Insights on innovation with NRMA Motoring and Services’ Rene van der Loos
Most 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 recently 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: What would be the definition of innovation for you and your team at NRMA?
Rene van der Loos: Innovation is definitely something that has a lot of debate around it, but I think what we’ve settled on is anything that creates value. That could be social value. That could be financial value. Or just a process that makes the customer experience better.
ST: What is the role and purpose of innovation at NRMA?
RvdL: We are constantly looking at how we can do things better. Our primary focus with innovation is to look at how we can support the business’ three to five year strategy.
Our journey started in October 2010 by creating the T2020 project. The board and the group executive committee made a decision to pull a team of people out of NRMA to come up with ideas that would take us into the future. As project lead I could choose whoever I wanted across the organisation, find some new office space away from NRMA and gain input from a small external team to really find out what was happening in the world:
- What are the emerging trends?
- What emerging technologies will impact our business?
- How are people’s attitudes changing?
- What impact was that going to have on our current business today, and tomorrow?
Quite often with innovation there are risks. Particularly at that time (end of GFC), the board and the group executive team showed courage in approving the T2020 project.
ST: How did you go about setting up the T2020 project team?
RvdL: We picked Chippendale for our location. I was given the option of either pulling together a team of strategists, or creating a diverse team from across the company. I chose the diverse team. We had people such as Joe, who’d been a patrolman for 18 years. We also took a member from the call center. Basically from all walks of life across the organisation.
We wanted these people to bring their personal lens’ to what we were doing, and for some people that was a big ask because they were having to think more strategically than previously. However they added some amazing insights because they were face-to-face with members on a daily basis. If I had my time again, I wouldn’t change that.
The team then came up with over 100 ideas. We whittled those down to 11, which we presented to the board for approval. Out of those, two of them are up and running:
- Emergency Home Assist, and
- Living Well Navigator.
ST: What was the importance of research and canvassing ideas in in the early stages?
RvdL: We spoke to over 1200 people. We did formal as well as informal research. At our open space in Chippendale we’d have 30 or 40 people come in at a time and we’d use them to help build ideas. Then we’d have another group and we’d bounce and build some more, or we’d get a panel of several CEOs or people who are really respected in innovation and we’d bounce and build ideas with them.
We had a number of different things that we would do to make sure that we were on the right track. When we got to the point where the Living Well Navigator was given approval to go ahead, we set up an advisory panel of a number of CEOs across the industry who really knew that part of the business or industry well, and then we used them to bounce and build ideas for that specific project. It was very effective.
The other thing we did was to invite over 400 members to participate through an online community space. We used them to help co-create the final proposition. We knew broadly what we wanted to do, but then we had to work through it more, we just kept working until we got it to a point where we all thought, “We’ve nailed it now.”
ST: What problems did you identify through this process of insights and research?
RvdL: I think it depends on which lens you use to look at the problems. You can look at it from the members’ point of view – just people. What problems are they grappling with on a daily basis? You can look at it from the organisation’s point of view, in terms of what are the emerging technologies that are going to impact the business, and how is that landscape changing?
We always tried to use these different lenses. When we started to get a hunch that people were grappling with how to access quality information, to help them keep more engaged with life as they aged, we knew we had something to build on. It’s got to start with people. It’s got to start with a need and a gap in the market. That may be known or unknown. For example didn’t know that we needed an Apple iPad in our lives until it was created it.
So for us, it was our members who told us that they found the whole ageing space, particularly post-retirement, a very difficult place to navigate. There was information all over the place, some of it was really difficult to understand, but there was nowhere centrally where they could go to. So we started thinking about it from an informational point of view, but then moved to a more solution-oriented point of view. If they’re thinking about work, it’s not just about giving them information on how to write their CV and what to think about in terms of the interview; it’s about linking them to organisations that actually value older workers in the workforce. Giving them the jobs, right now, that they can apply for. It’s looking at that solution from beginning to end.
We’ve tried to stick with that across everything we think about. And seek to help them each step of the way, not just give them part of the step and then leave them on their own.
