Corporate innovation insights from Bruce Adrain – Head of Innovation Capability Build at Liberty Group

If experience is the father of wisdom, then Bruce Adrain’s 27 years in corporate innovation makes him one of South Africa’s Big Kahunas of insight on the topic.

Currently Head of Innovation Capability Build at Liberty Group, Bruce’s broad background and experience has also seen him sit as judge for the Accenture and EFMA Global Insurance Innovation Awards for the past three years.

With a background in sales and marketing and a career that started off as a broker consultant, it’s easy to wonder how Bruce finds himself here.


It was while working the beat as broker branch manager that Bruce’s career charted a new course.

It was the 90s, IT was a fledgling addition in financial services and the digitisation of paper-based processes was still mistrusted. The insurance industry wasn’t yet interested in understanding customer needs from a financial point of view.

Few people had the foresight to drive industries towards digitisation. But Liberty had the appetite and Bruce had the curiosity to go out on every limb he could find.

When head office bigwigs looked to implement and market Blueprint, South Africa’s first insurance financial needs analysis software package, they needed someone willing to take the risk.

Without a moment’s hesitation, Bruce volunteered to get involved.

‘In Sales and Marketing I’d been interested in what made the customer tick; understanding what their desires and needs are. It’s what drew me to advertising as a kid. Then there was tech, which has always consumed my interest, because you wake up in the morning and there are 10 different ways of doing the same thing.

‘Now Liberty was looking for people who wanted to make a career change to drive this Blueprint software programme that combined both – I could only but put up my hand.’

Bruce promptly changed tack from sales to IT. ‘I became the ham in the sandwich between the business side and IT, understanding the business strategy and converting into an IT requirement.’


Running the team that was pioneering this stuff presented Bruce’s first lesson in being a leader in ground-breaking products: perseverance.

‘We were taking a bit of a risk because it actually started off very, very poorly. The take-up rate was so low. We really had to hang in there to make sure we could get this thing to stick. We lost a lot of sales people who decided to go to companies where they could use paper.

‘It really was hectic in those days, but we persevered and now this is simply the way it’s done.’

IT became the name of the game and Bruce was there setting up the enabling environments and bridging the divide between strategy and customer-centric execution.

‘We did a lot of new product development that was pretty cutting-edge and the latest venture is probably the biggest one of my career.’

The latest venture is setting up and heading up Liberty’s innovation capability.

‘When the boss asked the question about who was interested in taking on this project and setting up an innovation capability I put my hand up again and now here we are.’

Bruce likes to joke that he was the only one awake in the exco meeting at the time, but with his extensive experience of integrating tech and driving customer-centric forward movement in the company he was the obvious choice.

In 2014, Bruce became the Head of Innovation Capability Build at Liberty, which sits as a shared service within the company, and one of the country’s leading authorities on corporate innovation.


Not one for reinventing the wheel, Bruce and his team immediately set to the task of learning what was being done internationally.

‘We basically travelled around the globe listening to the way people had done it before in their companies and really learning from that. Only then did we start building our own capability here.’

Bruce and his team started simple with only three main objectives.

First on the agenda was creating an innovation-friendly environment. ‘You can’t think differently if you’re going into the same old boring meeting rooms with old coffee and sarmies lying around from the last meeting. We needed to create a better space, one that smelled different, looked different, felt different … all those good things.’

The second was establishing a process to provide a method and a way of working and make it credible for the other business hubs.

‘Thirdly, we looked at people and the creating a collaboration model. So, how do you get people involved and how do we change the way we operate from the way we used to.’

This meant building new business cases that were diagrammatically opposed to the ones they were used to. Instead of working top down – business cases built by actuaries – the shift would now focus on the customer’s needs.

‘We decided we were going to find out what the major problems were from the customer and then we were going to go back to the customer with a very high-level prototype and test it with them all the while not spending a lot of money at all and only once they liked it we were going to go build it.

‘This is turning the whole thing on its head isn’t it? This is a global revolution rather than an evolution.’

In this new model, the business case becomes only one small part of the process while the customer’s need becomes the main part.

‘If the prototype fails the customer need you don’t even do the business case. So the business case for corporate innovation stands on its own two feet. You’re ultimately saving time and saving money by putting the customer first.’

All of this is only possible, Bruce says, if step two is solid.


For Bruce, embedding a new culture of thinking and interacting started with a process.

‘We have a formula we work on that we call frontline innovation and this is about bringing process, methods and frameworks to the innovation space,’ he says.

‘Most corporates instinctively understand linear, funnelled approaches; they like methods, logic, left-to-right… so we brought in a system that was familiar to everybody.’

Everyone thinks that innovation is just a warm fuzzy thing, but it’s actually built around loads of structure, says Bruce. ‘I always explain it to people by likening it to the way kids play – kids love rules. If they’ve got rules they can play nicely. If there’s a sandpit, there are rules in the sandpit. Yes, you’re playing a game, but there are rules to that game.’


