Barbie: Hello everyone and welcome to the webinar, Innovation Leadership Essentials. This is one in a series of webinars where we connect for 30 minutes to bring to life the challenges we see in the market and what to do about them. During today’s session Raphael Viton, Axialent’s Global Transformation Lead will engage with Aaron Proietti, former SVP and chief innovation officer at Transamerica which is part of Aegon or as we would say in Holland Aegon.
They’ll discuss failures, victories and insights from the trenches that will help you implement change more easily and separate the essential from the important when it comes to delivering better innovation outcome. Over to you Raff.
Raphael V.: Thanks Barbie. Barbie you know how to say Aegon the way they say it in the Netherlands because that’s where you’re from. Right?
Barbie: Absolutely, that’s where I’m from, born and raised.
Raphael V.: Nice. Today you’re in Key Biscayne and Aaron you’re out in Colorado. I’m in the Midwest in the burghs of Chicago and we’ve got folks dialed-in already I can see from all over. Big thank you to our marketing team in Buenos Aires at the Axialent headquarters. I know if you’re not live today but you’re watching this as a recording, I know folks from all over Spain, Barcelona, Europe, Australia wind up tuning in so a big hello to you all as well. To our friends who are I think it’s already tomorrow in Asia, a big hello to you.
This is going to be fun Aaron. The next 30, 40 minutes is all about you and …
Aaron P.: All right.
Raphael V.: … your journey.
Aaron P.: I’ve had some fun preparing for it too. It’s been fun to rehash the old war stories and we’ll share some of them here today.
Raphael V.: It has been and we’re going to get to besides the credentials here the positions that you had, we’re going to hopefully by the end of this webinar we will have explained how you became one of the 24 most creative people in insurance as so named by the industry itself.
Aaron P.: All right, that’s still a bit of a mystery to me but maybe we’ll unlock the secret. I’m not sure how that happened.
Raphael V.: I do appreciate you being on to share some of the firsthand stories and the learning, the hindsight and how valuable that can be the folks who are at different stages of their journey. Of course, we’re not here to try and suggest that anything that we talk about is the way or the only way to go about improving innovation outcomes, but it is definitely based on your experience and my experience and the shared experience together what stuff has worked to help make it easier.
In many cases, we learned the hard way what would help make it easier for Transamerica and the community of folks that were doing it there. In some ways…… make it harder. If you’ll permit me Aaron before I turn it over you over to you, I’m going to do a little bit of a storytelling about how I remember it. The way I choose to tell the story and remember it and it is the story of a big old stuffy insurance company becoming a better big old stuff the insurance company for sure in a highly regulated sleepy industry.
Where the 150-year-old parent company, Aegon, eventually I think back in 2010 tells the 100 year old conglomerate of 16 to 25 entities in the US that it had rolled up already. It tells that group of 25 companies that hey brand yourself now as Transamerica in the US so we can have one consolidated brand, we can consolidate different functions that’ll help us downsize, experience many economies of scale.
We’re going to reap the benefits of milking the cash cow of the United States companies until, until what, until they dry up, until there’s nothing left to milk out of them anyway.
Aaron P.: There were prospects of a global investment that seemed to be more attractive market than Aegon wanted to be in.
Raphael V.: That’s right. The idea then of how these, in the US anyway, we’re just talking about the 25 different companies that have been mashed altogether not necessarily integrating really well, different brands and whatnot going to become just Transamerica and knowing that there’s all these silos. There’s these executives that are armored up with their defensive routines. There’s the organizational defensive routines as well that are set up to protect the king.
The power structures that had come about over the hundred year timeframe. I think everything probably would have gone in that path of maintaining the status quo and drive the money out to the Netherlands except for the visionary CEO from your business unit at the time, a multi-billion dollar business unit, thousands of employees Scott Ham who said no, we’re not going to just dry up here and stay stationary. We’re going to instead outpace the industry.
We’re going to grow, we’re going to be innovative, we’re going to be creative. We’re going to change, we’re going to transform this place to show the world and the parent company that we can be a part of growth and change and a part of the future and contribute in a very significant way.
At that time, CEO Scott Ham and chief strategy officer president Ed Walker appoint you Aaron as the chief innovation officer to help make this dream come true and the vision a reality. Aaron, at the time 2010, 2011 time frame or so you, your double math degree, self-proclaimed introvert. A process-driven, you love physics, you’re a ringleader in very many ways we’re going to lead the charge …
Aaron P.: …
Raphael V.: Right, you were going to lead the charge.
Aaron P.: That’s right.
Raphael V.: Part of the story, I’ll give away the ending right now and it’ll come about through your storytelling of victories and failures and whatnot, was how you brought this competency to bear, this creative competency. You built the innovation engine inside of Transamerica the what came to be eventually and still is there is the marketing innovation lab for Transamerica US.
