Employees, Not Consultants or Executives, Are Your Best Innovators

The insurance industry gets a bad rap as outdated and inefficient. But one insurance firm, CSAA Insurance Group, is bucking the stereotype with a strikingly modern approach to innovation, reports Entrepreneur.

This American Automobile Association-affiliated insurer caught the attention of the Harvard Business Review last August due to its all-hands-on-deck innovation strategy. As the article described, CSAA had harnessed the brainpower of its 4,000-person employee base to encourage systematic improvement at all company levels.

The results were astounding: Underwriters analyzed the company’s call data to improve voice prompts and reduce misplaced calls . . . by 40 percent. Other employees jumped in to streamline online claims, improve the issuance of insurance cards — and more.

But CSAA’s approach wasn’t innovative just for the insurance industry. Top-down innovation has been tried over and over, and it just can’t hold a candle to the alternative: employee-driven innovation teams being used by companies like CSAA and my own human resources solutions company.  We like to call these teams EDITs.

Why an EDIT philosophy works

Industry insight and creativity aren’t exclusive to the C-suite, nor are they best purchased from industry consultants. In fact, they can be found in every employee, from the part-time package handler right on up the corporate ladder.

Sarah Miller Caldicott, author of Midnight Lunch (and great-grandniece of Thomas Edison), has been trying to tell this to the business world for years. So when I heard her speak at a conference a few years ago, I couldn’t help but try an EDIT at my own company.

All EDITs begin with a call from a leadership team sponsor who brings a business problem to the table. That person then invites volunteers to form teams of around eight employees each. Teams choose their own leaders, who then hold the rest of the team members accountable and ultimately deliver proposals to the executive team.

EDIT does more than make us a better company. Team members develop cross-departmental friendships; help boost everyone’s morale; and grow their own leadership, presentation and executive consulting skills. Rarely do non-managers have the chance to shine in leading roles the way they do with EDIT.

Another upshot of our EDIT? We began a new HR project, “Extending the Culture Beyond Our Walls,” in which we’re expanding our employee culture to our clients, contingent workers and broader community through employment branding.

The only down side? We wish we’d done this sooner.

Ready, set, EDIT

If you’re hungry for the fresh ideas that come from a collaborative, team-driven approach to innovation, you’re ready for an EDIT. Here’s how to get and keep the EDIT ball rolling:

1. Make the problem and ideal solution as concrete as possible.

Every EDIT begins with a problem outlined by someone from the organization’s leadership team. Think of this like a call to action. What’s the problem or opportunity, and what type of action, process or technology will solve or capitalize on it? Be sure to also describe what resources the EDIT will have to work with, such as budgeted funds, fixed assets and subject matter experts.

The Arizona Department of Transportation, for example, was looking last year for faster ways to reopen Phoenix-area freeways after closing them for repair. ADOT workers designed a reverse stencil that protects painted surfaces from an asphalt finishing spray. For materials, they used just scrap metal and two trucks,

Now, a scrap stencil may not have been what leaders first envisioned as their “future perfect” solution, but ADOT’s employees certainly made smart use of their resources.

2. Give diversity and inclusion space at the table.

An EDIT is only as strong as its members are diverse. In other words, don’t assemble a team entirely of marketers, salespeople or denizens of any other one department. A study from Holton Consulting noted that people tend to come up with more interesting, exciting and unusual ideas when they’re not thinking about their own area of expertise.

Don’t worry if one EDIT has four people and one has 10. Team size doesn’t matter nearly as much as the diversity of backgrounds, departments and skill sets. With that said, do your best to not exclude willing participants. To this day, our company has never turned away someone who wanted to contribute to an EDIT initiative.

3. Provide structure, but avoid rigidity.

Give your EDIT space to work, but don’t let it fly blind, either. Have the EDIT take its cue from agile development or the scientific method, whichever its members are more familiar with. Encourage the EDIT to hypothesize solutions, test them, iterate and then evaluate them against the “future perfect.”

When our company’s EDITs meet for the first time, they always begin with a brainstorm. From there, they test ideas in low-risk, low-resource experiments. For example, a team suggesting a casual dress policy might survey or visit other companies with such a policy: The point would be to see whether changing acceptable workplace attire affected productivity.

The goal? To get real-world feedback on potential solutions, narrowing them down until the only top performer is left standing.

In our industry, there’s no greater cliche than “Your employees are your greatest asset.” But nothing has driven that point home for us, like EDIT. The soon-to-be-released enterprise-resource planning system that our employees spearheaded is proof that these people are, indeed, our strongest innovators.

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