we have another lab where it’s in shared space, such as in Toronto with MaRS, with other startups and other labs.We’re experimenting. We’re about two years in, and trying to find the best model there.

I have a team of five to seven people who are trained in the “Stanford method” of lean, but also in design thinking. What they do is they structure programs for business units or technology units that want to attack a problem. These programs could be anywhere from half-day testing to planned out over three months to get into full sprints of developing prototypes to solve problems.When we did our research before launching the labs, we were trying to figure out which setup yielded the most for the firm, when you’re talking about producing. We wanted to actually staff our teams with folks that can actually do an end-to-end delivery, to get you an MVP, to show what we’re doing for a problem.

Instead of people just coming up with possible solutions or thinking through ideas and proposing them and handing them back to the business, we actually develop something for the business and hand that off before it goes in to accelerate in the core.Now, from staffing perspective, we tend to hire a product manager that knows our business. These are usually people who are inside the company that have a little forward-thinking view. Then we complement them with external or a diversity set of views.

We hire a lot of external folks that may have a specific technology bent or a specific skill-set, such as having experience in AI or data modeling or in blockchain or digitization of businesses.We had people work in the videogame industry to working at a design company…[they] come in and actually pair with our internal product manager. We get better solutions and new solutions…that way. We find that we work best that way.

At a corporation, it’s important to have something that looks and feels like a lab. What I’m seeing, though, is the look and feel of the labs are starting to spread amongst [other] floors around here. The labs are coming into the corporate space.

Launching with a hackathon What we try to do in each location is launch [with] a hackathon. Some may read that out there as innovation theater, probably. [But] we use the hackathon to raise awareness of how we’re looking to attack a problem, a new way to do it. (See below for an overview of one of the early hackathons.)

What it did is it engaged the firm, because we did these 48-hour hackathons, where people presented in front of senior execs what their possible solution is, but through showing [it] versus [making] a PowerPoint….We had senior management coaches come in, and they were so impressed with what could progress over two days of this way of thinking, and the dedication that the staff took to do this. It raised awareness…that was the benefit.

Now, did it get to actual solutions? We carried probably one or two of these forward, but it’s not as good as a design-thinking session specific for a problem for a business unit. We found that that actually provides more intel and better solutions.The biggest lesson we learned out of the first hackathon, and we actually implemented [this] in the Toronto hackathon, is you have to have a follow-on [with the winning] after that. You have to give the people who won the capabilities to actually continue to explore their ideas.

You can time-box it and give them resources, but if it’s just a good idea and you expect the businesses to pick it up, I think you have to realize that it takes time to nurture that a little more before a business will pick it up.We actually got commitment upfront from some businesses, for the second hackathon, to help with that. That’s the one big lesson I learned…

Focusing on middle management I’ve found, at Manulife and John Hancock — by the way, these are my opinions and not Manulife’s — the senior level and the exec level were very supportive and were willing to come to the table and be [supportive] of this. The grassroots were very promotive, too. It’s that middle management that we’re trying to get buy-in [from.]

What I found works best is, you find the people who are actually out there to help and like these sort of things. If you use those as your advocates to start, it will then spread to the other managers, call it the middle-management layer, that are skeptical of what the new way of looking at things will be. I found that to be the best practice at a large firm.Just work with the people who actually believe in it from the get-go.

Jesse Bean

Continuous delivery and DevOps …In the labs, we don’t only experiment [with] new technologies or new ways of thinking, but also new processes on how to deliver software.

When I think about DevOps, I think about the word continuous delivery. [The goal is] to get into more of an Amazon-type model, but bringing that in financial services. There’s new technology stacks out there… DevOps is allowing you to continuously integrate those solutions, versus a long, manual integration process. [DevOps seeks to create better communication and collaboration between software development teams and IT operations teams.]

DevOps is transforming teams into small, lab-like teams that can deliver on core capabilities and continuously improve on them.[When] we experimented in the labs, we used a company by the name of Pivotal [to help deploy this approach.]

What I did is actually assign some of the guys I know and trusted at [our] firm, and sent them away to this lab experiment at Pivotal — it was a 14-week exercise — and said, “Hey, just live and breathe their DevOps process, and then figure out, will this work in an enterprise?”We had to take their process and bring it back in, but we had to modify it for a 35,000-person company, versus their labs, where they’re focusing on maybe 20 people. It was a challenge, but I think we have come to a point now that we’ve started rolling this out globally, and it’s starting to take traction.

Basically, it’s using extreme programming, test-driven development, user-centered design, prototyping versus requirements documents, that sort of thing. We’ve used that to rapidly deploy, test, repeat…

Partnering with accelerators and universities [The accelerator program] MassChallenge has been a great partner. We’ve been able to give our brand [more] awareness around the Labs of Forward Thinking, as well as John Hancock. Because, quite honestly, to recruit talent, just going out as John Hancock is pretty tough because we’re a 150-year-old insurance firm. We’re not looked at as quite innovative and forward-thinking. This actually allowed us to open the door, to have those conversations, to recruit some talent…as well as facilitate [our employees] coaching the MassChallenge startups. It’s been a great partnership.

We have similar partnerships in our other regions. In Toronto, we use a place called MaRS. In Singapore, we work with universities such as INSEAD. We have a lot of partnerships with universities, and we’ve facilitated some experiments with them — Babson, University of Toronto, University of Waterloo, and we’ve done a little bit with MIT… We tend to do smaller experiments with them, so call it four to eight weeks. Let me mention [the tech training program] Startup Institute as well here.

‘Don’t build an ivory tower’ What you don’t want to do is create an ivory tower, where [your people] are responsible for innovation — and nobody else is. We learned that over the first year, which is a huge reason why we stepped up our program scheme, because we want the whole company to be thinking about [innovation] and not just say, “Hey, they got it in those labs. They got a new space, and they got new tools.” You don’t want that to happen, so you need to bring folks along. We’ve developed programs where we cycle in people from the businesses and technology areas to help facilitate, [and we do] train-the-trainer type of stuff.

We actually ask folks to self-select [when they come] in [to the lab], with a problem from their business unit, so we’ll help them. We’ll train them on a problem we’re trying to solve, and then also facilitate helping solve their problem with new technology… You’ll find that people who self-select in are actually, really, more passionate about it, versus, “Hey, you have to go to the lab to do this.”