It was quite a hero’s journey for many people, many of those executives that we talked about before to really in some ways surprised themselves with how far they could go with the vertical adaptive learning and how surprised you were in terms of how your essentials, what you thought was essential at the beginning had some counterintuitive twist and switches along the way. Did I nail it?
Aaron P.: Yea, that’s exactly right. I think it was late 2011 I was handed a strategy roadmap which mentioned innovation and was given the direction go. Innovate, create this innovation engine. What I dreamed I would be doing at that moment was creating innovation lab spaces, finding better ways to brainstorming, buying a whole bunch of beanbag chairs and starting to ideate.
What unfolded over the coming year, two years, three years after that was very different than what I’d initially imagined. We had to learn. We had to learn a lot not only about who we were as a company about what we were capable of and industry best practices for innovating. As much as I thought I knew some of those pieces, I was continually surprised. The piece I was surprised, and this probably isn’t surprising coming from the introverted math guy that you describe, but the piece I was most surprised by was the people element.
What it really, truly takes to be an innovative company. There probably is a way to approach innovation with brute force and to throw money at innovation and create an innovation lab, which is separate from the business, but It isn’t the elegant path to go down. We tried to take the true elegant path and in many respects had many successes along the way as you described. A lot of people grew in their careers and grew and their perspectives as we went through that journey, so the people element was the most surprising. That’s definitely something we’re going to talk a lot about today.
Raphael V.: All right. I remember that time. We started working together in 2011. I was a president at Maddock Douglas and helping lead the engagement team with you all. The idea of that elegant path certainly rubbed against the comfort zone of yourself and many of the execs but everybody was like no, we’re going to try it, we’re going to this. We’re not lying, we’re going to build a case for change, we’re going to figure this out. Everybody was super committed to it in the face of, and if you’ll permit, I’m going to rifle through …I was going to say in the face of what we all know makes innovation harder.
When a command control environment that shows us this more elegant path of recognizing that hey we have to do this with people while we’re building the muscles around the technical competencies, there are certain things that make this harder. Some of these we learned on the back end but some of these are, I think we can all agree, in the beginning and I’m going to do this [inaudible 00:10:27] style. Aaron you can describe to the audience with that is.
Aaron P.: Yeah, it’s a Japanese approach I believe to PowerPoint presentations in which the speaker speaks and the audience read and then left to interpret what is on the slide in front of them and we’ll go pretty quickly through these slides so we can get to the meat of the story.
Raphael V.: Yeah, I’m going to go faster than …. style, I’m going to go Pikachu style, which is like five seconds. The idea of change is hard is something we say, something we’ve heard ourselves say, we hear lots of people say. Part of the question is we’re going to tease out a little bit here is is it hard – is hard an attribute of innovation or are there things that make it harder for us or things that make it easier for us and let’s look at it.
Things that definitely make it harder for us is when it’s not prioritized. I love this, this is a funny picture of a child being eaten by camel. Do you save your child first or do you take a photo first? In this case, the parents chose to take a picture. Priorities matter. Innovation’s harder when you treat it like an event versus a lifestyle choice.
Part of the idea there of is it lip service we’re giving it, is it a way of being, or is it some niche functional skill that a few people in the organization have and then the company benefits from it. How do you look at? What’s your perspective on that? It’s harder when you don’t create the space for creativity, collaboration, engagement and all those other elements that are the culture of innovation to flourish as evidenced by this fantastic quote here.
It’s harder when you don’t ask for help. The idea that leaders, especially successful leaders, are supposed to know how to do this and God forbid they say they don’t know how to do it and they asked for help you, what does that say about them. That’s part of the comfort zone thing is I’m used to being the one with the answers, I’m used to being the one that has the solutions and the strategies and just tell people what to do. Where for the more complex challenges of innovation and culture change …..who do we ask for help.
It’s just infinitely harder if you’re just winging it and hoping good things come. It’s harder when you wait longer than you have to you. Have you seen this meme on the Internet Aaron? Not yet, not yet, I waited too late. Then as we segue into is it hard or is isn’t. Aaron, can you squat 300 pounds? Is squatting 300pounds hard for you/
Aaron P.: Absolutely.
Raphael V.: It’s hard …
Aaron P.: …
Raphael V.: I can’t imagine 300 pounds. At one point in my life maybe close but nowhere. I can’t but it’s not hard for her. Where our instinct unconscious answer might be swatting 300 pounds is definitely hard. It’s hard for me, it’s hard for you, it’s not hard for her so it’s not an attribute of the 300 pounds. It’s an attribute of its a relative comparison of our ability to take on the challenge. The weight, the 300 pounds compared to our ability to respond, our leg muscle capability.
