Lessons from Intrapreneurs at Allstate: an interview with Jack Redding

Stories

January 08, 2018

An Interview with Jack Redding

I work at Allstate in the IT department, on a desktop and laptop hardware engineering team. But I would say that’s my day job.

I also work as the Vice President of the Intrapreneurs at Allstate Employee Resource Group. We promote intrapreneurship and the ability of everyday employees to be able to bring forward and build out new ideas. Our two biggest programs are the “Startup Challenge” and “Spark Tank”.

Startup Challenge Summer Program

Every summer we pair interns and employees together on teams. We give them a targeted business challenge, the data and analytics that they need, and subject matter experts — the basic building blocks to catalyze innovative thinking. We then help them to build those ideas out over the course of the summer.

For the interns, it’s a great education in how the insurance business works. We pair them with business areas that are close to the customer. For employees, it’s a great chance to understand parts of the company they would never have been exposed to.

Startup Challenge Pitch Day

Spark Tank, Allstate’s first pitch competition & accelerator program

Spark Tank allows employees from all around the company get to pitch to senior leaders. They can pitch any idea. The only criteria is that it needs to be an idea that could result in new revenue for Allstate.

We’re not looking for process improvements, but for new products, new ways of marketing, new ways that we can reach new customers. Lots of criteria were considered, but the biggest one was:

“If this takes off, what’s the opportunity here?”

The judges chose two teams, and they were put through a two-week accelerator with an external facilitator. At the end of the accelerator, they delivered their pitch directly to the senior leaders who eventually would need to sponsor their ideas.

In our conversation, Jack shared key learnings from Spark Tank and the Startup Challenge, and priorities for the coming year. Here are a few key pieces of advice.

1. You need to build a process to go from ideation to execution.

“Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.”
– Theodore Levitt

Ideation is great, but ideas are cheap. We currently have a lot of ways to bring good ideas into the system — teams or business areas are hosting their own hackathons and ideathons and challenges. But there’s no existing process to convert that from an idea into something that’s ready for a full-on, enterprise-scale deployment.

We need a ready-to-go, repeatable process that we can quickly engage when an idea emerges.

A way to allow teams with viable ideas to take the next step and actually build the idea up themselves.

That will include working with:

  • Finance, to have a little bit of seed funding available to test out or build an MVP for their project
  • Legal, to establish what can we do and say, and how far can we go with an idea before contract terms and other factors come into play.
  • HR, to determine how we deal with intellectual property and with providing employees time outside their day jobs and other resources they need.
  • Corporate Relations and Marketing Analytics, because it’s an absolute imperative that our teams are able to talk to customers from the very beginning. Ideas are great, but none of them is going to be worth a lick of salt if customers aren’t interested in them.

All of that will be our major undertaking — but it is the scaffolding needed to support innovation.

2. You need to leverage the power of “Founders”.

Very, very rarely will a person who is handed an idea by their leaders have the passion and the drive needed to actually get it off the ground.Without that, and without the vision of the person who first started the ball rolling, you lose momentum very quickly.

We’ve learned that, at least in the early stages, the intrapreneur themselves is the person best suited to start building an idea out. We compare it to a startup: if the founder of a startup leaves too early, the odds are pretty good that that startup is going to fail.

As a result, a key focus for us is keeping the intrapreneur in the driver’s seat for longer. As we build out the “backend of innovation”, we’re helping to keep that person at the helm as they navigate the early stages of the process.

3. You learn from what is working — and from what isn’t.

Recently we’ve started capturing more stories of intrapreneurial success. There are places in every company where people with ideas have successfully built them out.

But we’ve also started capturing stories of intrapreneurial failures.

What are the things that frustrate people that are coming up with ideas today? Where have people gotten stuck?

There are some basic things to look for when you start gathering these stories: You can find ideas where one person has been driving it alone for a long time. You can look at patent registers, and look at the names of the people on those patents. You can look in your development teams or in innovation areas.

Identifying those challenges and those success stories has helped us to identify where we need to improve in the future.

4. Getting ahead of the “Corporate Immune System” is difficult, but game-changing.

We’ve found that people who have a drive to build new things sometimes get pushed down or pressed out by the organization. Their ideas can sometimes trip what we refer to as the “corporate immune system”. Either:

1. The business area gets too involved too early, and starts to impose their preconceived notions on the idea before we get a chance to go out and validate with customers. Because the idea is sucked back into the mainstream organization too quickly, the idea is killed right there.

OR

2. The team validates the idea, and then the business area picks it up. They say, “Okay, we’re going to run with this now!” …. and it gets put in a list of a million other priorities. It gets added to “the pile”.

To address this, during the Spark Tank we invited the managers, directors, and vice presidents who supervised the participating employees to a sponsor workshop. We also invited leaders from business area teams that we identified as being the likely home for these ideas. We discussed,

What does a good sponsor look like? How do you sponsor an idea without choking it?

You need sponsors in those areas on board from an early stage, because ultimately, these are the places that will be the home for ideas that come out of these projects

5. Build your network of supporters early.

We have not, and could not, do this alone. We’ve had a huge cast of people on our board and subject matter experts and mentors from around the company that have helped us. People around the entire company are rooting for us. Finding those people very early gives us a place to kind of draw strength and inspiration from.

It’s hugely important to find or create that host of supporters. Not everyone is an intrapreneur, but anyone can be a supporter of intrapreneurs.

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