Underneath this frontline structure, says Bruce, is the innovation DNA. ‘This is the skills development, the coaching, the mentoring, the assisting and the guiding. Building people up so that they’re able to do this stuff above the line very easily, because you’ve given them the wherewithal to do that.’

So while there’s no silver bullet to creating an innovation culture, he says, there are methods and frameworks than can help you do things a bit faster and make it a bit more fun.

‘You’ve got to have faith in what you’re doing; you’ve got to trust the method and the process. If you have this and enough motivation to keep the ball rolling things will happen. That’s always been the case.’

Even so, Bruce says it’s still a big journey in terms of getting the people-side of the process right. ‘Culture doesn’t change overnight. Building a collaboration model doesn’t happen overnight. But I’ve found that leading with empathy and the give first principle helps a lot.’


When Bruce and his team first travelled to collect information about how to set up Liberty’s innovation capability, there was one take-away that struck him above all else.

‘It was the biggest eye-opener and what we’ve based our whole ethos on here. It’s the principle of “give first”,’ says Bruce.

It’s been the most incredible journey of open innovation where, for example, people have said: “Well, why don’t you take my framework – I’m sitting in Australia and you’re there in South Africa – so let’s swap, let’s barter, like smarties for peanuts, and see how it works for us”.


‘It’s been amazing to see how people will give into the centre. They want this whole ecosystem to work and they realise that by giving and being transparent around information, guidance, frameworks, methods and so on is the way that everybody wins.

‘I’d never seen that before, in a cut-throat industry like insurance. Now I’ve learnt that it just has a funny way of working for you if you give first.’

The collaborative mechanism by which open innovation works is of course balanced by the fact that information is only as good as the implementation of it.

‘The way the people work now is so out in the public domain that information isn’t necessarily a competitive advantage. If you want to know how Design Thinking works you just Google it,’ says Bruce.

‘Because innovation is all about people and culture, it’s really about how you embed what you learn into your corporate culture. This is what gives you your competitive advantage. It’s not the methods and the information itself, it’s what you do with it.’


Bruce is known for his insights into collaboration, from internal to organisational, and co-authored a paper with Seugnet Van den Berg on the topic.

‘What I like the most about collaboration with non-competing organisations is the mindset that everybody goes in with,’ says Bruce.

It’s so open and you can ask anything. This is important. When we partner with people we look at three things above all else: mindset, skill and collaboration maturity.’

These qualities are so important, he says, that they’re placed above anything else, even the financials and the commercials.

‘If there’s some potential there, then we look at the commercials, especially if we’re looking at a stake in the business, but first off, we definitely look at the soft stuff first – and this talks to the heart of what we’re trying to do here.’

Understood and managed correctly, the give first philosophy, collaboration and open innovation can be powerful instruments in doing good business better.

‘We built our hub on these principles and because of this we’re able to bring in thinking from all over the place. For example, we have close connections with business schools such as Henley Business School, which helps us a lot with research, and we keep connected with a number of international financial services companies.

‘This helps because when we work on a proposition, for example, we can send it to our global ecosystem for comment – these are people who’ve already done these things in financial services companies and their feedback is worth gold.’

Making these connections, giving into the ecosystem and learning from it helps him take an internally developed model and then fine tune it, grow it and ultimately sustain it.

‘And sustaining means keeping abreast of new thinking around this kind of stuff and you do this by tapping into the wisdom of the global partners in our ecosystem.


‘It’s a case of not having blinkers on and rather having an approach of accepting that with open innovation comes a lot more disruption, a lot more different thinking, but you’re also able to dip into a vast network of expertise.’

With this in mind, it’s no surprise that Bruce signed up as a Founding Friend of the Creative Leadership Collection in 2017.

But for him, the collective presents a bigger picture than just getting non-competing organisations in South Africa together in a room to share and learn from each other’s experiences and methods: ‘It’s about having some sort of consciousness around trying to do something for this country, even in the very small way. It’s the opportunity to influence our own little industries through a greater organisation like this and it’s nice to be part of that.’

Of course, there are very practical advantages attached to being part of the CLC, as he points out.

‘You know, when you’re in a corporate for as long as I’ve been you can get very single minded about things if you don’t actually look around you. You have to be mindful about making sure that you actually participate in things when opportunity arises to bring fresh thinking in.’


Bruce is understated about how unique his holistic and humanistic perspective is in the local corporate environment, but it imbues everything he does.

Looking into the future, Bruce sees more open innovation and a collaborative ecosystem at play. ‘Embracing this way of working more fully is something that appeals to me and the fact that I like to go with the flow … well, who knows what opportunities will open up next.’

Whatever they are, one thing’s for certain, we know who will be putting up his hand for them before most people know what they’re looking at.

Find Bruce on LinkedIn.

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Interested in Joining? Are you a CEO and/or an executive innovation capability builder interested in joining the CLC? Contact Paul Steenkamp and he’ll guide you through our application process.