It’s always a comparison of those two things and the idea of depending on how developed in this case our leg muscles are, it either makes it harder for us or easier for. I’m going to very consciously and with very deliberate language make sure we don’t fall victim to creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that gives away and surrenders to everyone the fact that change is hard, innovation’s hard and we’re doomed to just suffering forever because it’s hard. As opposed to recognizing this relationship.
Then the context of innovation itself the idea of the two things we’re comparing is the complexity and the market dynamics VUCA, if you will, with the innovation, leadership, capabilities and muscle mastery around the attributes that we say help achieve and deal with complexity and market, dynamics, agility, curiosity creativity, collaboration listing and the technical competency.
There’s this, again, certain things and our relationship with building the – focusing on delivery practice that helps build these muscles, that help us be more equipped and ready to deal with VUCA in the industry and the pace of change that our industry and the environment it’s creating for us. How ready are we and how hard it is or easy for us it dependent on how well we’ve been training those muscles.
That’s the main context that you’ll hear us say in a lot of these webinars and you and I are very much aligned on this. The fact that innovation, leadership and transformation is a learning capability. They are muscle groups that everybody has. It’s not some unique domain of the wildly creative idea monkeys. We all have these capabilities. Curiosity can be done by everybody and practiced by everyone. How do we develop and train these and think about in the context of where most companies, most corporate growth strategies are dependent on how well these muscles perform under stress.
Going from a current level to a next level so the company can make that bridge, that transition to a new level of performance across many different dimensions. Often we look at it like it’s shifting from the old success formula, Plan A if you will, to a new successful B, C, D, E, F, whatever that new success formula is. A digitization strategy, a new distribution channel, emphasis, new products services, business models, et cetera. The idea that if you wait too long eventually what served you well Plan A winds up being even harder.
The idea that eventually if you wait too long that turns into oh crap, we waited too long strategy. The side down A if you aren’t working on those muscles. As a current level, next level looks like this a lot of times in a word cloud. Aaron, I know you can relate to this. The words inside of this word cloud back in the 2011 time frame when we were creating the case for change and inventorying the current state of the culture and seeing verbatim where – what the baseline was of the current level and comparing that to the next level version and the vision that you and the CEO or the chief strategy officer and the rest of the leadership team had said that’s where we need to be.
This is where we’re at, now how are we going to get there? What do we need to do to get there? The rest of the time is really you helping talk through what you learned as far as the big three essentials that you see now would make it easier.
Aaron P.: Yeah, the stark contrast here between these two word levels really get me. We saw this and we went through an exercise where we talk about the current state and a lot of those words that you’re seeing on the left hand of your screen here were thrown back up at us. This company will not succeed because we are in siloed and uncommitted, the flavor of the month, that sort of thing.
The vision, like you said, is such a contrast to where we currently were. I wish I had known the lesson of what it took to take an organization from that level to the next level. It really was required learning, required that expectation to get there. I didn’t appreciate that as much and I wish that …..share with you here today I wish I had known those from the outset, in hindsight …
Raphael V.: Aaron, I have to just to make sure the audience can hear these three essentials but you’re breaking up just a little bit. I don’t know what you can do about that or not but just wanted to let you know.
Aaron P.: Okay. This a little bit better?
Raphael V.: I hope so. I think so.
Aaron P.: Okay.
Raphael V.: Let’s keep going.
Aaron P.: I’m hearing a bit of an echo. I’m not sure what that’s coming from.
Raphael V.: All of a sudden, the technology kind of started …
Aaron P.: Yeah. These are the three methods that I wish I had known when tasked to lead this initiative in late 2011 The initiative is about becoming a more innovative company and changing the culture of 6,000 employees and I can go into more detail on each of these. First, we need to demystify innovation for our employees. At its best innovation, its nebulous unknown and challenging and that is at its best. Some people rise to the challenge. But for many, innovation is likely a very scary endeavor and maybe even threatening to what they know. We have to de-mystify it and be able to make sense out of it.
Are you hearing me okay? I see you making a face.
Raphael V.: Okay, that’s good. I forgot that you can see me.
Aaron P.: Okay.
Raphael V.: No, it’s I hear you but you’re almost like you’re going in and out of auto tune. When it sounds like bandwidth is getting squeezed or something.
Aaron P.: Yeah, I don’t know what to do about that.
Raphael V.: Keep going. It’s all right. For the most part, I hear you pretty well.
Aaron P.: Let me try to … Maybe this will be a little bit better. Secondly, to be successful you need to identify and plan for resources, competencies and expert tools and processes up front. You’re trying to move business from a certain place, a place of ambiguity to a new place, which is another place of ambiguity you may not know the path to get there and what’s between those two word bubbles more or less.
