An Avenue for Innovation: A Partnership With John Hancock’s Lab Of Forward Thinking

When you think financial services, you don’t exactly expect innovation and a lively spirit for change. Enter John Hancock’s Lab of Forward Thinking (LOFT), the organization’s answer to innovation in a changing financial landscape. Think of the lab as John Hancock’s safe space for creation and testing.

Now that sounds more like Startup Institute.

LOFT established its partnership with Startup Institute in 2015 and has since completed two partner projects. For six weeks, a cross functional team of about three to six students works closely with industry professionals to solve a real problem and provide lasting value for the organization.

The innovative testing ground provides the perfect environment for Startup Institute students. It welcomes a spirit of learning and experimentation that students inherently bring. Kevin Segel, Business Design professional at LOFT, served as the point of contact for the most recent partner project. “We at the LOFT like to move quickly,” he says.   

Both partner projects that LOFT has completed included a clear set of parameters, tasks, and goals. Last year, students worked on a blockchain project that the organization ended up using internally.

This summer’s most recent team which consisted of students from both the full- and part-time programs, worked on refining an existing prototype for a new space in finance that John Hancock is exploring.

The project was heavily focused on UX/UI. Students practiced their technical skills including user interviews, demographic research, moderated user testing, and front-end development.

But for LOFT, the project was much more than a practice in UX/UI.

Sandy Kreis, Director of Labs in North America for LOFT, notes, "Working with Startup Institute allows us to expand our scope of focus temporarily and take a deep dive into a trend area that we may not be prioritizing in our daily work."

For the lab, the point of the partner project in general is exploration and the real value lies in the process of working with students to learn what the organization is capable of doing in a short amount of time.

Segel explained that having a fresh set of eyes examine and try to learn a new technology is also an invaluable part of the partner project experience. “When you’ve looked at something like blockchain 50 times it becomes second nature. When you teach something to someone who is hearing it for the first time and observe their process of understanding it, you can learn so much and shift your process accordingly.”

While the Startup Institute team challenge is a 6-week burst that flies by, it has offered lasting effects on groups like John Hancock’s LOFT team.

The student team allows for an extra layer of experimentation. With students present to test and provide feedback, LOFT has been able to debug a lot of processes and systems in a short period of time. Figuring out how to bring in a new group of students for just 6 weeks is a challenge for any company; for LOFT, it’s one that has helped them figure out what sorts of projects they can get done under a tight deadline. It also helped uncover problems that might otherwise go unnoticed or hidden for a period of time. “The project helps force us to prioritize and focus on something narrow and bring that model in internally,” Segel says.  

An additional lasting benefit of the partnership project for LOFT is the leadership opportunities that it opens up. Last year, an employee who previously served as the point of contact for the Startup Institute team moved into a management role. “We have one unique group who is passionate about learning and another who is passionate about leading,” says Segel. “It provides us leadership opportunities for a group who might not otherwise have it.”

LOFT embraces a spirit of learning and innovation, a probable reason why its partnership with Startup Institute has been so successful.  “You never know where or when you’re going to learn something new,” Segel reflects. Being open to all avenues is what can lead to the next best product, system and process.