Aug 14, 2019
Legacy organizations are borrowing tech-industry strategies to further their mission—and creating inspiring workplaces in the process.
Nigel Smith has logged hours for some of the world’s most prestigious companies, from top-10 banks to management consulting firms. But nothing compares to his current job.
As director of AARP’s startup incubator Hatchery Ventures, Smith is at the center of the company’s latest efforts to improve the lives of Americans over 50—which, today, means leveraging technology. So Smith and his colleagues scour the global marketplace for impressive organizations that can help shape their AI, virtual-reality and robotics products. They’re also building digital solutions for some of the most intractable challenges facing older Americans now and into the future.
“What’s been unfolding [over] the last year is probably one of the most powerful innovation stories I’ve ever seen,” Smith said.
Smith’s deep enthusiasm is shared by his teammates at AARP. And it has a lot to do with creative teams within the organization—including product development hub Innovation Labs and AARPx, a department focused on consumer experience—that are adapting their ethos for a new generation. That translates to a workplace that makes employees passionate about their ability to change with the times and disrupt the status quo.
Helping people choose how they live as they age, then and now
AARP was founded in 1958 by Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus her goal was to reframe aging in a more positive light and give retired Americans a collective voice around issues like affordable health care and pension reform. That vision is still playing out today in AARP offices nationwide, including the ones in Washington, D.C., where Smith and his colleagues at the Hatchery are located.
The Hatchery hosts projects developed by AARP and its partners. And just as Andrus knew precisely what retirees were up against in the 1950s, Smith understands the challenges facing older adults today, from cardiovascular disease to dementia, social isolation and insufficient retirement savings. These are challenges that “we need solutions for, desperately,” Smith said.
Innovation Labs has heeded that call by launching a virtual-reality platform aimed at making life easier for folks over 50 called Alcove, which facilitates intergenerational connection. To build Alco ve, they collaborated with Hatchery Ventures portfolio company Rendever, which has a virtual reality platform that provides cognitive stimulation and socialization to seniors. Innovation Labs’ workspace is even designed for collaboration and creativity, with an open layout and writable walls that encourage brainstorming.
Giving consumers a voice
AARPx, a department within the organization, aims to ensure that people’s interactions with AARP are easy, enjoyable and useful for their specific needs. To get a feel for what people want, the team taps into social media and listens to AARP’s call center, where members can get in touch with experts. Employees also volunteer throughout D.C. for a wide variety of organizations, including one that that provides legal counsel to elderly people at risk of losing their homes.
“That allows us to really understand what it’s like to be in their shoes,” said Michelle Musgrove, senior vice president of AARPx.
Through her research, Musgrove learned that older adults depend on AARP for information about life transitions, but they nonetheless want to make their own decisions. This led to the creation of Frontline Feedback, an app that lets employees and volunteers gather questions and comments from the public on the spot, whether pertaining to healthcare, neighborhood safety or caregiving, so AARP can provide more targeted information and solutions.
“Figuring out Medicare is not easy. Caring for somebody who is in decline when you have a teenager at home is not easy,” Musgrove said.
For this vulnerable population, AARP offers a powerful combination of community and information that can be life-altering. That could include anything from getting the right prescription drug for a particular condition to finding a local ride-share to doctor appointments and the grocery store.
This window into the lives of older Americans has profoundly affected Musgrove’s outlook.
“Around here, there’s no shortage of inspirational stories of people who are what would be considered ‘old’ doing amazing things,” she said—including a 92-year-old marathoner who didn’t take up running until her late 70s. “It’s sincerely changed my perception on life. I’m excited about getting older.”
A culture of disruption that puts older adults first
Before founding AARP, Dr. Andrus empowered older Americans by creating the first group health insurance program just for them—a decade ahead of Medicare. Her boundary-pushing spirit still thrives across all levels of AARP, which is now led by CEO Jo Ann Jenkins; about 10 percent of staffers are allotted extra time and resources to pursue innovation, AARP has become a regular at tech trade shows and it invests tens of millions of dollars in “longevity economy” trailblazers like the Dementia Discovery Fund, an effort to find non-traditional solutions for the disease.
That try-anything atmosphere was made clear to director of audience marketing Maura White at AARP’s 60th anniversary event last year. There, White suggested launching state-specific online communities to ramp up consumer engagement, to which an AARP executive responded by gathering state management for an impromptu discussion. As a result, four states may test the idea this fall.
Feeling encouraged to share her ideas, and being able to bring them to fruition, is part of what White loves about working at AARP. She receives the same support from her team on Raise Your Voice, a voice app for smart speakers and phones that keeps users abreast of legislative issues like Social Security changes and prescription drug prices. The app even connects users directly to their senator or representative, so that they can advocate for themselves.
The dedication and drive of the employees powering these teams keeps them operating at tip-top shape. Whether it’s making sure people know when and where to vote or working through the weekend to provide customers with answers, “my staff, they go to the mat,” White said.
It all speaks to the fact that AARP is pulling off something that remains a challenge even for some of the world’s most impressive businesses: “How to infuse disruption within their organizations,” said Smith. “And it feels like within AARP, we are figuring it out.”
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