Innovation based on vision: "Without a business sponsor, we will no longer start innovations." The sun is shining, and I’m on my way to APG, where I’ll have an interview with Peter Strikwerda, Head of Digital & Innovation at APG Asset Management and Anthony Meyer, CEO Innovation Booster. The two gentlemen have built up a special friendship in recent years, in which innovation is a recurring theme. In this conversation we’ll look back on these years, but we‘ll also look ahead. As Peter and Anthony conclude: “In innovation you’ll go through ups and downs in a high pace”.

As soon as I enter the room with Anthony and Peter, they start reminiscing about their first assignment at the Growth Factory (‘Groeifabriek’); APG's organization-wide innovation program. I immediately notice that the gentlemen are well attuned to each other. Peter is relaxed and chooses his words intuitively. Anthony provokes slightly, thereby challenging Peter with comments and sharp questions. It makes for an interesting conversation.

How was your first meeting?

Anthony: “The very first time we saw each other was via a video call for Growth Factory. After that call, the first project started, introducing our methodology and trying out short-cycled working. The purpose of the project was to strengthen communication with the participants and from there we organized an offsite, which I supervised.”

Peter: “During this offsite there was a moment I will never forget. At the end of the first day, our team of 10 people felt lost. We got stuck in broad visions and because we couldn't translate them concretely. It was fascinating to we got back together on the second day and immediately made a clear choice to focus on some 'killer cases' and stick to them. This was a very nice tipping point, because from that ideation the innovation 'Next Best Question' originated.”

Anthony: "The Next Best Question is a program in which APG people in the customer contact center can predict what kind of questions the customer has about pensions."

Peter: “That makes us a lot more customer-oriented and gives us the opportunity to handle conversations better and faster. This still exists and is now going to production.”

Lost on the first day ... Care to explain?

Peter: “On a mental level it is very difficult to understand how to get from 'think big to act small'. Big visions of the future are inspiring and fun to talk about, but to make these thoughts small and actionable, you have to make choices and take a leap of faith. That is often difficult because people are not used to this in a corporate environment.”

Anthony: "We are not used to it, because normally the boss makes this decision for you, and this is now an environment where you can and must take the responsibility yourself."

 

How did you experience that as a leader?

Peter: “It took some getting used to, also for me. Working on innovations requires specific qualities in terms of both attitude and practical implementation. "Just do it" is very important, having the guts to get started without knowing exactly how and what beforehand. Making mistakes and learning are also crucial in a phase where you as an organization start to innovate; that is easy to say, but quite difficult in reality.”

 

Back to your collaboration. How did this develop in the time of the growth factory?

Peter: "Precisely because we went through the highs and lows together, we got to know each other very well."

Anthony: “I felt that too and found this difficult at the time. But a few years later, I can say that that was not the only difficult moment. In those challenging times, honesty is always our basis and we have always upheld this to each other. With the same question in mind: what is best for the company we work for?”

Good, let’s switch it up. What does the word innovation mean to you?

Peter: “I really think that's a bad question. It is a bad question because people often look for a model as a basis, but in my opinion, innovation is not about that. It is a common language you speak; giving meaning to innovation in your own environment. And that is why I started framing innovation as follows: is it a new application or technology in which a lot still needs to be done, and/or is it especially new for us as an organization? With that question, we look at value-creating innovations within the company. That is innovation for me. It is also a way of working, an approach to deal well with these situations. This makes it manageable when we talk about innovation at APG.”

Anthony: “I try not to use the word innovation because it is purely about progress. I can explain Artificial Intelligence to a bicycle mechanic because of the progress, but that is way too far from the problems he has at the time. It has to offer you something that you can work with immediately.” 

Anthony: “In addition, innovation is all about behavior, for example by looking at your own market in a different way and spotting new opportunities. This is about renewal, which is why I prefer to use the words renewal and value creation.”

 

Care to explain?

Anthony: “Almost daily I hear companies say they have to innovate now, because the time is now! I think to myself: we can also frame innovation in such a way that you have your affairs well organized and then the icing on the cake is 'innovation'. Within this we can create value or organize ourselves differently.”

Peter: “In this way we can make innovation more concrete. Because innovation is often looked at as a kind of hobby club. I believe innovation can be used to provide a fresh and clear perspective. Furthermore, it is important to always stay in touch with the company and stand firmly in your shoes.”

Do you have an example of concrete innovation?

Peter: “As an example I can mention “real time trade analytics”. Using Artificial Intelligence and other advanced models, we offer smart trading solutions to our traders. We trade for many billions a year, so very small margin improvements can already lead to a significant improvement in pension value creation.”

