How Manulife Builds Their Innovation Muscle

Emerging technology provides a wealth of opportunities – and competition – for the insurance industry. But can old dogs really learn new tricks?

According to Manulife VP Innovation and Business Development, Xavier Debane, the answer is yes – it just takes a little muscle-building. We sat down with him ahead of his #IntraCnf session to find out what the innovation journey so far looks like at the 130-year-old firm, how they spurred innovation and intrapreneurship, and where they plan to go from here.

What is the most exciting thing that you’re working on at the moment?

We’re trying to do things differently for our customers and transform the way we interact with them, so we are developing intelligent interfaces. An intelligent interface will help us provide more personalized services to our customers because we’ll understand exactly what they’re looking for.

What is your strategy in terms of innovation?

We start by establishing a vision and defining a scope. What are we looking to improve?

From there we generate ideas, evaluate each one and determine which is the best. That could be improving upon a current product or output; it could also be building a new partnership to help achieve your end goal.

The next step is to develop and implement the idea. This includes bringing together various workstreams, prototyping, and bringing people into the process.

For example, we have approached this intelligent interface project very differently. It’s not necessarily unique but it rethinks our approach to problems and opportunities in the past. We had a lot of insights from discussions with customers and our research and testing that we would not have gotten from our traditional way of doing things.

Has this strategy changed the Manulife culture and mindset to be more innovative and intrapreneurial?

Our innovation program has two main purposes: one is to deliver innovations, and the other is the innovation enablement piece. So it is definitely about the culture. We don’t want innovation coming from just the happy few, but coming from across the organization.

To support that, we defined a set of tools and an approach that would work for our company. We looked at best practices, new tools being used in the space; pretty much standard methodologies like lean startup and such, but we had to make it work for Manulife, adapt them to our specific culture. Once we had a framework and an approach, we spent a lot of time educating, training, and mentoring our internal teams to use these tools.

We do a lot of experiential training. For example, we run a disruption workshop where we put our employees in the shoes of our disruptors and they develop a disruptive business plan. Then we bring them back to Manulife and identify what strengths we can leverage and what blind spots we may have. We often have strong a-ha moments in these workshops. We then use success stories to share things that work.

And how do you track progress?

We have three types of measurements for our innovation. One is long-term, so we track lagging indicators, that sort of thing.

Then we have portfolio KPI’s: are we doing the right things to get there? And then we have enablement KPI’s: are our people engaged, are they doing things differently? To measure the latter, we run surveys after our trainings and ask things like: did you think that the training was useful, would you recommend it to a colleague? And then we follow up again three months after to ask them if they still think it was useful, and are they using it in their day to day?

Does the executive team support your innovation program?

They are completely behind it. Because financial services disruptions have come later than other industries, we saw monumental failures in other industries and the life-span of companies shrinking down, and we realized that our 130 year history is not a shield against disruption.

Of course, there are barriers. I would say the barriers that we face are pretty typical for a large corporation: silo thinking, cumbersome processes, and lots of legacy technology. So we push a lot for more collaboration – we say innovation is a team sport – and building a more flexible, resilient organization through our innovation and agile practice.

What’s next for innovation at Manulife? How will your journey continue?

Our reflex is still to try to do things internally. So our approach for the next while is to really build that external partnership muscle. It’s really about us realizing and accepting that we’re inside an ecosystem and we can’t just do it all on our own. Today, right now, we may not be the most innovative company out there, but we have the aspiration and the desire to go on the journey together.

In the next 5 years, I would hope that innovation becomes ingrained in people’s way of working and that we don’t need a group like mine any more. If I look back at the past 2 years and the progress made, I am very optimistic that we will continue to gain momentum.

What would you say to someone, maybe a VP like yourself, who is trying to implement a more innovative culture but is having trouble doing so? What could they do to move things forward?

Well, in our case, once we started delivering real solutions that made it to production – and I’ll talk about some of these during the conference – that’s when people started paying attention. So, focus on the value you’re delivering to the organization. Define that value very clearly, make sure the company needs it and wants it. That will help get you the attention, and the momentum, you need.

Learn more about how Xavier is innovating at Manulife at #INTRACNF Toronto this November. Grab your ticket and secure your spot here.