How Disruption Leads to Innovation
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How Disruption Leads to Innovation

By Scott Blandford, Chief Digital Officer, TIAA

Scott Blandford, Chief Digital Officer, TIAA

Financial services organizations are not often viewed as quick thinking or digitally native. They are mostly regarded as steady and unchanging. Too much modernization might “rock the boat,” creating a perception of instability for customers. That’s the opposite of what you would want from a firm responsible for your financial well-being!

But the truth is, the only way a company can maintain stability in any environment is by finding ways to evolve. In fact, harnessing the power of disruption can result in new and innovative solutions to meet customer needs.

That concept is pretty familiar to me. When I started at TIAA in 2010, I was charged with bringing the firm’s digital capabilities to the next level. Since then, the 100-year-old company has undergone a complete digital transformation, shifting our focus to become more digitally native – with an aspiration to be like the Amazons and Googles of the world – in order to deliver innovative products and services to our customers while maintaining the financial strength and stability they rely on us to provide every day.

"TIAA is a member of one of only three insurance groups in the United States to currently hold the highest rating available to U.S. insurers from three of the four leading insurance company rating agencies"

However, for us, the shift to digital-first has been an evolution. It requires our team to adjust to an ever-changing landscape, harnessing the power of disruption to ensure we continue to deliver for our clients.

Through this process, four principles emerged that keep our focus on innovation:

1. Avoid the “usual suspects”: While silos in any company are natural and often beneficial, they can also result in stagnation. Instead of relying on the same teams to meet challenges that fall within their silos, we engage experts from different backgrounds and with different expertise. Too often, the focus can be on introducing innovation into a company; instead, leaders should try to get out of the way to let innovation happen organically.

2. Fail often and fail iteratively: The concept of “failing fast,” “failing often” or not even calling it failing at all - helps to remove the fear of missing the mark when tackling challenges. Without that fear and with a focus on an iterative process, teams are able to focus on creative solutions. They are enabled to take what did work in each of their attempts and apply it to the next round – ultimately helping teams achieve their goals.

3. Limit your time: The idea of adding time constraints to a project can feel counter-intuitive, but I have found it helps to push our creative thinking. At TIAA, we sometimes give ourselves 45 days to solve a problem or create a new idea. If we can’t get it done in 45 days, we approach the challenge in a different way.

4. Think small: TIAA is a Fortune 100 company, but that doesn’t mean we can’t think or act like a small startup. Adopting an agile mindset allows flexibility in our approach to innovation and new products so we can continue acting on our mission of being a customer-focused company.

Abiding by these principles has allowed TIAA to evolve into a digitally focused company, while maintaining our commitment to being a mission-driven organization. By harnessing the power of disruption and changing our approach internally, we have been able to maintain stability for our clients – a worthwhile model for all financial services organizations to consider.

For its stability, claims-paying ability and overall financial strength, Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America (TIAA) is a member of one of only three insurance groups in the United States to currently hold the highest rating available to U.S. insurers from three of the four leading insurance company rating agencies: A.M. Best (A++ as of 6/17), Fitch (AAA as of 2/17) and Standard & Poor's (AA+ as of 8/17), and the second highest possible rating from Moody’s Investors Service (Aa1 as of 8/17). There is no guarantee that current ratings will be maintained. The financial strength ratings represent a company’s ability to meet policyholders’ obligations and do not apply to variable annuities or any other product or service not fully backed by TIAA’s claims-paying ability. The ratings also do not apply to the safety or the performance of the variable accounts, which will fluctuate in value.

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