It’s best if that you do have a plan to navigate from one word cloud to the other. One place of ambiguity to the next to improve your odds of success as you is going through that. We’ll talk about that in more detail. The third innovation procedure when you invite and empower everyone to be an innovation leader. This is a big shift from the command control environment where the highest paid person’s opinion from an environment where that’s what matters in which any one and has a rationale to know and to support to be innovative.
That’s really what it’s about to empower and we’ll talk about the strategy to get there. Going back to demystification. What I found was demystification or I’m sorry, a declaration from the top that innovation is what we’re going to do is a very exciting thing for the organization. We saw into that everywhere we looked in Transamerica. There was this buzz in the hall and at the Java bars.
Actually as you describe because Transamerica and Aegon’s ecosystem was so complex, this organization wasn’t particularly adept at communicating its strategy. Really after the fact communications and everything that happened. Oh, we just bought a new company or we just dissolved the company. It was very difficult for people to understand the whole of what was going on at Transamerica and Aegon.
The innovation strategy was maybe a ray of light in that sea of complexity and scariness that they were experiencing. Something for them to go home and talk about at the dinner table. “Hey listen to what my company’s doing now.” Maybe even latch on to make their own personal jobs more fulfilling. What surprised me the most, however, was that innovation transcended into something nearly mystical.
It was aspirational yet flexible. It allowed anyone to use the word to justify almost any action. There’s a flip side to that, allow me to use a physics analogy here. The analogy is that every particle in this universe has something, which is known as an anti particle with equal mass and opposite charge, which can annihilate that particle at any time.
It turns out these notions of flexibility and the aspirational nature of innovation also had antiparticles. Because innovation is flexible and you can use it to describe almost any situation, it was also very inconsistently understood by the people who we wanted to have a consistent understanding. Because it was an aspirational trait of the organization to be innovative, it was also unattainable.
You’re never going to be there. You’re always going to want to be more innovative and there’s always going to be more to fix. As an employee latched onto this in consistently understood an unattainable theme of innovation, they could quickly dismiss innovation as the next flavor of the month or something that’s not going to work here, something Transamerica wouldn’t be capable of doing.
It took me and my team nearly 18 months of deep learning and thinking to make sense of what we were truly being asked to do when we talked about innovation. The rationale we came up with had to be for the antidote to be mystified had to be relatable and accessible to every employee what it is that we’re trying to do. We came up with the idea that innovation is this core competency of the organization for dealing with the everyday aggressive pace of change that the organization faced.
We wanted to get our employees a set of tools and resources for dealing with change and being able to adapt. We had to show them exactly what that was going to look like. Another analogy that’s not physics related but you can’t ask people to let go of a trapeze without showing them the new trapeze that they have to grab onto, which leads me to the next point on the next slide.
We had to have a great plan to identify and plan for resources, competencies and expert tools and processes up front. Again, to reiterate the trapeze analogy, when you’re asking people and the culture to change you have to give them something to grab onto. Articulation of the strategy and buzzwords simply was not enough to create that change.
It’s not sufficient to say our status quo doesn’t cut it. That simply isn’t enough. It’s not even sufficient to say here’s how we’re going to behave now. You can’t just ask people to behave differently because when you do that, whether it’s an innovation department or percent of a set of frontline employees without a structure that’s in place to support the new behaviors and reinforce those new behaviors they will revert back to old bad habits, unfortunately, which feel safe and are maybe even rewarded.
Like you said, to bow to the king was a bad habit that was rewarded at Transamerica. To wait for direction, that sometimes was safer than to take a risk and try to do something that despite the fact that direction may intact never come. This is where having a toolkit of resources was very valuable. We had to help everyone from the managers to the executive at the top, to the frontline employees understand how to thrive in a new environment that we were creating.
These resources, competencies, the toolkit we’re putting … Yeah, thank you for that. The toolkit couldn’t just be surface level stuff like process maps like you see here, innovation rooms. It has to be full-on Jedi mind –Jedi training. This is where we started. For me, a process map such as what we have in front of you was what I was initially drawn to when we signed on with the consultancy’s which helped us along the way.
Maddock Douglas produced this mind to market process for us, which reduced innovation down to a series of very concrete steps that was designed to extract insight from the marketplace, from our customers. Designed to involve employees and executives and gain buy-in, give us a story to tell and ultimately produce an innovation portfolio or an innovation strategy that would have better odds of success than if we were not to use the process.
This gave us the comfort level or a de-risking of innovation which was very valuable for our initial efforts. It also gave my team, which we call the innovation center, something very concrete to work on. It was the institutionalization of this process to improve the organization’s know how. A great starting point is to have some sort of process, to have some sort of plan in place like it said from moving from one ambiguous area to the next. This was it for us. This was the starting point.
