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Metlife’s chief innovation officer: Encouraging disruption is easier than most think

Leader of Lumenlab, a leading insurance company's innovation centre, believes it's just about switching perspectives.

Innovation has been a buzzword for a while now, but many still think of it as a nebulous concept accessible only to rebels in the tech industry. But, if Zia Zaman can innovate in a field as humourless as insurance, there’s no reason you can’t innovate in yours.

“Innovation is really about taking the perspective of the customer,” says Zaman, who has led strategy and marketing teams at companies like Singtel and LG Electronics, as well as tech start-ups, for the past 20 years. He says: “Today’s customers are really demanding and have high expectations so, if you’re not constantly looking to do something new that will add value, somebody else will.”

Lumenlab, for example, offers everything from VR sales experiences (where virtual reality creates ondemand advisers or immersive experiences using visual aids) to quiz apps that reward health knowledge.

“However, many people confuse disruptive innovation with disruptive technology,” he says, going on to explain that the former creates new markets, while the latter is a means to that end. “Technology is simply enabling. The biggest lesson I have to offer is that a customer-driven business model will always be more important than product, channel or technological innovation. Look at what Apple delivers: a well-designed, seamless experience for its customers.”

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Of course, not all companies have the luxury of building a swanky innovation lab for a large squad. But, if you want to start an innovation centre or practice, Zaman insists you need a sequestered and dedicated team. “It doesn’t really matter how large or small. If you can feed the team with two pizzas, that’s enough,” he says.

“But you need to take this team out of the core business and keep them thinking about the customer day in and day out.” Having that physical space is also critical, he adds. “It shows your employees and partners that you’re willing to break rules, that you’re not the same old company anymore.”

While innovation can be taught, Zaman feels that certain innate skills are important when looking for employees. “These skills are curiosity, idea expansion, willingness to experiment, speed in execution, and bravery,” he says. “If you can encourage these behaviours through your organisation, lack of hierarchy, honesty and openness to your partners, no matter where you are, you will succeed.”

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