Innovate on purpose

The insurance industry resounds with the call to innovate. Everyone’s saying it, yet few are actually doing it, and the gulf between talk and action is increasingly evident.

Confronted by change that has triggered what Bill Michael of KPMG describes as an “existential struggle,” insurance giants seem overwhelmed by the challenges and choices implied by systematic, structural innovation – and too many don’t know where to begin.

The question is why?

Cultural resistance
Innovation implies risk, and is fraught with tensions that do not sit well with the legacy structures of established giants. Rather ironically – considering that understanding and managing risk define the sector – traditional insurers are shackled by an innate risk aversion. Unlike the insouciant startups which forge ahead with a “fail fast, fail often” mentality, most insurers have a long-nurtured reputation to consider.

There is a dangerously fine line, however, between risk aversion and resistance to change.

Innovation noise
The knee-jerk reaction of many insurers is to make a big show of being innovative. Digital labs, garages and innovation units are popping up everywhere, paying lip-service to innovation in a manner reminiscent of the rush to build data warehouses in response to the hype of big data. But prioritising the company’s image betrays the basic aim of innovation – to develop interesting new products and services that meet the customer’s needs.

Hothousing innovation in this way creates yet another silo, and only distracts from the reality of implementing sustainable change.

Focused action, even if it is lateral and goes against your instinct, is always better than panic-stricken flailing. When caught in a rip current, struggling against the tide is futile and often fatal, whereas swimming parallel to the shore can save your life.

It’s time for an industry so well-versed in risk to finally take some risks.  twitter icon

Such counter-intuitive behaviour is the crux of innovation: lateral thinking, lateral action. The firms that have been successful are those that anticipated the waves of digital disruption and were flexible enough to integrate their insight at every stage of their strategy and structure. In today’s world, it’s not survival of the fittest, but survival of the smartest.

Smart leadership
Smart organisations understand that, no matter what the context, business craves decisive action. While nobody can predict the full ramifications of the digital revolution, endless discussion and agonising over decisions is hopeless. As a cautionary example of the dangers of inertia, Patricia Mechael, Executive Director of mHealth Alliance, diagnosed the company with “pilotitis” – an inability to progress beyond a profusion of pilot initiatives.

A culture of innovation can only flourish under strong, strategic leadership. This demands communicating a greater tolerance for risk, even failure. Established companies need to go beyond their structures if they are to harness the colossal people power dispersed throughout an organisation, thus integrating the ideas and expertise currently operating independently into cohesive strategy.

People, not devices, design, develop and implement effective innovation. This is echoed by Hugh Terry, founder of The Digital Insurer, who warns against the temptation of viewing the innovation imperative purely in technological terms: “Mistakes are being made by focusing on digital only.” Demonstrating that innovation is not a question of technology versus people, Zurich has recently announced an upgrade to its Adviser app which – far from replacing face-to-face engagement between consumer and adviser – is designed purely to enhance it.

When all is said and done…
Fraught with oppositions, innovation is as contrary as life. Trying to separate and sanitise the process by creating yet another silo is a simplistic, pseudo-solution. The key to effective innovation is understanding that the tensions it presents can be harnessed and leveraged.

Innovating within an organisation ossified by legacy structures is a process of cannibalisation – it entails much frustration and many sacrifices. It is risky. But perhaps the greatest peril is that false ally, tradition. Tradition creates a false sense of stability so that, even in a sea of change, a “but-this-is-how-we’ve-always-done-it” attitude holds fast to the status quo, without realising that this may be what eventually drags it under.

“After all is said and done, a lot more will have been said than done.” It’s time for an industry so well-versed in risk to finally take some risks.