How One Insurance Firm Learned to Create an Innovation Culture

25 August, 2017 / Articles
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More and more companies are realizing they must reinvent their cultures by infusing innovation into their DNA. Unlike startups that get to shape culture from scratch, established companies must transform existing norms, values, and assumptions in ways that inspire everyone to innovate — not just at the top of the organization, but at all levels.

One company that’s making headway on that goal is CSAA Insurance Group (CSAA IG), one of the insurance companies affiliated with the 55 million-member American Automobile Association (AAA). With almost 4,000 employees, CSAA IG has embarked on a systemic approach to create a pervasive culture of innovation. The tactics being used by CSAA IG are all ones that leaders in other companies can apply to their own innovation culture change efforts.

Early on, CSAA IG’s executive team recognized that to create a culture of innovation, the organization needed to do more than embrace individual innovation projects. To ensure a truly transformative culture change effort, the team outlined a new corporate-wide organizational strategy to sit alongside its other market-focused strategies: “Foster a culture of insight and innovation.” They also made it part of their talent management approach: Innovation was added to the company’s values statement and included as a core competency to consider in assessing, rewarding, and developing employees.

But they also realized that the term “innovation” was pretty vague; if they were measuring people on it, and making it part of their strategy, they’d have to be more concrete about what they meant by it. CSAA IG’s executive team outlined three specific types of innovation — incremental, evolutionary, and disruptive — to help employees understand their roles in fostering a culture of innovation.

Most people focus on the first type of innovation: incremental. Leadership realistically expects that the vast majority of the company’s innovation will involve smaller tweaks that advance the core business. It’s perfectly OK that most people – from call center employees to claims adjusters in the field – focus on continuous improvements to current business processes, the customer experience, and insurance products.

While the company also wants “evolutionary” (e.g., creating new digital customer experiences) and “disruptive innovation” (e.g., exploring the insurance implications of self-driving cars) as part of its innovation strategy, fewer overall resources are allotted to these larger efforts. It’s all part of CSAA IG’s portfolio approach.

To help employees spot these opportunities, CSAA IG delivers innovation training to all employees. Its program provides tools and applied exercises based on design thinking, and makes it clear that everyone can—and should—contribute creative ideas for improvement in business processes, customer experiences, and product offerings. Employees participate in a half-day program that tackles real business problems facing their workgroups, and results in a prioritized list of ideas.

This all-hands-on-deck approach to innovation training has not only provided a greater sense of ownership and engagement among CSAA Insurance Group’s workforce, it has produced tangible results. For example, a team of insurance underwriters analyzed call data and led improvements to voice prompts that reduced misrouted phone interactions to their department by 40 percent. Other teams have helped streamline the process for issuing proof of insurance cards and are contributing to prototyping efforts for “smart claims” systems, allowing customers to submit images of damaged property for online assessment.

There’s nothing worse for a company’s innovation culture than soliciting ideas and doing nothing with them. So to ensure that employees’ ideas actually get implemented, CSAA IG’s managers are expected to engage their teams after the training sessions to select specific ideas to implement based on what everyone just generated. Employees also have access to CSAA IG’s “Innovation Hub,” an online portal, that includes a self-service smorgasbord of resources including a design thinking toolkit, calendar of innovation-related events, self-paced training materials, articles from innovation experts, and more.  The company also set up an idea management platform, where various departments can post their innovation challenges, and where the crowd can contribute, evaluate, and develop solutions.

To help generate excitement for the idea management platform, during the first online innovation challenge event, anyone who submitted an idea was surprised with a physical paper light bulb posted in their cubicle workspace.  With light bulbs popping up all around the office, employees’ motivation to participate skyrocketed – and the company’s first online challenge received an 80% participation rate.

Creating a culture of innovation is about much more than hiring a Chief Innovation Officer or creating a new department.  Culture change takes time and significant effort, and shifting culture toward innovation is no different. The process may start at the top, but it’s fundamentally about getting all employees involved.

The science man and innovator, Fernando Fischmann, founder of Crystal Lagoons, recommends this article.

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