Innovation Matures from Skunkworks to True Partner

By Scott Kirsner |  July 2, 2014

Aaron Proietti is Chief Innovation Officer for the Life & Protection Division of Transamerica Life Insurance Company and its affiliated Transamerica companies. Transamerica is one of the world’s leading financial services companies, providing insurance, investments and more to 19.5 million customers. We spoke with Proietti about the evolution of the innovation program that he oversees. 

Starting off as a Skunkworks

A few years ago, a new CEO was appointed for the Life & Protection Division, which in 2013 delivered over 40 percent of the earnings for Transamerica. He declared innovation a core strategy. 

Our first attempt at innovation was a kind of skunkworks, with the innovation activities isolated from the rest of the organization.  We had a few hand-selected individuals and an outside consultancy working on two big projects, and the vast majority of our employees had no idea what we were doing. We were naive. We didn’t realize that the roadblock, after we had fully formed concepts, was going to be trying to convince the business leaders to take on these ideas.

These two big projects were called Polaris and Orion. One was thinking in new ways about how we sold insurance directly to consumers, and the other was about our interaction with intermediaries. Going into 2013, we had 12 business concepts under Polaris and Orion, but no work had been done on development, testing, or launch. They were basically PowerPoint slides with some research backing them. We’d gotten feedback, and set priorities. But it was very hard to try to sell those 12 concepts back into our business units for development. It’s what I call “organ rejection.” You try to transplant a fully-formed idea into a business unit that doesn’t have passion for it, and it tends to get rejected. (Eventually, we did get one or two of the business units to take these concepts on, and we’re just filing the forms with state departments of insurance for the first one to get it to market. But this is not our approach going forward.)

And as we were working on trying to create more of a culture of innovation here — that was an umbrella project, called Project Copernicus — the feedback suggested that there was no shortage of ideas already sitting within the business units in queue to be worked on. What they were looking for was either capacity for helping to develop and launch the ideas, or assistance in improving the probability of success for their own ideas, or both. 

Starting in February of 2013, we launched something called the Culture of Innovation Café Series. We brought hundreds of employees together in each location and asked them for ideas about what would allow innovation to flourish, and what the existing barriers were. These meetings were generally done off-site, with people sitting at small tables. They were about four hours long. People could draw their answers right on the tabletops. We had them switch tables several times, to interact with different people. One person stayed at the table to be the host. We looked carefully at what people wrote down about what we need to build or change to be more innovative.

A lot of what we did in 2013 was that kind of soft, fuzzy, ambiguous cultural stuff. It doesn’t have a beginning or an end. I didn’t think that would be our main thrust as a group, but no one else was doing it. And we’re still doing it, even though I’m trying to de-emphasize it in order to focus more on business results.

A New Department Emerges

In response to what we’d learned through Project Copernicus, we developed my current department, Insights & Innovation, which brings together three centers of excellence to support innovation — the Innovation Center, the Center for Advanced Analytics, and the Market Research Center. Our department got a lot bigger, going from three people to 55. 

Business units now reach out to Insights & Innovation with requests for specific support on their growth initiatives. One great advantage of this model is that we’re in a position to track and govern all innovation activity across the divisions. Further, since we’re not (directly) accountable for development and delivery of innovations into market, we’re more nimble with our bandwidth/capacity. We’re project-oriented, and able to shift priorities readily. One big priority is supporting new direct-to-consumer ideas. The CEO is very focused on growing by building new business mechanisms, so consumers can interact with us any way they want, and buy through their channel of choice.

While there still may be demand for more “green field” or budget-constraint-free innovation to support divisional growth goals, we’ve learned the lesson that it’s not going to be addressed through skunkworks-style ideation and conceptualization alone, but rather through partnership with groups that are receptive to our best practices models of working differently to achieve different outcomes. 

I’m resisting every urge to report on what’s in the innovation pipeline. With my team of 55, I can’t keep track of the hundreds of ideas we have incubating within the organization. It’d be a full-time job for some person to track that all year long. So we say to the business units, “What’s in the pipeline is what your team is doing.” And they’re starting to get it, that it’s not my team, it’s theirs that will change their business. Innovation tends to be more about creating choices for our business rather than making choices.

Convening the Leaders

Last year, I formed a committee called the Executive Innovation Team, which brought together for the first time a set of leaders in our Life & Protection business who wouldn’t otherwise be at the same table. It was originally about learning, and thinking about the potential of the organization. What are the current innovation initiatives, and are those enough to meet our long-term goals? There’s a forum for discussing that in-person at least once a quarter. We have monthly conference calls, and an online community.

Now that the business units are reaching out to me, I have regular meetings with the leaders, to talk about all the project work we’re doing with their unit, whether it’s innovation training or market research or analytics support. There’s high demand for our work, and we’re starting to think about how to prioritize things.

We’re thinking much bigger than just incremental stuff. We want to have a seat at the table when new market decisions are being made, and all my efforts now are in getting us a seat at that table.