Operations of innovation – part two of our interview with NRMA’s Rene van der Loos
Recently the NRMA Motoring and Services business has been reaping the rewards of its unique innovation program – Transformation 2020 (T2020). The business has been listed as one of BRW’s Most Innovative companies and last year was a winner for innovation in The Australian Business Awards.
Samuel Tait of I/O met with Rene van der Loos, previously general manager strategic marketing and innovation, and this year’s winner of NRMA’s Excellence in Innovation Award to discuss her experience leading the T2020 initiative at NRMA.
Samuel Tait: Did concepts or ideas change through the process of executing on innovation?
Rene van der Loos: It’s constantly evolving and the makeup of the team will change as you move through the continuum. You start off with a notion of how it’s going to look. If I think about Owl Ratings, for example, when I first presented that to the Board, the way it was to be implemented was completely different. You have a notion that you think will work, but until you actually get down and dirty with it, you don’t actually know if you’ve got it right. You have to be open to make changes. It’s got to work for everyone; otherwise it’s not going to fly.
A good example is Living Well Navigator’s Owl Rating System for retirement villages. We had an idea of a five-star rating similar to Trip Advisor. But at the end of the day, to get everybody on board, we needed to change it to more of a restaurant ‘hat’, or Michelin-style rating system. We talked to the providers who have the retirement villages, and people who actually live in those villages to help us. And by doing that, we ended up with a much better outcome. And we were still able to achieve the right outcome for our Members.
ST: Did you lean on any external expertise to help support the innovation programs success at NRMA?
RvdL: Yes, we had some external help. We used a consultancy group for team bonding, ‘rewiring our brains’ and to introduce us to tools to help us think about the future. We suddenly had a group of people who hadn’t worked together before. When we arrived in Chippendale, it was just a bare warehouse floor. No desks. No chairs. Nothing. Leading the team it was, ‘Right, we’ve got two hours. We’ll work together as a team. We need to work out how we want to deck this place out so it’s fit for purpose.’ It was an interesting first exercise.
There were some that were absolutely passionate about every detail, and there were some that really didn’t care. That was the first lesson. We would soon be going back to NRMA with our recommendation, that would impact NRMA, and all of our Members. We all had to be on board. We all had to get involved with it, and we all had to understand the decisions we’re making and the impact.
They also helped us set up our own rules in terms of how we wanted to work, and for some that was confronting. Every day we would meet in a circle and just do a check in on how we were all feeling because when you’re working on these projects and you’re not used to is, it can be an emotional roller coaster.
Those rules included cards face up on the table. If you’re having an issue with someone you talk about it in the circle, and we sort it out in the circle. We had some interesting conversations in that circle which I think really helped keep us on track emotionally. The other thing was you had to buy into all the decisions, so you couldn’t say, ‘I don’t know enough about it so I’m going to step aside.’ Everyone had to agree on the outcomes, and be involved in the decision making.
The Mount Eliza Centre for Executive Education also gave us a number of tools to think about the future and provided us with a futurist and a psychiatrist to prepare us for the project. Using intense deconstruction and construction techniques the team was pushed to learn completely new ways of seeing, thinking, being and leading.
ST: How did you approach risk, or risk mitigation as part of your innovation process?
RvdL: I think it depends on which phase you’re talking about. If you’re talking about the ideation phase when you’re coming up with ideas, then I think you mitigate the risk by doing a number of bounce and build sessions with different people to see what their reaction is, before deciding to spend more time on it.
When you come to the implementation phase, you’ve got to go in with a very open mind that you may not have got it right in the beginning, and you might have to evolve or change the concept as you bring new learning’s into what you’re trying to deliver. The important thing is that you are testing and learning all the time.
ST: What processes did you use throughout the T2020 implementation phase that you thought were extremely useful in driving the team’s success?
