For Nationwide CIO Michael Carrel, a talent for technology and a passion for art expands the horizon of possibilities
Nobel Prize-winning neurobiologist Roger W. Sperry pushed the theory that the different hemispheres of the brain were responsible for different types of thought. Artists and creative types were thought to be right-brain dominant, while analytical, scientific minds were left-brained. Further research on thousands of test subjects has thoroughly debunked that idea. But really, all the proof you need is a conversation with Michael Carrel, Chief Information Officer for the Marketing and Emerging Businesses Group at Nationwide Insurance.
It was a love of both art and technology that first attracted Carrel to the field of computer science. “I’ve always been gifted in science and math, and I remember early in my life picking computer science because it was a creative process that also had a match to my natural talent,” Carrel told BOSS. “I believe that innovative ability is spurred by many things, including the arts.”
He’s far from alone. Arguably the most famous example of innovation arising from a blend of the arts and science, technology, engineering, and math is Leonardo DaVinci. The ultimate renaissance man, DaVinci gave the world much more than the Mona Lisa, producing schematics for flying machines and contributing to the worlds of architecture, civil infrastructure, anatomy, and physiology.
Writing in Scientific American, designer and technologist John Maeda mused, “Art and science, to those who practice neither, might seem like polar opposites, one data-driven, the other driven by emotion. One dominated by technical introverts, the other by expressive eccentrics. For those of us involved in either field today, we know that the similarities between how artists and scientists work far outweigh their stereotypical differences. Both are dedicated to asking the big questions placed before us: ‘What is true? Why does it matter? How can we move society forward?’”
For Carrel, who sold his first painting early in life and studies the science of running to improve his form, that marriage of art and science translates to leadership as well. It’s both sides of the brain working together to conduct research, observe, experiment, discover, collaborate, and innovate.
The Synchronicity of Science, Art, Compassion, and Commerce
During a leadership training session early in his career, Carrel was asked what kind of leader he admired. “I vividly remember writing down, ‘someone who is smart and who cares for me.’ It helped frame my mind about the kind of leader I wanted to be,” he said. “In leadership, we all want to work with someone that we can learn from, and that’s where the skills and competence comes in, and at the same time we want to know that our leader has our best interests in mind, while being transparent and honest. That’s where character comes in.
“Competence comes in the form of having the right skills, knowledge, experiences, and a proven record for achieving results. And character comes from transparency, honesty, empathy, caring, and fairness. We need both elements of competence and character — we need EQ as much as we need IQ.”
As one of Carrel’s favorite quotes, often attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, states, “People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.” That goes for customers, associates, and strategic partners.
In nearly a quarter-century at Nationwide, Carrel has used that philosophy to effectively transform his work and keep Nationwide competitive in the market. Early in his career, Carrel had a hand in revamping Nationwide’s claim intake process, which included a new technology platform for automation and digitization of contact centers. That streamlining led to improved consistency, which enabled faster claims processing and a significantly smoother experience for customers. This was part of a company-wide focus on Nationwide’s online presence that came to life a decade ago.
“This dramatically improved our online sales and services, and led to significant improvements in digital capability, efficiency, and improved user experience; it put us in the top tier of website rankings,” Carrel said. “It laid a foundation that we utilize today.”
It’s a story that has all the elements of Carrel’s unique approach to leadership: an innovative idea, executed with meticulous planning, that manifested itself in other ideas years down the line. And it’s providing a pathway for staying ahead of the curve. As customer expectations change, they are, as Carrel put it, “creating a great opportunity to envision a new and smart future.”
“If you consider how customers interact with technology today, you have to meet customers where they are, not only when they have a loss, but also in how we protect them along the way throughout their life journey. We have a lot of opportunity with the rise of the Internet of Things,” he said. “I tell my associates that we are business people with IT skills. We have integrated teams and we work in an integrated way. That said, I will tell you that IT is being asked to provide thought leadership on digitization within our organization.
“It's a high expectation, and given the pace of technology advancement, we need IT professionals who are looking to continuously transform themselves. We need to ensure that they are committing themselves to lifelong learning and that they have the change agility required. You can't get into any conversation within this company and not have IT come up. Our expectations are great, and they should be.”
Partnerships as Pathways to Creativity and Greater Success
“We've been practicing agile methodologies within IT for many years. We're now extending it outward into an end-to-end partnership from concept to implementation, and that's key for us,” he said, adding that his approach is “about driving the outcomes that we are looking to create as a company.” Global leader Tata Consulting Services (TCS) has been by Nationwide’s side as they make their agility journey, helping to drive innovation as the industry shifts into the digital age.
Carrel views IT as a team sport. In nurturing partnerships that encourage innovation, he engages others to gather outside perspectives. In this way, ideas are always fresh and all partners avoid the pratfall of complacency.
Key external partnerships, such as the one with TCS, as well as Cognizant, Accenture, and others, help Carrel and his teams deliver solutions for the business. By applying a focus on outcomes rather than just paying partners for time and materials, the organization can build more effective, valuable, and mutually beneficial relationships.
“We have engagements that are defined on shared outcomes that external partners help us create,” he said. “It's not just time and materials on the contract. When part of your compensation is based upon the outcomes that you create, that's a whole different level of partnership to deliver benefits for the organization.”
That collaborative approach is how ideas become innovation, and how projects become products.
Artists and technologists command the ability to think beyond structures to solve both obvious and seemingly unsolvable problems, unafraid to find new angles of approach. Artistic collaboration requires a deep knowledge of the craft, the ability to communicate and listen, an environment where ideas and opinions are welcomed and considered on their merits, and preparation. From that perspective, it’s easy to see where cross-disciplinary collaboration can go well beyond the superficial into the creation of new and brilliant products that are also works of art.
Rethinking the impact of such collaboration is happening under Carrel’s leadership as he shifts the IT department into a product-mode way of working as opposed to a project-based approach when developing new solutions as a way to reduce costs, increase efficiency, and make the most of the company’s workforce.
In a project-focused structure, teams spend a significant amount of time and energy attempting to define a project and its scope, focusing more on implementing the scope rather than driving the outcomes the project is intended to deliver. Often, the scope to reach an outcome changes as the problem becomes clearer.
“We are implementing a new solution delivery framework that will help us in this shift, and the concept of whole teams is integral to the change in approach. We want a whole team moving upstream together with a high-level definition of what we’re trying to accomplish. We provide guardrails and empowerment to drive to our outcomes, which reduces the higher number of handoffs you’ll typically see in a project structure. Handoffs not only drive greater costs into your environment, but they also slow us down.”
The Art and Science of Innovation
Experimentation is key to making discoveries and turning ideas into tangible realities. The language, tools, and steps used in the iterative process may be different for the various disciplines that come together on a project, but ultimately, effective collaboration results in positive change and increased opportunities for innovation.
Innovation requires curiosity and inspiration, and the arts provide that opportunity, as does being a purposeful learner outside your domain.
“Curious people have a natural desire to learn, and your diverse learning experiences make you able to think more broadly, whether it’s art, learning about other cultures, cooking, traveling, or more. Having a natural desire to learn is critical.”
Drawing inspiration from the work of others, Carrel channels that into his own creative process, producing innovative solutions for customers, employees, and partners alike. Now that’s mastering both the art of change and the art of leadership.