Accelerating Innovation is Product Management

Karen O’Leonard, Head of Innovation at Willis Towers Watson, shares the innovation strategies that have helped her company grow and how she shifted her team to a testing and learning approach.

“It’s hard to overcome years of doing things a certain way, or even decades in our case, of doing research a certain way, or doing new product development a certain way.”

This was the problem that Karen O’Leonard faced when she became Head of Innovation at Willis Towers Watson, a global advisory and consulting firm. In an effort to facilitate innovations and seek innovation improvements at the company, Karen introduced a new way of working to her teams: testing and learning.

Traditionally, when a new solution or business idea was proposed at Willis Towers Watson, teams relied exclusively on business cases and market research studies to prove value before development. The problem with this approach? It took a lot of time to gather data. Sometimes months.

But Karen, who began her career at Apple supporting product development teams, is no stranger to implementing change and new ideas. Realizing the benefits to moving faster, she suggested teams should instead find a way to rapidly validate ideas and quickly de-risk assumptions.

To test and iterate, Willis Towers Watson uses a combination of traditional market research methods and technology like Alpha to quickly get and act on customer insights. The change was necessary, but also intimidating to many people. “People are resistant,” Karen stated, “especially our company [is] very analytical… they want to see numbers.”

How did Karen combat people’s hesitancy and turn internal critics into internal champions? By proving impact. “You show them how it works, and you show them good results, then they can start to change their minds [...] Show them that the technique is not just faster, but leads to better results,” she says.

In this episode, you’ll learn a lot about experimentation, agile approaches to market research, and how to build a culture of innovation.

Here are the highlights:

  • Willis Towers Watson’s shift to a testing and learning approach (3:30) 
  • Overcoming the resistance to a new way of working (12:13)
  • What steps to take to spread the culture of innovation (15:13) 

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