Raphael V.: It’s a… Arron if I can, the idea of how this process as a model helps everybody start to practice building those muscles of very skilled and expert divergence and convergence which is how the diamonds in the process even show. Which is, mirrors many of best practice innovation processes out there whether it’s the design thinking, the agile, lean, at the elements of what’s on this slide back to here, the mind the market process and the multi-year process
From a technical, asset development, innovation strategy standpoint that we were working on to help create visibility of the highest economic value segments, with the highest economic value insights so we could focus innovation on a very specific area to create value for your organization.
As opposed to hey innovation everywhere, anything, blue sky versus methodical very thoughtful, very specific to create value for the organization. The two projects that we worked on specifically within the strategies one for the public and consumer, one for the distribution channel was a reason for the human beings to start practicing together while you’re creating these assets.
It is the best area of a – If it was a wrestling mat this was the place where we could all get together and really start wrestling with new language, new concepts, new perspectives and bring many perspectives together from a diverging standpoints that then we could converge into what’s going to be most helpful and most useful without kind of short circuiting or arm wrestling over who’s got the – who outranks who to make the decisions.
Now it’s going to be driven by real market data and insight and healthy debate, not toxic debate all along the way. That’s kind of what keys up the idea monkey ringleader metaphor behind the book that Mike Maddock and I wrote that we use a lot. That language as a simple way to dig into the reliability mindsets and the adventure alley mindset. You know, these operational mindsets that exists inside the company and learning how to flex them when we needed them right.
Make sense? You with me?
Aaron P.: Absolutely. Yeah, this did help and everything you just said. I loved seeing executives dig into the artifacts that this process produced. It gave them new data points that they could talk about in their circles. It left their whim. We were able to de-prioritize their whim, which was great. That all said, you just alluded to this, not every process or discipline like we just showed has the same strength. Some have some pretty stark limitations as well.
When we put that first process in place that was just that, it was a starting point. It was the first in a series of business processes that we need to install. Innovation needs to be iterative as evidenced by the circle that’s shown on the graph here. These lenses and models through which we look at innovation, these different processes are necessary.
To use another physics analogy, you can’t know reality. The only thing you can know is the model through which you view reality. We had to have these different pieces in place and over the course of the several years that followed that initial program. We installed lean startup program, mind to market programs, new market research techniques, new advanced analytic techniques, new creativity technique such as innovation games, different collaboration frameworks such as innovation ambassador programs and the list goes on and on and on.
That was exciting because actually in retrospect for me that was probably the most exciting period of building an innovation engine inside of a corporation was installing all of the different elements that were required. It took years. There’s no silver bullet here that allows you to know all the stuff or hire the right people who know all this stuff, because what we put into place, and this is where Axialent actually lended a hand. They helped us a great deal to understand programmatically what are the highest leverage opportunities for our organization.
We had to develop a muscle of empathy to understand what the organization is struggling with and then find the best solutions to help us with those struggles. That finally leads us to the culture of innovation piece. I tried to downplay this a little bit but ultimately what we were tasked to do is build a culture of innovation, collaboration, and trust.Initially there was a team of three people who set out to accomplish this. For an organization of 6,000 to 10,000 depending on what day you counted, I always said that a team of three could not change a culture of 6,000, but 200 people could. In order to create a sustainable culture of innovation which was the endgame here, we had to invite, enlist and ultimately empower people not just to innovate but to lead innovation.
Initially, there was a team of three people who set out to accomplish this. For an organization of 6,000 to 10,000 depending on what day you counted, I always said that a team of three could not change a culture of 6,000, but 200 people could. In order to create a sustainable culture of innovation which was the endgame here, we had to invite, enlist and ultimately empower people not just to innovate but to lead innovation.
We had to build new structures which encouraged and rewarded any and every employee to take some risks, to be an innovation leader from the CEO to human resources, to talent development, to front lines, to our marketing folks. To our operational folks. Everyone had to have access to tools which they could relate to and which made sense to them.
A lot of this was about following a rigorous change management program. Again, it kind of goes back to the beginning the story. When I was tapped to this, I didn’t know that’s what I was signing up for. Again, I thought we were ordering bean bag chairs and new technology. Instead, it was to change management program and it really tested me to become a better leader.
Ultimately success with about employees that could lead the charge. In late 2015 we were able to declare a success. The original set of people sat around a table and said you know what, we have done the things on the right side of this slide. We have created a sustainable culture where innovation is now relatable, it’s accessible so everyone understands the context of innovation in the broader strategy.
It’s everywhere, so where we decided to start with like you said a very focused process in a very small segment so that we could develop a language to talk about success stories. Eventually innovation was everywhere and everyone felt the need and the rationale had the resources ….. employees who were enlisted into the program can now lead the charge.
We had joked at the outset of the program how do we know when we have reached a sustainable culture. It’s when the three people who at the offset of the program who were tasked with doing this were no longer needed. We got to that point where we had the culture holding us accountable.
