How Zurich Insurance Masters Corporate Innovation. Interview with Alex Cottrell, Innovation Lead at Zurich Insurance

We caught up with Zurich to find out how they foster the culture of innovation, and which workshops they run to stay ahead of the game!

Innovation–regardless of your current position or industry, we’re willing to bet you’ve heard this term thrown around. We probably don’t need to explain why you shouldn’t look over it: the many benefits of well-executed innovation (competitive edge in the market, higher efficiency, increased quality, happier employees, and enjoyable working culture to name a few) speak for themselves! But the question we get A LOT is how to execute innovation so that it works.

A belief we hold dear to our hearts is that execution matters more than any idea, regardless of how innovative or exceptional. That’s why we LOVE learning from real-life examples teams who are championing the way of innovation in their organizations. So when we’ve heard that Zurich Insurance, one of the world’s largest insurance groups with over 55,000 employees in more than 170 countries, swears by workshops to help them stay innovative – we couldn’t miss the opportunity to find out how exactly they do it. We caught up with Alex Cottrell, Innovation Lead at Zurich Insurance UK, and asked him alllll about starting the culture of innovation in a corporation, and which workshops Zurich runs to stay ahead of the game!

Hey Alex! We LOVE to see Zurich Insurance championing corporate innovation! You’re an Innovation Lead – a person in charge of fostering innovation in your organization. Tell us a bit more about what the job entails…

Being an Innovation Lead means being the person who’s leading the propositions from a spark of an idea to the prototype, building and testing the MVP, and ultimately–the final scaled product. It also means ensuring that we, as a company, work on the right things or fail fast the ideas that are not fitting. Ultimately, a lot of what the Innovation Lead does is running all kinds of workshops to get the right outcomes.

(By the way, workshops are an amazing career-boosting tool even if you’re not working in the innovation department. Check this article out for tips on how workshops can propel your professional growth)

We are big workshops fans (if you couldn’t tell already), so to hear that workshops have a place in a corporate setting is fantastic! What are your go-to workshops?

Our most used workshops for the beginning stages are probably the Lightning Decision Jam and the Design Sprint. We use Lightning Decision Jam to get the business to identify the multitude of problems and the best solutions based on an important pain point or opportunity. We then use this output as a basis for the Design Sprint.

One of the biggest wins of running workshops at Zurich has been the ability to showcase the value of the collaborative, new way of working. It places us in a unique position: We’re not just creating innovative products anymore, we’re adding substantial value to our teams and services.

Alex Cottrell

We also have innovation consultants who we work hand-in-hand with and we look to upskill them to run these workshops as well. Most of what the innovation team at Zurich does tends to at least start with the workshop with the right people from across the business in the room.

For many of our readers, people who want to become workshoppers, a concern we often hear is getting into an endless workshop loop with loads of ideation and strategy producing but minimal outcomes. How do you integrate workshops into your workflow to avoid that?

We run our ideation workshops verbatim to AJ&Smart’s which gave us a process that prevents us get lost in endless ideation. Plus, the workshops we run are always quite purposefully short due as we are always aware of the ask on people’s time. The amazing thing is–a huge amount of work can be done in a very short amount of time when you have a formulaic workshop process that a team follows. So we stick to the “rules” and always get the outcomes we need. For us formulaic processes actually encourage creativity.

For which kind of challenges would you typically use these workshops?

We use it for a broad range of problems! And it’s obviously different from workshop to workshop. For example, LDJ is our go-to tool for any ideation that we might need to do. We’ve used it for a 120 person leadership team-event to bring brains together to tackle a range of challenges together. We generated strategy level insights and uncovered important pain points and solutions from across the business. The energy and momentum that the team got in that session were amazing.

We also run LDJs before each Design Sprint to get to the bottom of the challenge at hand. It gives the Design Sprint a kind of elegance because we can create a view of the complexity of the problem, address the meaty challenge in the Sprint process and address other feasibility and viability challenges in parallel.

LDJ has also proved to be a great workshop to run with our customers. We’ve used it with customers from the same teams to get them to think differently about how they work and problem-solve together.

So the application cases for workshops are truly manifold.

The thought of running workshops (let alone for 120 people!) makes your palms sweaty? Not to worry. We recently trained Twitter on how to own the room as a facilitator, and here are the three major takeaways that you can start applying right away, too!

What has been the most significant benefit you’ve seen of running workshops to foster innovation?

One of the biggest wins of running workshops at Zurich has been the ability to infect our teams with the workshop spirit; showcasing the value of the collaborative, new way of working. It’s crucial for us because it places us in a unique position: We’re not just creating innovative products anymore, we’re adding substantial value to our teams and services.

The amazing thing is–a huge amount of work can be done in a very short amount of time when you have a formulaic workshop process that a team follows.

Alex Cottrell

Another benefit of integrating workshops into the working culture is having room and confidence to play and experiment. Since the nature of the workshops is quite formulaic, we can tweak it and adjust it to our purposes. For instance, we’ve been trying we call ‘Reverse Lightning Decision Jam’. We use it in situations when we have been given a ready solution, trend, or technology and what we want to identify is tangible and real problems that this could solve for us. Using an ask the expert session at the start of the session helps us to uncover and agree on the most important benefits of the solution. At which point we can identify and vote on the biggest problems that it would be most useful and effective to be applied to, we can then test these ideas using a Design Sprint.  

We love that you experiment with your workshops! That’s the spirit we love to see spread. Naturally, when you come up with your variations, you develop a set of internal rules for your workshops. Could you share what those are for you?

The most crucial step is making sure we have the right people in the room: the ones who directly experience the problem or issue at hand — the people who feel that they really ought to solve this problem. We also always make sure to pull in people from different areas of the business such as Ops, Tech, Marketing, Finance and Risk so that we have diverse perspectives represented.

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What are your biggest DOs and DON’Ts for running a successful workshop?

It honestly depends on a particular workshop type but speaking generally, some rules we always try to stick to are:

  1. Keeping the end-goal and the problem at hand in view so that the workshop stays on track. Traceability between activities is crucial to get to a successful and relevant outcome.
  2. For LDJ/Ideation, the selected pain point has got to be something brief, emotive and purely problem or challenge related. The pain point has to be something that the whole team feel so that they can identify real-life challenges related to it.
  3. For a Design Sprint, I’d recommend having a thorough understanding of the problem through the LDJ beforehand as we don’t want a team who are not certain about the challenge we are head to address.
  4. Another absolute must is making sure that every member of the workshop is prepped for it in advance one-to-one and it’s your job as a facilitator to make sure of that.

What is your facilitation go-to tip?

Make it fun for the people attending. Make sure enough energy is present in the room. As a facilitator, you have to be invested in helping guide the team to solve the challenge being discussed. Communicate the excitement to your participants. Tell them that you’ll achieve great results, don’t let the workshop seem like a chore. Embody the energy you wish to have in your workshop. Your participants are going to mirror it!

What advice would you give someone who wants to start a workshop culture in their organization?

Starting something new can be nerve-wracking. I know I was quite nervous when I attempted my first workshop – the Design Sprint!

My biggest advice would we: Don’t try to come up with something of your own right off the bat. Go for a tried and tested workshop first. Especially with workshops like the Design Sprint, this isn’t something that you’re making up as you go along, you don’t need to wonder whether it will work – it was already evolved and tested by the best in business! So you can relax, and let the process do its work.

Find Alex on LinkedIn here and check out the fantastic things Zurich Insurance is up to here!

AJ&Smart Team

A team of pro workshop facilitators with 9+ years of experience.