 

When we talk about innovation of real time analytics, or other novelties, do you always spar with each other?

Anthony: “Peter and I mainly discuss the way of organizing the business. If you let people take the right steps and collaborate with the right framework, you will get more in return and experience more speed in your portfolio.” 

Peter: “I believe that you can only be valuable when innovating if you are willing to go through a steep learning curve as an organization. Therefore, you have to learn tremendously about working together, assess, give room for error and determine how you can execute out a big idea in small steps. If I look at how we have now organized our portfolio compared to 2 years ago, I can proudly say that a lot of progress has been made. We ask focus and require business ownership at the start of each project. If this is not the case, we will not start a project. Me and Anthony talk about things like that.”

How does this work within the teams itself?

Peter: “In innovation you’ll go through ups and downs in a high pace. I see this as an acceptance curve. The early adopters are the innovators and they are automatically on board. The laggards, at the far right of the curve, are cynical and do not automatically cooperate. To make an impact in the organization I have to get the large middle group along. In order to achieve that, I have to be able to deal with both enthusiasm and resistance in the organization.”

Anthony: “And once you have that large middle group on board, you’ll come up with something new and then you have to fight for their acceptance again. That is why it is good to keep taking small steps in all decisions and new matters, to ensure that this acceptance remains.”

 

Do you have an example of this?

Peter: “Knowledge of the business is very important. Our investors are super specialists, they have a lot of knowledge and their time is scarce. If you want to create value for them, you need their expertise and you’ll want to deliver something that directly creates value for them. If you experiment with them and it fails - 80% of the approximately 50 experiments in the last 3years have stopped early - you sometimes have to cross a threshold for new experiments. This is the balance between actually experimenting and accepting frequent failure, compared to delivering concrete results. I am convinced that valuable results sell themselves better than anything.”

In addition to setbacks, do unexpected wins also come your way?

Anthony: “The trick here is, you continuously have to get people along in the acceptance curve. And this takes a lot of time. And what I now see happening more and more is that different stakeholders no longer think in roadblocks and difficulties, but in possibilities. So start doing it, instead of putting up barriers.”

Peter: “There are 3 things that are key to success for me:

1.    Strong leadership. You can't make it without leadership. Not just leadership within the team, but leadership across all organization dimensions, including individual colleagues.

2.     Feasibility. Sometimes the invention or solution is not yet ready to be made. But sometimes projects are executed way faster than previously anticipated. The feasibility balances in both ways.

3.    Detach experiments in the early stage from corporate dependencies. This means that in a "sandbox environment" you don't have to take all the company's rules into account, which makes you much more flexible."

We can conclude that innovation is not easily accepted and organized within a corporation. How do you see this in the future?

Peter: “We are entering a new phase. This means that, from building an innovation capability and good initial results, we will move to strategic embedding and upscaling. By setting it up in this way, we are heading into the direction of creating a strategic agenda or roadmap. As a result, I foresee that innovation is no longer really a job in itself, but much more business as usual within a strategic framework.”

Anthony: “Focus on realization. In what way can you realize things with the right tools and people, taking lessons of the past into account. This applies for a robust IT project, where you’ll probably use waterfall methods. Or for improving KPI’s, for which you’ll probably choose agile. Or for researching new technologies that probably involve experimentation. This way you can create a perfect toolkit that differs per situation.”

 

That makes things very concrete.

Peter: “That's right. And we have really succeeded in this. 3 years ago, I stood on a soapbox sharing my plans to create followers. At that time, I was mainly interested in getting things actually moving through a pragmatic approach. Now we demand a strong commitment and business sponsor at senior level. Otherwise we will not start at all. And with the strategic agenda we want to anchor that idea even more strongly.”

 

As a final question: what are your joint plans in the future?

Peter: “I think the combination of leading by example and the fresh view Innovation Booster brings is of great value. I find your interaction with people very inspiring. Moreover, you bring perspectives from other industries to the job and that is very valuable. This enables us to spot that there are many similar challenges in different industries.”

Anthony: "In any case, we will always have conversations about strategy and innovation, because we look at things differently and because it’s also just a lot of fun."

We conclude this interview on the note that both gentlemen are not afraid to learn from - and challenge each other. And this ability to challenge each other, combined with their shared passion for bringing organizations and people further, creates the foundation of their collaboration. Peter concludes: "If you are not open to learning, it is impossible to innovate." That’s for sure!

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