We also focused on technology. Technology is something that is going to have a huge impact on our business. There are some amazing things that are happening on that front. Look at the potential of big data, and some of the big players who are moving into that space. The manufacturers want to own that whole value chain now. So Telematics is something we’re continuing to look at.
ST: Were there any companies or programs that you looked at as part of this program that stand out?
RvdL: we tried to look at everything. To be honest I think it’s the only way to keep your eye on the ball. It’s changing so rapidly, it doesn’t matter which industry you look at. The rate of change is staggering. You look at what Uber is doing now. Uber has just launched UberAssist. Google’s driverless cars are on the road now in the US and UK.
Another company that’s doing some amazing things on the innovation front, I think, is BMW. When we were looking at them from within the T2020 project we found that they had created the BMW Guggenheim laboratory. They went to nine major cities in the world where they had urbanists, architects and all sorts of specialists from different fields gather information about what areas BMW might be part of in the future. Whereas, in the 1980s it was all about cars. I think a lot of organisations are doing that; they’re really opening their scope in terms of what they’re willing to look at.
ST: How were different viewpoints and experiences captured through this process?
RvdL: firstly, we involved our membership base because they’re at the center of everything that we do.
They were involved throughout the whole process. Through desktop research, we started to build up some ideas and we had some hunches about some things that we might do. Part of that process was also thinking about who we were as an organisation. We have a membership base of 2.4 million members. We have spent 90 years building up a very trusted brand. Thinking about what we could do, given what our current assets were was really important for us. We’ve always been about help, from the day that we started. Our newly launched Emergency Home Assist reinforces that idea; it’s just like roadside assistance but for the home.
The Living Well Navigator is also very much about help. It recognises that we’ve got 1.4 million Members over fifty and 750,000 over the age of 65. That growing ageing population is representative of what’s happening in Australia. The Living Well Navigator is all about how we help those Members to keep them engaged in life, to live independently, to find work – whether it’s paid, part time, or fully paid. Basically to help them live the life they want to lead.
Secondly, we tried to have as much external stimulus as possible on a daily basis. We invited CEOs across different industries, and futurists to talk to the team. We spoke with travel companies, other motor companies, hospitals, the CSIRO etcetera. We got as much stimulus as possible coming through to understand the future landscape.
ST: What advice would you provide about stakeholder management through your experience on the T2020 project?
RvdL: I think one of the things you’ve got to do is a lot of legwork in the beginning to make sure the organisation understands what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Don’t underestimate how much is involved in that. For example Living Well Navigator kind of makes sense to a lot of people, everyone relates to it. They’re either thinking about their parents, or they’re thinking, you know what, that’s me in ten years. Or six years. Then when you start throwing around things such as in Australia you’re regarded as an older worker at 45, it brings it home to people that change needs to happen. Once you get that point where people see that, and it’s doing something that hopefully will change the way society views ageing for the better, it’s easier to get people on board with it.
ST: From your experience is there a best practice approach to innovation?
RvdL: No, I don’t think there is just one way to think about innovation. I think there are a number of ways to tackle it, and I think the T2020 project, while it was difficult, it was an amazing process. I remember going back to the board and saying, “I had no idea this stuff was happening”. When you’re in the business, working on the business, you’re focusing on what’s around you and you’re not really paying enough attention to what’s happening overseas or in other markets that will impact the current business.
We have recently trialled a very different approach to innovation with our Jumpstart program with high-tech accelerator Slingshot. This is really to find entrepreneurial people who were trying to get something up that supported the direction that we were taking as a business. The innovation team has looked at all of our operations, to see which of those new ideas from the program might actually help us fast track our strategy.
ST: How important is the consistency of leadership from idea to execution to the success of innovation?
RvdL: I think that’s something that’s very important. I’ve worked on other start-ups and in my view, at least some members of the team who’ve been with it from day one, need to carry it through to implementation. They’re the ones who’ve got the passion and who want to make it work.
I’m absolutely passionate about Living Well Navigator. Emergency Home Assist as well. I think there’s a great opportunity for NRMA to actually make a difference in peoples’ lives.
Stay tuned for the second part of this interview with Rene van der Loos, on operations of innovation, coming soon.