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Xavier Debane is the Vice-President Innovation and Business Development for Manulife’s Canadian Division.  In this role, Xavier leads the Division’s innovation program and drives the development of new solutions to accelerate innovation across all of Manulife’s businesses (insurance, investments, bank).  Xavier will also be joining us at our February 28th event, “Staying Focused On The Customer While Keeping Up With Change,” but we had a chance to chat with him in preparation for the event to learn more about what innovation looks like at Manulife in Canada. Here’s what he had to say:

Can you tell our readers who you are and what you do?

I’m Xavier Debane and I head the innovation team for Manulife Canada. What that means is that I lead the divisions’ innovation program which is all about identifying the top priorities for innovation, managing the pipeline of innovation, and driving new ideas forward at the company. The other thing I do is drive the acceleration of the company’s digital transition, which is about how we develop stronger interactions with our customers and, just in general, become a more responsive organization by being digital.

I’ve noticed through your work history and what you’re doing now that driving innovation seems to be something that you’re focused on. Why do you think it’s important for established players, such as Manulife, to be thinking about creating innovation?

I think that it’s not just useful, but that it’s necessary for all corporations, big or small, to continue to innovate. There are two main reasons for this:

One is that customer expectations are continuing to change, and in fact, that change is accelerating. That’s driven by technology changing the way we, consumers, interact with the world around us. We also have higher expectations of our service providers because of this change in technology.

The other, is that the world is getting more complex. There is more confusion for consumers than ever before, so we need to continually refine our model to make sure that we make it easy for our customers to understand and use our services.

And what about the companies that aren’t thinking about these things? Those that are just trying to stay steady for the course?

People can see innovation as both an opportunity and a threat. We see it as an opportunity to bring more and differentiated value to our customers. However, some companies see it as a threat that they either need to respond to, choose not to respond to, or just can’t even respond to. We would rather innovate and drive value for our customers than get left behind.

As a leader of innovation, how are you teaching others at Manulife to think about it?

I think the first principle that helps us is that innovation is everyone’s job here at Manulife. Making that clear is very important. I also don’t think that people need to necessarily be taught, but I think they need to be allowed to innovate. We’re all about creating the environment to say it’s OK and it’s accepted to bring your ideas forward, challenge the way we work, challenge what we do, and challenge the services that we offer, so that the customers can benefit. I think that’s the biggest thing.

The second thing, is that in some cases, we need to help our employees find methods, approaches, and tools. That’s why we have our innovation labs. We have four labs in the U.S., Canada, and Asia to help us experiment, test, and prototype new ideas in a safe and fast environment. So, we bring that as a tool for our employees to allow them to try new things.

That’s great. We’ve seen a few innovation labs before and we’re curious about how yours work? Do you have a dedicated team that just focuses on innovation, or do you let employees from across Manulife bring their ideas to the lab?

We have a few different labs across Manulife and they work in different ways, but let me tell you a bit about our RED Lab, which is our lab at Communitech in Kitchener. There, we have a dedicated team and they use all the methods I’ve spoken about just before. But this lab is about a block away from one of our larger offices, so people can come in and out of the lab as they like. People go there to learn, to observe, and to participate. This lab supports all of the employees and works on specific ideas.

We have a funnel of ideas that we manage and they go through that lab. Let me give you an example; as you probably know, Amazon launched their voice assistant, Alexa, in Canada in December and we wanted to be part of that launch with Amazon. So, we embarked on a project in our lab at Communitech to build a new “skill” for Alexa that would let our customers check their group benefit balances directly on the Echo device in their home. They can say, “Alexa, what is William’s balance for glasses?” or “How much do I have left on my benefits for massages?” For us and the industry, that’s a new way to engage our customers and that’s the kind of thing we’re trying to grow in our lab.

How does Manulife decide on what they’d like to experiment with in terms of creating new innovative products?

People here are very excited about trying new things. There’s a lot of great ideas, so it’s about deciding what ideas are going to be most valuable for our customers. I mentioned before our funnel, and as much as we’d like to, we can’t do everything in that funnel. We generally follow a prioritization exercise. We have no lack of ideas here, but we need to think about how we can execute them in a fast, agile, and iterative way so that we can test with customers. We try to get things in the hands of the customers in a quick manner to see what it is that they like best.

Interesting. And, while we’re speaking about how Manulife is deciding on where to focus their efforts, we were wondering if because you play in a heavily regulated industry, does that have an impact on what you’ll do?

We always start with the customer in mind first and foremost. The majority of our innovation is around the customer experience. Of course, we must stay within the boundaries of the industry regulations. If we have some ideas where it may touch those boundaries, we have a lot of expertise in the organization who can help us figure out if the idea can work and how the idea can work. It hasn’t been a hindrance for our innovation.

Do you find that as time goes on you are pushing the boundaries of these regulations? Or are they evolving as the technology evolves as well?

The government seems to be taking a lot of actions to think through how they can support the industry. They’ve started building their own FinTech clusters and that’s where a lot of this experimentation will happen. There’s been a lot of changes, especially in the past two years, but I think that everyone in the industry understands that this is happening, and while it takes time to change, it is changing and will continue to change.

What’s great is how the government is partnering with businesses, both the incumbents and startups, so there’s a lot of dialogue going on to keep things moving. And this is happening both at the federal and provincial level.


If you’d like to hear more from Xavier and other industry professionals on what it’s like to try to create innovations that keep your customers happy while still navigating a governed industry, you can at our next breakfast event happening on February 28th in Toronto. Details and registration for the event can be found here.

Xavier Debane

Vice-President Innovation and Business Development Manulife Canada