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Our recipe for a successful innovation challenge

Future of Work|Talent
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By Katie Plemmons and Karen O’Leonard | May 26, 2021

Diversity, a bottom- up approach and commitment are essential ingredients of innovation.

Springtime is filled with new energy and excitement at Willis Towers Watson because we have the amazing opportunity to hear our colleagues pitch ideas that will potentially bring value to our clients for years to come through our annual innovation challenge called Horizons.

Horizons focuses on potentially transformative ideas for solutions that may open new markets, reach new customers or introduce new business models. The program presents a unique opportunity for the company’s leaders to hear from colleagues from every corner of the globe and for colleagues to set aside time to collaborate with each other on innovative ideas.

Since its inception in 2018, Horizons has generated hundreds of ideas for new solutions. And while not all of these ideas are commercialized, the program has a strong record of bringing new solutions to market, accelerating the process of testing new ideas and engaging colleagues in innovation. So, what is our recipe for a successful innovation challenge?

Collaboration is key

We believe innovation is a team effort, so in January we kicked off this year’s Horizons with a series of “jam sessions” — bringing together colleagues to brainstorm ideas aligned with specific problem areas and opportunities outlined in the Aon-Willis Towers Watson innovation white paper, Helping clients navigate an increasingly complex world. In March, we wrote about the success of these jam sessions and how important they are to Horizons.

Approaching problem solving in this manner allows for targeted sessions where colleagues can collaborate with a diverse team to address some of our clients’ most complex problems. In fact, all of the top 10 ideas for the 2021 Horizons challenge were submitted by teams, further highlighting the importance of collaboration.

A well run review and selection process

Once the ideas are submitted, a review team comprising more than 20 high-potential leaders representing each business and geography evaluates the ideas and chooses the top contenders. Colleagues then vote on the top prospects to select the most promising ideas they believe the firm should pursue.

This process highlights the bottom-up approach we take with the Horizons innovation program, where any colleague has the opportunity to submit an idea, and every colleague may vote on the ones they feel will have the most impact to the company. The top finalists then pitch their ideas to a panel that includes our CEO and senior executives.

From selection to pitch day, the teams only have a few weeks to prepare. During this time, they submit a “Lean Canvas” – a high-level business plan that includes the problem definition, solution concept, value proposition, market opportunity, revenue model, competitor landscape and a few other key pieces of information for judges to consider. They may also include a short video, which offers the benefit of not only summarizing the idea, but also can showcase the team members and their enthusiasm for the idea.

On pitch day, two members of each team have 25 minutes to sell the judges on their solution concept – 10 minutes of presentation, followed by 15 minutes dedicated to questions and answers, where they must think on their feet and respond quickly and thoughtfully to some probing and very complex questions.

The judges pick three ideas among the finalists to proceed to a rapid prototyping and testing process to assess the concept’s desirability and feasibility, which ultimately determines whether we’ll further invest in developing and commercializing the solution.

Diversity can maximize impact

In addition to collaboration and a thorough review process, we have yet another ingredient in our recipe for success: diversity. In 2021, our finalists, 16 colleagues who represented seven countries, multiple lines of business, and an equal split of men and women, represented a diverse background that brought a wealth of knowledge and complexity of thought to ideas, ultimately maximizing the impact to our clients. And the proportion of women who contributed to this year’s Horizons was especially encouraging — in the early years of the program, we struggled to get adequate numbers of women involved.

Not only were the ideas developed from a diversity of gender and geography, they also represent all layers of the organization – which is one of the two most unique characteristics of Horizons (we’ll get to the second one next). Ideas are submitted from all levels and tenure within Willis Towers Watson. Year over year, we see submissions from entry level through seasoned professionals, with 2021 showing the strongest submissions coming from mid-career colleagues. A dynamic mix of client-interfacing colleagues really brings the voice of the customer to the solution.

Another potentially surprising fact is that a large number of the top ideas came from new hires (31% of ideas in 2021 and 50% in prior years). Recently hired employees bring a fresh perspective to solving problems and are a fantastic resource for innovation.

Dedicated time

Here comes the second most unique characteristic of Horizons: Selected ideas are led by colleagues who take up to four months to manage a diverse project team through the testing phase. Allowing colleagues to take time away from their day jobs shows Willis Towers Watson’s dedication to innovation and provides colleagues the “space” to think and act like an entrepreneur – which is truly unique.

These project leads are supported by a small team from across the organization. They are paired with an innovation coach to help guide them through the process, as this is a very different way of working for most. The team is supported by colleagues from different areas of our business and those with expertise in software development, user experience (UX), legal and finance. Bringing together a mix of colleagues from different pockets of the organization brings wide-ranging perspectives, allowing for the development of solutions that serve a client need comprehensively.

During the testing phase, project teams are guided through our design thinking and “lean start-up” methodologies, working through agile sprints to prototype concepts, get feedback from a clients, then iterating (the build-measure-learn process). If they have validated that the problem they are trying to solve is real, and that their proposed concept solves the problem, they are then coached through developing a comprehensive business plan, including financial modeling and commercialization strategies. They must then present their findings and recommendations to executive leadership to secure the next round of funding.

Fueling the innovation pipeline

Through this process, Horizons has successfully launched solutions that bring together all facets of our expertise as a firm. This year we continued the recipe for success and picked three ideas that span our risk, human capital and insurance broking businesses. These ideas are big, bold additions to our early-stage innovation pipeline that fuels our future growth.

With Horizons, a mix of diversity, a bottom- up approach, and a huge dash of commitment allows us the perfect recipe for innovation.

Authors

Director – Corporate Innovation

Head of Innovation

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