There were people who were speaking the same language that we had learned to speak and were starting to use the tools that we had learned institutionalized and were becoming expert in them themselves. We were no longer the experts in everything and it was just this great transformation to have achieved. None of it happened on its own.
Like we were talking about, all that muscle needed to be built and needed to be built by people who were willing to step up and lead that change. Personally, my own transformation process, I began to live by the mantra I’m not thinking about leading. Quite simply I’m not leading. I had to do that by example all the time and continually change and continually push myself. We got to that point finally where we had those building blocks in place.
Raphael V.: Those building blocks and I think you’re treating yourself like an innovation project all of your own, your own transformation to shift from thinking that it’s all about the … This model here is how Axialent uses to describe the three dimensions of success that we’re really focusing on all the time as a leader, whether we know it . Especially as a leader, leading change and transformation and innovation is the ability to overachieve on all three of these.
The idea that we come into it thinking that it’s about performance, growth, profitability and yes it is about … It is about the results and the achievement but it’s also about and necessary that it’s about the relationships and the trust and the respect the community of people working together under conditions that help them be themselves more and work together better so that they can achieve more together.
The results go up when there’s better teamwork and better relationships. Obviously, that comes from being able to work on it at the same time our work on ourselves and recognize if we’re bringing all of our energy and all of ourselves all our creativity and intelligence and courage and all of that energy to work. Am I engaged and do I feel good being a part of this community, being a part of this work, being a part of the purpose of the company or do I not feel good? Is it toxic and do I check myself at the door before I go to work?
That just lowers performance and obviously everybody, every company talks about engagement and measures engagement so maybe how these three things work together. Like you described, the idea of the leader now recognizing that I need to be mindful and conscious of all three of these things at all times while we’re living through the tension of our current level on our way to the next level.
That is a lifestyle choice on how to be more Jedi at all three of those things as opposed to just command and controlling it, which doesn’t and then it breaks down. The relationships aren’t there, the trust isn’t there and therefore the creativity and the satisfaction and whatnot isn’t there either at the individual level.
All that working together is how I saw you and the team and the culture grow in that regard. I’ll keep going until we get to questions. The idea of harkening back to is it hard or is that just something that we say. Then from a relative standpoint, relative to the choice commitment that we make towards that next level shift away from these dilemmas that have us stuck and moving towards a balanced – what we call a balanced portfolio approach where we’re actually able to see and talk about what’ future, what’s core, what’s new to us but not new to the market.
We know the customers, how do we experiment quickly? How can we talk about and measure innovation in a way that we manage our own risk and our own investments in innovation? How do we shift from this known fixed mindset to a growth mindset? How do we get through the hierarchical, patriarchal expression of power to one that is a much more open Keagan and Lahey called a deliberately developmental organization where we’re more self-led, mutual learning is kind of encouraged.
That’s what’s happening more all the time. Is change hard? It is, relative to our preference to hang onto old success formulas. This is a wonderful exercise that senior leaders go through on their own personal journey like you did for change where they actually start to be more conscious of their preference for doing things the old way because it served them well for so long.
It’s not unusual that they hang on to it but when they’re more conscious of it then they can start to choose whether as these examples show the yellow one, I prefer to come up with and present my own solutions and defend my own position and my own turf rather than take the time to actually acquire with real curiosity to actually arrive at the best solutions. That is the opposite of what innovation, what innovative environment is all about.
To see leaders start to actually identify and relate and overcome and work on these challenges within their own MO is really powerful. Makes it easier when they’re working on that, when senior leaders are working on it modeling and demonstrating, providing that social proof worth more than much of the dollar investments this social investments in social proof help move the organization along a lot faster and this is well.
Organizational contradictions exist inside of companies usually going from those two-word clouds. the idea that you might declare that it’s time to think innovatively but yet the conditions still exists inside the organization that have people thinking in a very different way that the environment is such that it’s better for me to not put myself in the position of being blamed and punished because that’s what’s going to happen in this company .
CEO or somebody says challenge with humility. Let’s really get into helping debate and be there to learn but at the same time there’s a culture of knowing that if I speak up and challenge somebody’s going to think I’m disruptive, I’m a troublemaker. People are going to think I don’t play well with others. It might put me at risk. I’m not going to do that. Hey let’s be more collaborative, everything more collaborative, but at the same time I’m being evaluated on how well I do individually and I’m going to be incented on my individual goals.
I can’t really be as collaborative because that doesn’t have the effect on me that matters. The culture’s full of these organizational contradictions that have to be worked on. We get to a place and this storytelling today hopefully get us to a place of in all the contexts of the things that need to be done. There’s a lot of things that are critically important that we get right when we’re managing innovation, leading innovation, creating a culture of innovation.