RvdL: Every morning we would meet at 9:30, all of us, and we had sticky notes all over a glass wall. We had every task that needed to be done outlined on the glass, and we went through every single task. What happened to this? Has that been done? Have you done this?
That was actually a really good process. It was also useful in holding people accountable. People understood the knock on effect if they did not get their bit done.
The other thing is to celebrate your wins along the way as you get things done. So often you’re working so hard to get the job done, that sometimes you just need to stop and reflect and say, ‘Look at all the stuff that we’ve got done today, wow, isn’t that amazing?’
ST: How do you measure the success of the output from your process of innovation?
RvdL: Our mandate was to create business ideas first and foremost which we did. We have launched two new businesses using the ideas generated in T2020.
The Living Well Navigator is an interesting case because we looked at shared value. The project is bringing social, business and Member value to the table, I think. The ageing population will have a profound effect on businesses and products and services that are developed for the future.
These are the sorts of things NRMA can have some influence on because they are important to our members. Part of the job for Living Well Navigator is to rally everyone to start thinking about these issues and making sure they’re getting the attention they deserve.
We’re at the beginning of our journey, so what you see on Living Well Navigator will evolve over time. First of all, within the first three months we got up to 100,000 unique visitors a month. We know that people are looking for information. I think we’re also starting to have an impact at government level as well. The government is looking at NRMA and is interested in what we are doing in this space. Some people have asked, ‘how can you make the connection from roadside assistance to what Living Well Navigator offers’. A lot of that is built around trust. Trust and help. It’s what NRMA is famous for.
ST: From your experiences across the various innovation initiatives at NRMA, how important is organisational support, internal communications and personal KPIs to a program’s success?
RvdL: Within NRMA, we have had these big innovation projects, such as T2020, and the Jumpstart Program. But we also have an ideas portal where employees can actually go on online and put their own ideas forward. Our innovation team will then link them up with the right people within NRMA to try and get traction with the idea.
Sometimes it works well, but sometimes it gets caught up in the day-to-day stuff, so you need a champion. We have got a couple of people who look after that program, but even when they take it to the appropriate manager, sometimes the manager might say, ‘I don’t have the budget to do it,or it’s not a priority.’
Not every idea is going to work. However, that should not stop us continually encouraging people to innovate. Every year we have the True Blue Awards, the Excellence in Innovation Award sends a loud message internally that innovation is important in our organisation.
An internal magazine Out of the Blue, which goes to all the staff highlights things that we’re doing which also helps give innovation high visibility within the organisation.
Most importantly we have an engaged senior leadership team and a Board that encourages innovation. From that point of view, we are quite fortunate. I think part of our success is because we are a mutual. We are there for our members so it makes sense for us to innovate to help them. We’re not like the other motoring clubs: we no longer have an insurance arm – we demutualised in 2000. We are a completely separate organisation, with our Members at the centre of everything we do.
ST: What advice would you give to other corporate innovators trying to succeed with their own programs?
RvdL: I think firstly you’ve got to be willing to take a risk, or realise that risk is associated with anything you do in this space. Accept that not everything is going to work. Also appreciate your failures as much as successes.
I think the other thing, and this is a lesson that I personally learned from the last two and a half years – if you believe in something, and you absolutely have a gut feel that it’s the right thing to do, then you have to be tenacious about making it happen. You’ve got to be willing to put in whatever it takes to get people on board. Don’t think, ‘Oh they don’t get it.’ Think, ‘How do I have to change they way I communicate this. How am I not getting the message across?’ You are the one working on it and you’ve had exposure to much more insight than the people you are trying to convince.
You need to be prepared to change from your initial idea and let it evolve. Don’t go in and say ‘this’ must be the way. I think that holds for any idea – not just innovation.
Lastly, managing expectations along the way is critical. Manage your stakeholder’s well. Know who the key influencers are and keep a regular dialogue with them. I think it’s good for any project, anything you do in the company – it’s got to have the support of everybody at the top behind it.