Northwestern Mutual CIO takes incremental approach to IT innovation

The insurance and investment company is building an analytics platform and other solutions on an innovation continuum where learning from failure is a means to a better end.

Northwestern Mutual CIO takes incremental approach to IT innovation
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If a management philosophy helps inculcate culture, the IT department at Northwestern Mutual is on a path toward continuous improvement, courtesy of CIO Neal Sample.

Since joining the Milwaukee-based company in 2019, Sample has managed his tech team leveraging principles from the “aggregation of marginal gains,” which proposes that making incremental improvements in a number of areas will improve the holistic effort, yielding greater gains over time. The theory, embraced by a British cycling coach who used it to rack up gold medals at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, borrows from the Kaizen ethos of continuous improvement in processes.

“It’s about getting a little bit better every day,” says Sample, who adds that his team now takes the approach to everything from large, decomposable projects to technical debt and innovation, where the organization takes a test-and-learn tack as it banks institutional knowledge that will ostensibly serve the enterprise well in the long haul.

Cultivating institutional knowledge is critical for continuous improvement in service of innovation, which remains a critical priority during the outbreak, CIOs say. Eighty-one percent of 802 IT leaders polled for IDG’s 2021 State of the CIO survey say they have increased their focus on IT innovation to accommodate remote work during the crisis.

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