A conversation with Jeff Marple, Director of Innovation, Corporate Legal at Liberty Mutual Insurance
This is part of my series on thought leaders in the innovation space. Check out the other articles here.
Jeff Marple’s story is one of a bartender-turned-innovation professional. “I was bartending full time and my wife was working as a banker. I was coming home at 3:00 in the morning, she was going to work at 6:00 am, so we were missing each other.” Ready for a change, he inquired about open positions with some of his regular customers and landed a job at Liberty Mutual Insurance. Jeff started in customer support answering phones and resetting passwords and grew his role into much more. “14 years later, I owned the whole platform and did all of our strategic development as well as managing production support.”
When the Liberty claims department started an innovation group, Jeff and the manager met, hit it off, and a month later Jeff had his first job managing innovation. A couple of years later when the legal team at Liberty decided to explore innovation, Jeff was brought in as their first Innovation Director. In addition to investigating and testing new technology, processes, and business models impacting the work of legal professionals, Jeff promotes a culture of innovation and helps shepherd innovative projects for Liberty Legal.
Giant leaps forward are the result of iteration
Jeff’s work leading innovation in a field not typically associated with cutting- edge technology has resulted in some valuable insights for the innovation space at large. Foremost is the understanding that giant leaps forward in innovation are the result of a multitude of smaller actions, experiments, and tests. Going for the moonshot from the very beginning isn’t how innovation really happens.
“The thing that gets most people in trouble is going for moonshots or 10x products. I don’t think you can set out to do those things. Huge disruptive products only become apparent when you have come up close to them or adjacent to them.”
Jeff is a big believer in the foundation that teams can put in place through iteration. He likens the practice to climbing foothills in order to see the larger mountains off in the distance.
There’s nothing wrong with moonshot thinking. But the fanfare of the “big moment” in innovation can mislead people into thinking that the end product was the goal from the very beginning. “I don’t have a problem with iterative innovation. I don’t have a problem with 10x innovation, or whatever Google is calling it these days. But I don’t believe that it really happens that way. I think that it’s always iterative. It’s just a question of what you’re seeing or what you remember, versus what’s actually occurring.”
Take the iPhone as an example. Around the time of its release, there were other smartphones available. And those adjacent products had an impact on the innovation of the iPhone. “There was a lot that came together at the right time. It was a ton of iterative innovation that was happening in multiple disciplines coming together at the same time.”
The difference for Apple was they had all the right factors to take an invention and support it with the ecosystem necessary for innovation. “It’s really about product development and less about innovations. There were innovative technology breakthroughs that coalesced into a fantastic product, and that was what sort of jump-started the adoption.”
While an innovation may not always take off, the invention is still there waiting for the right application for a successful market launch. “Blockchain is an interesting invention. Bitcoin is an interesting innovation at using that model.” And there is still more innovation ahead for blockchain both in the currency arena and beyond.
There’s also more to innovation than a single product or service itself. The iPhone may not have changed much since it debuted, but it has had a huge impact on the way we do work. “There was the innovation of the hardware, but maybe one of the biggest innovations within that ecosystem was the app store itself and the software that couldn’t have been imagined prior.”
Overcoming resistance to change
Measurement at its essence is about tracking change. How do companies that want to innovate combat resistance to change? Jeff’s advice is to, first, understand your audience. “I work in the legal department at a 100-year-old insurance company. We have people who are literally trained to spot risk and avoid it in a company that is also trained to spot risk and avoid it.”
“You can put something in somebody’s hands, and they go from naysayers to feature-requestors so fast.”
Instead of telling people about changes to the way they work, Jeff suggests just showing them. “The number one thing I could do is try not to tell them about things, but let them use things. You can put something in somebody’s hands, and they go from naysayers to feature-requestors so fast. If I can put something in their hands or on their screen where they can click through, it’s a much different experience, especially for a lawyer who’s going to tell you all the reasons that something’s going to fail.”
By showing instead of telling, there’s less emphasis on the implementation details because people are getting excited about the possibilities. As a result of knowing his audience, Jeff understands the value of communicating frequently. “We communicate early and often that we’re not the first in this space, because we usually aren’t. Lawyers are looking for precedent, so that makes them feel better. We try to limit the blast radius.”
As the comfort level of his audience increases, Jeff builds on those wins. “We start with very small, low-risk areas and then expand out from that using that same tech in different places. If I’m doing automated form creation, I might start in NDAs, which are very low risk. But maybe I can move into other types of legal documents just by showing someone how they can use the NDA.”
“We start with very small, low-risk areas and then expand out from that.”
In order to push innovation further, Jeff encourages sharing. “Getting people to talk about things is hard to do because attorneys have to, by law, keep a lot of secrets. I think they’re used to not sharing anything because that’s easier. So we try to get people to talk more about what they’re doing and show them that it’s okay to share.”
A reticence to share for fear of discoverability is something Jeff encounters in his work. He responds to these concerns with a cost-benefit analysis. “Eventually there’s risk calculation that has to happen. Maybe it is eventually discoverable, but what kind of benefit do you get by sharing it versus what’s the downside of it being discoverable? You’re supposed to be a good partner with the business and help them mitigate risk and loss. There are different ways to do that. While you have to respect the litigation process, maybe you’re not always protecting against every edge case because the probability of those things happening is pretty slim.”
Jeff’s advice for new innovation programs is: begin with the realization that everyone needs to be on board.
“All members of the organization will be involved in one way or another. Buy-in from senior leadership is essential, but so is the buy-in from the front lines.”