Critical, important things to get right, which is across the top. The process, the tools, the infrastructure that you talked about. The strategy, the assets, the governance processes and the measurement, the metrics. Critical to get those right and to be expert, world-class at those you need to be great at those.
That’s important but what’s essential meaning if you don’t get the essential right, doesn’t matter how good the important stuff is the people and innovation leadership and the culture aspects of it and how those two things drive the gears forward or backward more so than the top three.
Separating the essential from the important is really what we’re getting today. I hope that is a good payoff for the stories that we’ve been through. We got 15 minutes for questions. From a people standpoint the idea of again simplifying it so just so that we can talk about it. Simplifying the stories you told Aaron. The idea of how do we help leaders be more ready by seeing more.
Opening their aperture of awareness and understanding so that they can operate from an awareness level with greater complexity so that they can be more skilled at the relational aspects of collaborating better any. At the same time, using those durable innovation assets, using the personal strengths and fulfillment and integrity of their own transformation process as an individual and collectively at the same time to feel stronger so that we can make decisions in the face of uncertainty, because we come from a position of strength and the culture that makes us feel stronger .
That’s a high-level way of talking about the people impact when we go through change. Anything you wanted to add? There is … There’s a PDF on the right here that we’ll be distributing to everybody on the line. Anything you want to add before we turn it over to QA, Aaron?
Aaron P.: Well yeah, just that these things don’t happen on their own. I think we led with that point that you have to build the muscle. There’s entropy in the workplace if you leave the workplace of its own devices, that will continue to degrade or it will trend towards chaos. It has to be actively managed, it has to be actively led. These leadership principles, the lessons that I learned during my time were just the innovation leadership principles are such an inclusive empowering set of principles that it should be the way to do business in my in my opinion.
In fact, any business that I do going forward it’s going to embody these same principles. It’s going to continue to use the muscles so that it doesn’t atrophy. I’d love to hear what kind of questions that people might have.
Raphael V.: Yeah, amen brother, innovation’s a wha of life not a function for one department. Let’s ask Barbie. Barbie, what kind of questions are being typed in that we want to ,,,
Barbie: I want to invite the audience that there are two ways to ask question. You can either use the question app in your control panel and type the question and I’ll read it out for you. If you want to ask a question, you can raise your hand and I’ll unmute you so you can ask Aaron and Raff directly.
I already had a question to get us started, which is for you Aaron. What was your “aha” moment? What shifted for you to understand the importance of people and culture and the leverage?
Aaron P.: Yes, that’s a great question. When we started as Raff described I wanted to be very process-oriented and just put pieces in place that would work. One of the big structural changes we made very early on was to create a department called invites and innovation, which housed all of these various competencies that we were building.
I was tasked with leading that department. Like you also described I was a leader that had very little awareness of how I should act as a leader, if I had a badge like you showed before I had no empathy. Actually, in fact, I didn’t know that I should have empathy. I just had no awareness that was about a thing that was valuable. I thought that my department, this newly assembled set of pieces, would figure out how to be innovative on their own.
Some time went by and I was challenged by a coach of mine from Maddock Douglas to think about what kind of direction are the people in my department getting and is that adequate direction to lead innovations in the organization. For the first time I kind of put myself in their shoes and realize that oh crap I’m the one who should be giving them space and some limited direction at the very least if not just asking them questions about how they feel and what are they up against and what challenges they’re facing.
For the first time, I think it was six months after the department started I got everyone together and said hey let’s actually talk about here what we’re up against and it was eye opening. I did not know or understand or appreciate the headspace that people were in and the amount of changes that they were trying to rationalize and just how much they were struggling with that.
That to me was the big aha moment was to actually sit down and start listening. Had never done it before. I had to build that muscle over time. I got better over time I believe.
Raphael V.: I’m going to ask you to build on that the idea. I remember Laura Levins, Tina Salvo, Joslyn Depetiv and a lot of that group would always say you want to change the culture, let’s change the conversation. You had those conversations you described. If you would tell the audience, tell the folks listening about the big conversations, the innovation cafes where you opened it up very vulnerable to groups of 600 hundred at a time as part of the longer, the bigger program.
Tell the group about some of that.
Aaron P.: Yeah, so that’s what I was distracted by. While my department was being formed, I was on the road talking to the broader organization. It was an organization of 6,000 to 10,000 people about the change that we were going to take on. What the conversation was, what I thought it would be was hey we’re going to innovate. Give us all the great ideas around innovation that you as an employee base have.
I thought that was a very kind of balanced way to open up this innovation effort was to say give us your ideas. We’ll open the suggestion box and you spend all your ideas in. When we went out to the people and said we’re going to be more innovative, tell me how we can become more innovative, their first reaction was to throw up all over me and to say this is all the reasons why we cannot be innovative.
