July 9, 2018

“Business lessons you can learn from a youth soccer coach”

Today’s business leaders are working tirelessly to win in the “experience age.” Our customers and clients have ascended, rightfully, to the throne. And when you’re leading design of new digital products and platforms, you serve at the pleasure of the king and queen customer.

Almost every business article I see underlines the importance of putting clients at the center of the design process. But there’s one group that digital designers must also engage: your front-line – the professionals who are and will always be closest to clients. Through everyday experience, this group is uniquely able to identify tremendous opportunities that customers may have never imagined.

I found a perfect example of this winning process on a youth soccer field in New York. My nine-year-old son lives and breathes for his club soccer team – and as his soccer fanatic parents, my wife and I do too.

Our passion for the sport is shared by my son’s coach who we, distinctively I think, engage in regular conversations about my son’s performance on-and-off the field. He candidly shares everything about my son’s passing, shooting, field vision, maturity, teamwork and emotional state after a tough loss.

Recently, coach noticed my son struggling with confidence on the field and raised the issue to me over coffee. It’s not something that my wife and I noticed – and it’s certainly not something my son would’ve expressed to me unprompted. Trusting the coach, we both worked on ideas on how to improve confidence at home and on the field, and stayed connected over text and email. Over a two-week period, the actions we took together improved my son’s confidence on the field, at home, and at school! It made him a happier player and a happier kid.

You need coaches near the center of the client-centered design process. Integrating your frontline feedback directly into the process AS YOU GO – not as an afterthought – is essential. At Northwestern Mutual, our financial advisors are our front line, the coaches, for our clients. Bringing them into the process is helping us build better experiences and better financial plans for clients in three key ways:

Getting real-time feedback. We created a new feedback platform – the Digital Experience Lab – to give our financial advisors sneak peeks of concepts and ideas BEFORE they’re put into production. This puts advisors right there with us on the design journey, rather than at the end. This community lets us learn how different types of clients are thinking and what features would work or not work by reaching out to their coaches. To balance it we have a similar community for our clients, the Inner Circle, which gathers feedback on features and experiences.

Solving big problems. We recently invited a team of advisors, including our Financial Representatives Association President-Elect Tracy Van Dyke and her team, to our home office to tackle an important issue – how to best display visual information to our clients – in a series we call “creative labs.” We rolled up our sleeves and workshopped the issue with thoughtful discussions, flip charts, persona evaluations, design sketching, sticky notes, light jazz music and lots of coffee. The findings were fascinating. Not only did we accomplish our goal and learn what it feels like to be in the shoes of coaches, but our advisors learned more about how they relate to their clients, to employees at our headquarters, and each other.

Workshopping with our advisors.

Working faster. Northwestern Mutual’s product team had only 89 digital product releases in 2015. In 2016, we had 117. But in 2017, after changing how we worked, we had 1,405 product releases. We’re already on pace to break 4,000 releases in 2018. Why? We shifted to smaller, more agile “pizza pie” teams (a small team you could share one pizza with) instead of large, multi-layered and heavily-matrixed teams. Our leaner teams of cross-functional and highly-engaged contributors, composed of product and engineering specialists, business consultant and financial advisors, are able to do more, faster.

One of our “pizza pie” teams at work.

Understanding your clients’ wants and needs when it comes to products and features is key. To truly create client-designed features, you have to incorporate design-thinking into your process from the beginning, not as an afterthought. Including your front line throughout the process will build greater trust, understanding and appreciation for the challenge of balancing what’s right for customers and coaches. In doing so, you’ll create technology that brings them closer together – and builds your business.

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