In order to gain wide buy-in, it’s important to understand your business context and how that impacts your product. “I’m a big fan of user-centered design and that’s different than customer-centered design. In enterprise software, the customer and the user are very different people. You can use the carrot or you can use the stick. I prefer to use the carrot. I want my users happy that I gave them a new tool, not some terrible form to fill out because we need the data.”
While it may not be possible to control buy-in from the top, by meeting your users’ needs effectively you can garner buy-in from the front lines and expand your focus to the middle. “If the top’s happy and the bottom’s happy, the middle eventually has to get there. Which, by the way, they’re the guys that usually can kill you. But buy-in from the bottom is definitely within your control, and you should always be thinking about the user. You always want to be giving them something that is better than what they had before in their eyes.”
The experimental nature of innovation means that some projects get nixed, which can lead to burnout for teams. Setting expectations up front is one way to combat this. Acknowledging that the work is uncharted territory without an obvious, predetermined outcome is a good place to start. Jeff’s message to teams addresses potential negative outcomes from the start. “We know we’re all going to learn something along the way and we just want to do what’s right for everyone. So if we have to kill this, there’s a good reason for it.”
Once you’ve gained buy-in across the company, Jeff believes communication is the key to maintaining it. Jeff and his team communicate through articles, videos, and face-to-face contact. “I will do drop-ins. I usually coordinate with the manager. It’s not a complete random fly-by, but they’re always looking for a little content to spice up their meetings or their stand-ups. We have an internal social media site that we populate a lot of information on. The best is just running into people and having a chat. You don’t want people to not ever have a conversation with you, because then they really won’t trust you.”
When it comes to getting started on a new initiative Jeff’s advice is straightforward. “The best way to get started is just to start! Find something and do it…preferably something small.” He believes the starting point of an innovation initiative is “when you say you are going to do this and not just work off the side of your desk on new projects in your spare time.”
Just starting means trying things and learning rather than prolonged thinking and planning. “At the end of the day, truly, you’ve got to get experience. You’re not going to get better at doing this stuff until you do it. You’ve got to get some hours. You can’t just pontificate. There are things that you’re going to learn that are logically obvious to you, but emotionally you hadn’t felt it yet. You didn’t understand the emotional tug of whatever it is that is a huge economic driver for the behavior of the problem that you’re trying to solve.”
“If it doesn’t go well, shout it in the town square and explain why and what you’ve learned from it so that everybody understands…”
As with any experimental process, there will be failures. Jeff thinks it’s important not to hide them. “That’s a huge part of gaining trust. You need to own whatever it is that went down, good or bad. And if it doesn’t go well, shout it in the town square and explain why and what you’ve learned from it so that everybody understands those insights as painful as it is.”
As for when an innovation program ends, that depends on the organization. “It’s possible that the need for innovation professionals diminishes if the organization starts to be able to innovate without you.” As the grassroots efforts of innovation programs take hold and successfully build a culture of innovation, the organization may no longer need a centralized source.
Tenacious consistency around experimentation
Jeff’s innovation silver bullet is what he calls the monkey in space technique. “Start small, run a lot of tests. Put a monkey in space to see if your rocket works before you put a human in space.” His approach ics to have a tenacious consistency around experimentation. “There’s a need for research and planning, but if you’re not out there trying things and taking some big (or new) steps, what are you doing?”
But in order for a product to truly be innovative, the tenacity of the experiment phase has to carry through to the product’s implementation. “Many great technologies backfire because of last mile issues. Meaning, the base technology may be sound and even amazing, but the UI, the workflows, how it is used, implemented or communicated was not, so the product dies on the vine.”
The focus on details during implementation is equally important when it comes to scalability. “Sometimes things work well at small scale, but as soon as you try to scale up, whatever it’s built on can become brittle. The idea is right, but we haven’t figured out the right implementation yet. That becomes a harder thing to solve.”
“You continue to grind away and figure out how to test our work sooner, how to test it smarter…”
Through his experience in roles that span the product development lifecycle, Jeff knows just how important it is to focus on the details of implementation. Recounting some memorable projects where missed requirements resulted in a lot of rework, Jeff shared that there is no silver bullet fix to those mistakes. “You just get better at it. You get better at your quality checks going in and going out. You get better working with your IT partners. There’s just so many details that things are always going to slip through. The best software companies in the world still have bugs. You continue to grind away and figure out how to test our work sooner, how to test it smarter, how to limit the blast radius by moving things upstream in the cycle.”
For Jeff, Tesla exemplifies how important it is for that tenacity to carry through from start to finish including having a lofty mission and solid vision. “Tesla is a great example of how the tech was all there, but nobody had really made a product yet or marketed it the right way. Musk nailed that. It was the right time, right place, but also great product design. But what I really like about that is that all of these things that he’s working on are all amazing products in and of themselves and what they’ve been able to accomplish. SpaceX just blows me away when I see that rocket land on the barge. But he’s trying to save the earth with this stuff, right? So he creates a car company, a spaceship company, a solar panel company, and a tunnel company to save the earth.”
In addition to Elon Musk, Jeff thinks products like Amazon’s Echo and the electric scooter are getting innovation right. What these two products have in common is devising interesting ways at “leveraging technology to solve problems that people didn’t even necessarily know they had.”
These products aren’t without their flaws, but the approach to problem- solving has captured Jeff’s interest. “I think the scooter is so funny and just novel and interesting. I’ve tried them out now, and I think it definitely solves a problem in a way that I never would have imagined somebody would solve it. Now, they’ve got a serious issue, what I would call a network issue because streets aren’t really ready for them. But it’s pretty interesting what they’re doing.”
If you want to read my other articles about innovation experts and practitioners, please check them all out here.