Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Internal Disruption: How to Create a Culture for Innovation: from AARP

Internal Disruption: How to Create a Culture for Innovation
Terry Bradwell, Chief Innovation Officer, AARP
Anne Marie Kilgallon, Vice President, Innovation, AARP
We “have been a major transformation journey at AARP for three years,” says Bradwell, the Chief Innovation Officer. “We are living longer and it changes how we think about retirement, work, love, and everything about life.”

The place we needed to start was to look internally, in the mirror. “The average age of our employees is 37. We started out as an innovative organization, founded with a sense of mission by a retired school teacher. But as most companies build themselves, they get complacent. You forget about the magic that started you. Now, the goal is rediscover that magic.”

We focused on Principles, People, and the environment as the building blocks of a culture of innovation

We came up principles for innovation:
(1)  Fail fast and fail cheap.
(2)  Innovation can come from anywhere.
(3)  It starts with the customer and ends with the customer.
(4)  Test, learn, and pivot.
(5)  Innovation is not a part-time job, but rather just part of everyone’s job.
(6)  Innovation is just a lever of the strategy
(7)  Innovation is intrinsically linked to strategy

"Yes, the last two hit upon the same point; it's important," he jokes. We needed to make sure everyone has the toolsets and language to properly innovate.

“Servant Leadership is all about plugging into a grid and making sure everyone across the enterprise feels empowered,” says Bradwell.

At this point Anne Marie took the microphone, she claims her real role is one spreading of transformational change.

“We are 18 months top two years into this journey, so we are still toddlers,” she says.

AARP started with the simple question: why are we innovating?

They developed four objectives that aligned to strategy, “not only on paper, but in team assignments.”

“We use innovation to decide where we should focus, to help set strategy,” she adds. 

The second thing they did was to “foster a culture of innovation.” This objective gave a mandate to infuse the entire culture with innovation. “We started with leaders, then hit the bottom, and that is how we are getting the middle to move.” They trained the entire organization first, then began projects.

The third objective was to deepen member and consumer empathy throughout the journey.

The fourth was to unlock the creative potential of their talent. “Everyone loves innovation until bonus time,” Kilgallon said. Using the innovation methods on this issue, AARP discovered that people wanted recognition for doing innovation work well, rather than money.

They developed the i6 Innovation framework, a system of tools and shared behaviors. “We’ve now trained almost 80% of the large organization.”

“We knew we had two years to make a big win, so we showed a lot of little wins,” she adds. They built an innovation measurement dashboard.

People are the key to successful innovation. “We are just providing the tools and behaviors, so we train, a lot.” They have both an Everyday and Champions version of training.

For environment, we “built the Hatchery,” a space where people can come and innovate that feels really different, “Google told us it looks more like Google than Google.” She gives a thumbs up.

This space is “a commitment to disrupt aging from AARP.”

AARP communicates its innovation work widely internally. “We insist on collaboration, not a silo,” she adds. “that’s not infusing innovation into the culture.

We have “delivered 17 innovations, performed 170 employees, launched the Hatchery, and started working with start ups.”

Michael Graber is the managing partner of the Southern Growth Studio, an insight, innovation, and strategy firm based in Memphis, TN, and the author of Going Electric. Visit

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