A Practical Approach to Innovation

By Mark L. Berthiaume, EVP, CIO & CTIO, The Hanover Insurance Group [NYSE:THG]

Mark L. Berthiaume, EVP, CIO & CTIO, The Hanover Insurance Group [NYSE:THG]

Everywhere you look, companies are working to integrate innovation into their corporate models. The most traditional of companies and industries are starting to think about innovation more and making innovation a core value of their business. Companies like Home Depot, Chobani, and Marriott–none of whom were thought of as being leaders in this space–have all been recognized as one of Fast Company’s 2017 World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies for their creative efforts in their industries this past year, and businesses of all sizes are taking notice.

According to Fast Company, companies were recognized for efforts that “tap both heartstrings and purse strings and use the engine of commerce to make a difference in the world.” As such, it recognized Home Depot for growing without building, Chobani for stirring it up on the grocery store, and Marriot for prioritizing loyalty.

But, introducing innovation in an organization that has not typically operated that way requires a dramatic shift in a company’s mindset. Traditionally, businesses outside of the technology sector have been slower to adapt new tools and are not as nimble as start-up entrepreneurs. Yet, with new developments in technology, social media, and other advancements, companies from all industries are able to find their innovation niche. And while innovation can have different meanings for different companies, for many, innovation means growth–growth in profit, but also growth and change in the way the company thinks and operates. This is key for any organization thinking of adopting innovation to really make an impact.

As the chief technology innovation officer at The Hanover Insurance Group, a national property and casualty insurance company with international operations, I recently had the exciting challenge to help create an innovation focus for our company. We knew from the very beginning that innovation could help us retain current customers and agent partners, attract new customers, and continue to grow our company in new and different ways. Our executive leadership team was committed to driving more innovation throughout our organization to help our agent partners expand their businesses and to provide even more service to our customers. While we are in the early stages of that effort, we are excited about the prospects.

“If we want to stand out against the competition and be a true player in our respective industries, innovative thinking is the winning strategy”

To make innovation a key part of our own culture, we’ve found there are three key elements that make ours successful:

1. Creating an internal focus group: Internal champions for innovation are a critical component of launching any new initiative. Staffing exclusively for innovation at the outset of the transition is not always optimal. But, pulling together a cross functional team from IT, various business units, marketing and other areas can help bring in subject matter experts to help broaden the company’s thinking. Think of an automaker. If the auto design team wanted to incorporate iOS technology into its new vehicle model, it would be most beneficial to have Apple experts as well as automotive experts brought to the table to tackle this project.

2. Ideation and teamwork: Collaboration helps explore new market opportunities and target innovative solutions for growth. Rather than building or buying new solutions, licensing existing technology platforms can be more cost effective and allows the businesses to become the architects and engineers of those solutions. By engaging a number of vendors, companies are able to push out pilots across multiple functions and business areas. Similarly, crowdsourcing innovation ideas with the entire company can help change the way the organization thinks about a problem and engages and challenges ways of thinking. Even just asking employees to share their most innovative ideas can help start the creative thinking process.

3. Testing it out: As with any new venture, the outcome is not always known. Along the way, it’s important to test assumptions about the approach and direction. By reviewing progress along the way, a business owner can better assess whether the investments in innovation are really working, and prevent spending money on ventures with questionable rates of return. Set reasonable milestones and check points throughout the process to help guide decision making. And, go back to the same employees who offered ideas to test the value in each innovation project.

Changing a company’s culture to include an innovation focus is not easy. It will not be accomplished because leaders “will-it” on an organization and it will not be accomplished overnight. It takes coordination, planning, and the right resources in place to make it a success. And, it’s worth every bit of the effort. Technology advancements continue to grow at a rapid pace and companies are going to continue to invest in innovation. If we want to stand out against the competition and be a true player in our respective industries, innovative thinking is the winning strategy.

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