That in and of itself was a humbling lesson and it changed the conversation. For the first time, these people were being asked for their opinion and they were daring enough to share the things that you pointed out Raff just a few slides ago, I don’t feel comfortable sharing my opinions because this is what I’m rewarded to do. We are operational company and my reward is to turn through 25 of these pieces of paper every day and then call it a day.
If I do less than that I get punished. This is the type of stuff we would hear. I did not expect that at all. The exercise that Maddock Douglas and folks took us through, through that exercise we were able to collect all of the feedback and assemble it into these big patterns. We were able to categorize what was the organization up against. What are the big themes that we need to take on?
Like I said before, what are the highest leverage opportunities for us to change so that we can be more successful in the future and if we went back later and asked the same question hopefully we wouldn’t hear the same things again. That began the processes, the iterative process of measuring assessment in some sort of action but then being very very careful to measure the impact in what effect did our action have in the organization.
Raphael V.: Yeah, and those big conversations were we call the medication cafes modeled after world cafes. It’s the idea of gathering hundreds of people at a time and replicating it in many different geographies. The whole culture knows that everybody is having conversations like this and its rooted in the appreciative inquiry process. It was definitely a co-created event. Axialent, Maddock Douglas, Transamerica .
I think the heads, the team together kind of combined heads and said how are we going to facilitate this to go through that what feels uncomfortable perhaps too many. That process of engaging in an uncomfortable conversation like on purpose so that we could get to a place where you were at the end of those sessions saying okay everybody I heard you loud and clear.
I heard what needs to change and we’re getting aligned on where we’re at and where we’re going. It sure does sound tough according to the way you 600 people described it. Who wants to help? Describe that moment.
Aaron P.: Yeah, they just for four hours gotten through griping and complaining for the first time in an open forum about everything that they disliked about our current environment, just the word cloud that we have. When we asked for volunteers, I didn’t expect anyone to raise their hand and say yes I want to be part of that.
Kind of universally at every site that we went to when we asked for volunteers to help we saw 20, 30, 40% of the hands raised. People who didn’t know what they were signing up for saying you know what you’re talking about is the aspirational company that I want to work for and I recognize that we’re not going to get there with just you sitting in front of the room telling people how to behave. I want to be part of change.
That was the turning point getting those people onboard, getting them to understand where we are in the current state, where we’re going and having them be the evangelists and eventually the activators what we’re trying to do with so tremendously valuable. Eventually, they became the experts as well and that was that was the goal was to get the organization to be expert and what it is that we’re trying to do and that happened.
It wouldn’t have happened, again, with three people trying to lead the charge and not asking for that help.
Raphael V.: Yeah, you guys were great at building formal and informal communities of practice throughout the organization and learning as you go what’s working, what’s not. It’s different for every organization, it’s different for different geographies. Proved really interesting. Barbie I know we only have a few minutes left. Is there any question there that we think, one or two we can popcorn real fast to Aaron?
Barbie: Yes, I think a question maybe to close would be what you would recommend to an organization that wants to engage in creating a culture of innovation.
Aaron P.: Yeah, in that case, a summary statement of what we just talked about. It’s a blend cultural work with all the fun innovation work. Not to say that the culture work’s not fun. It’s very difficult and the innovation work is the payoff . Be prepared to have that mix of work. You want to get to the point where you have the investment dollars, you have the processes, you have the buy-in, the sponsorship, the space, the tools to succeed with innovation.
A lot of that requires inquiry. It requires what are we doing well today, what are we not doing well today and all that culture training is what readies us for that shift in strategy that might happen, the shift in the industry landscape, the shift in regulation that you don’t even know what’s coming when that happens down the line and we thought leaders change.
The whole everything that you know about the organization when you set out is likely to change and change very rapidly. It’s that muscle that you’re building, that cultural muscle that you’re building that allows you to readily adapt when that change happens. The only thing you can control is how you react to the situation and being ready and having a team of people around you that’s ready to respond to the charge, that’s all you can do.
The it will change and the I will be what you can control so just be ready for that. I didn’t know that upfront but I if I had it would have been a very different journey.
Raphael V.: Those are some powerful x-ray goggles to have and to be sharing those with everybody on the line. Much appreciated Aaron. Thanks to everybody who tuned. Feel free to contact me. Ii know there’s going to be plenty of stuff emailed out to the folks on the distribution list that registered in terms of I think that recorded video of this, an article helping capture some of what we talked and some other resources as well. Don’t hesitate to call, email. Let’s keep talking. Let’s keep training and building those muscles. More of us that are ready the farther we all get.
Thanks everybody. Aaron, thanks a ton.
Aaron P.: Goodbye everyone.
Barbie: Thanks everyone. Goodbye.
Raphael V.: Goodbye.