Mapping Three Years of Innovation Activities at TIAA

By Meghan Hall, Scott Kirsner |  June 15, 2022

At our recent Impact conference in New York, Howard Manzon presented the slide below, which captures three years of innovation activity at TIAA, the $40 billion financial services firm. 

The slide covers 2018, 2019, and 2020 — the three years Manzon served as Senior Director of Product Development and Innovation.

We asked him to explain some of what’s on the slide (which you can download in PowerPoint form below), what worked, and what he might do differently.

Origins of the Program

“TIAA was founded on innovation more than a hundred years ago. Andrew Carnegie saw an unmet customer need, with teachers ending up in poverty. We were created to set teachers up for a more dignified retirement. Then TIAA invented the variable annuity, and there were a bunch of innovations along the way.” 

Howard Manzon, Senior Director, Financial Wellness & Innovation, TIAA

“But we’re in a highly-regulated industry, and in the 1990s and 2000s, there was more competition for the wallet share. We saw an express need to create less friction for innovators. The general feeling was that our product owners were consumed with developing and managing products on the road map. We had a lot of ideas in people’s notebooks, and Post-it notes and computers, but we didn’t have a good way to surface them, evaluate them, and move them forward.”

Manzon got involved with the initiative in 2018.

Some of the Smartest Things We Did

“I would highlight surfacing and quantifying where the unmet customer needs were, around the job of planning for and covering financial needs in retirement. We partnered with Strategyn, which has operationalized jobs-to-be-done theory from Clay Christensen. We got three years’ worth of mileage out of that. … We knew that we needed to have some outside-in North Star… that really resonated with our product leaders.” 

“We started operationalizing our engagement with fintechs and external parties, where they became a source of ideas. … We’ve had a corporate strategy group that has been dealing with the outside world, and [doing] selective investing in venture capital firms and direct investments. But in the product area, there really hadn’t been a real systematic engagement of the financial technology sector.

“We coined the term ‘retiretech’ because we were emphasizing the focus we had, which was on lifetime income and products and solutions related to retirement.”

“A big part of Year One was to identify and build the innovation ecosystem inside TIAA — find like-minded people, who were growth-oriented and open to new ideas.”

“[Year Two] was the only year we were successful in getting an innovation budget, but it really helped us commission research and fuel some experiments we did. That seed funding was used to fund our innovation conference… which was sort of the bellwether event for that year.”

“We held it on Roosevelt Island [off Manhattan]. We got 235 innovators from TIAA, along with 10 or 15 folks from the outside — some fintech founders, and a couple of folks from some VCs we interact with. … The goal was to share, to network, and to learn from one another.”

“We had two dashboards that were our best attempt at tracking and reporting out the activities and the ideas we were collecting.” Manzon says TIAA used Spigit for the innovation reporting dashboard and spreadsheets or PowerPoint for the others, like the sensing dashboard, which “was something we published on a quarterly basis to show what firms we were engaged with around what topic areas, with some insights on what we were learning or picked up.”

“The competitor watchtower… was our effort to be a lighthouse for what was going on on the outside, as it relates to our products and customers.”

What I Might Do Differently

“I totally felt spread too thin [at times] … There were three or four major workshops or trainings. Essentially, we were trying to develop credibility as innovation experts. So, we brought in a company to do innovation leadership training that took a bit of time. I did a six-week program run by Berkeley… around innovation. … We were trying to become fluent enough… and trying to become a center of excellence.”

“If I was guiding my future self, I think I would more call it prioritization than I would throwing anything out. I’d prioritize the outside-in thinking — the unmet customer needs analysis. I would probably emphasize our idea collection, rather than starting with crowdsourcing or flooding the market with ideas. I [would probably try to figure out whether] there are a couple ideas you can ride and build momentum on, rather than trying to flood the zone with a bunch of stuff. We either got [duplicative ideas] or things that were outside our scope of work.” (Manzon initially used a spreadsheet, and then software from Planview Spigit for idea management.) 

“We engaged, I think, in a few too many high-labor research efforts. That was probably overkill. We had this million-dollar budget in Year Two, and I think that there was a little bit of angst to spend it so that we had a better shot of getting it for Year Three. … We engaged with three or four colleges… [and while that may have helped identify future talent], if your goal is to efficiently find new ideas, I’m not sure that was the most effective approach.”

“My lesson to anybody starting a corporate innovation function is, do what you can to get a real deep understanding of the customers you’re going to be serving in that function.”

Shifting Gears in 2020

“In Year Two and Three, a lot of what we talked about was surfacing ideas, strengthening the ecosystem, amplifying innovation. A big part of Year Two and Three was to start [evaluating ideas] and getting the winners into the funding process. … We got sponsorship and approval for one of the ideas, which was a new lifetime income feature that would address some of the unmet customer needs we identified, and it’s going to get done. I consider that one of the winners. … [Some] ideas were killed for desirability and viability reasons, but that’s OK, too.” 

“Being in tune to the political surroundings [is important]. If this is your primary role, you’re always running the risk of being the flavor of the month, or being out of favor — it all depends on the shifts of people, the shifts of focus [in the organization].” 

At the end of Year Three, in mid-2020, Manzon and his analyst moved into an advice and financial solutions group, and other pieces wound up in other parts of TIAA. He’s now a Senior Director of Financial Wellness and Innovation. Now, he explains, “the emphasis and the tone is about execution. Much more of my time gets spent in moving some of our commissioned solutions to a launchable state.”

Looking back on the three years covered in the slide, Manzon says, “You can see that we were trying to draw ideas from all sources — trying to create a process to remove friction and encourage innovators to accelerate their ideas, and create a process to amplify what was done.” In doing that, “we had to take some messy steps.”

“Everybody’s situation is different. I’m not sure there is a neat way of standing up an innovation function in a company. It’s so dependent on the culture and the fabric of the company. But there are some universal truths, like outside-in thinking, and having a way to accelerate ideas, and developing a communication strategy to help move the needle.”

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