How Northwestern Mutual's Tiger Teams saved money and time through digital innovation

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Northwestern Mutual has withstood and prospered through twists and turns in the economy and our industry over the past 160 years. The digital transformation currently reshaping the financial services industry is a bigger change than we or anyone has seen before. Our passion for serving our clients—and supporting our financial advisors—in this changing environment has called us to combine our traditional strengths with new digital capabilities. We are rapidly developing and delivering new financial planning and management tools. We have also accelerated our digital business strategy through increased investments in innovation, technology and startups to provide more value for our clients, financial representatives and employees.

As part of our transformation, we’ve built a culture of innovation throughout our company. We’ve launched new programs that engage not only our technology professionals, but employees throughout the enterprise and our financial advisors. These initiatives include our business development incubator, hackathons, the adoption of agile development processes, both internal and external venture funds and Innovation at the edge, which we call Tiger Teams.

What are Tiger Teams?

Tiger Teams—diversified teams of experts that come together to rapidly create a solution—may be best known for their role in saving the Apollo 13 mission. Since then, they’ve become popular with businesses wanting to create innovative solutions. We saw Tiger Teams as an ideal way to share our culture of innovation with our network offices and financial advisors. Many of our financial advisors had distinctive insights about pain points in their business, and ideas about how they might be able to relieve them. By teaming them up with engineers and product designers from our corporate office, we believed we could bring those ideas to life, and create digital solutions our entire sales force could benefit from.

To start the process, participants from Northwestern Mutual’s headquarters travel to network offices to hold ideation sessions with the advisors. These sessions allow the team to determine what problem they would like to solve, and what solution to build. This leads to the creation of a working prototype that can be tested within that office. That test period is an opportunity to gather information from users, refine the prototype, and assess the value of the experiment. Then the solution can be tested with more users, and if all goes according to plan, eventually rolled out to all financial advisors.

Creating business value

When Northwestern Mutual launched its Tiger Team effort in 2015, one of the first projects involved the company’s Seattle office. The financial representatives wanted to simplify the process of following up after meetings with clients and prospective clients. The existing process involved multiple tools that were not connected with one another, and were as a result cumbersome and time-consuming to use. Advisors relied on a subscription audio transcription service to create meeting notes; it was costly, and it created a time lag between when the notes were recorded and transcripts received. Generating follow-up correspondence and other necessary paperwork was a manual process, which consumed additional staff time.

The advisors and technical professionals on this Tiger Team all agreed there had to be a better way—so they quickly went about creating one, and moved it through ideation, prototype, pilot and ultimately a full product rollout.

The result? Posting Plus, an app that connects with the existing CRM tools and allows advisors to dictate meeting notes using their smartphone’s voice recording capability. It then translates the recording to written notes through free voice-recognition software, automatically generates follow-up correspondence, and then sends requests back to the advisor’s staff for additional next steps. This new, real-time workflow saves time for the advisors and their staff, makes client follow-up easier, meets compliance reporting needs and helps create a consistent experience for clients.

In January 2016, the new technology was made available to the entire Seattle office, where it was well received. In addition, it led some advisors who had been hesitant to work with the company’s CRM application to adopt that tool, creating additional efficiency. Posting Plus was released to Northwestern Mutual’s network offices nationwide in April 2016, and is now used widely across the organization.

Enhanced collaboration drives innovation

Not only is the new tool easier to use—it has created measurable value. Advisors using this new technology have been able to cancel their previous transcription-service subscription, which cost more than $600 per advisor per year. It also dramatically reduces the amount of time advisors and their teams must devote to the follow up sales activities—by approximately 12 hours total per week per representative.

This Tiger Team experiment reduced staff time and costs, saving approximately $32 million through year-end 2017. Further savings and productivity gains have been realized because this enhancement has increased adoption of the client relationship management tool. Total costs for this Tiger Team exercise and subsequent development were under $100,000, making this a remarkable return on investment.

Tiger Teams demonstrate how our innovations are delivering near-immediate value to the company and our clients. In the short time we’ve conducted Tiger Team exercises, three apps have been developed, three projects are currently underway and three new Tiger Team efforts are planned for the coming year. By working together, we have developed an agile, flexible mindset that will help our business grow and provide our clients with the leading financial planning experience they want and deserve.

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