From ideas to continuous innovation

By: Liz Derks

A little over a year ago Achmea Schade Bedrijven, the Business-to-Business arm of the biggest Dutch insurance company, decided to structure their innovation processes using the Continuous Innovation (COIN) Framework. The trigger was the large number of innovation projects and initiatives but a lack of concrete outcomes and results, combined with a company-wide sentiment of “simply not getting around to it”. We sat down with Innovation Manager Nicole Stroeken to reflect on the results and learnings, as well as to discover the current challenges and next steps for innovation within Achmea Schade bedrijven.

Achmea Schade Bedrijven innovation strategies
Continuous Innovation (COIN) Framework in insurance
Nicole Stroeken's innovation management at Achmea
Challenges of remote innovation during COVID for insurers
Transforming organizational culture in Dutch insurance companies.

The “list of a thousand ideas”

With a background in innovation management and extensive operational experience under her belt, Nicole Stroeken, together with BlinkLane Consulting (now known as Highberg), was tasked to reshape their innovation processes using the COIN Framework. Nicole recounts how the journey started: “There was certainly no lack of ideas within the organization – when we started out, we had a list of approximately a thousand existing ideas!” The first step was to clean up the list; many of the initiatives were no longer relevant, had no owner, or sometimes it concerned a smaller process innovation. Nicole continues: “This is where one notices how much of a catch-all term innovation is – it really depends on the context what is considered innovation.”

Innovation from the bottom-up

Creating a sustainable innovation culture was a key factor in choosing the COIN Framework. “We consciously decided on a bottom-up approach as opposed to setting up a corporate garage or making a separate group of people responsible for innovation”, Nicole explains. “We really wanted to create a culture of seeing opportunities and exploring possibilities, and provide our employees the necessary skills.” Fortunately, after a thorough clean-up there were plenty of ideas left on the “list of a thousand ideas” to test for technical feasibility and customer value through SWICHes. This way, Achmea Schade Bedrijven worked on seventeen ideas in the first year alone, involving more than seventy people. Moreover, regular Innovation Days ensured involvement from the broader organization too. Nicole emphasizes that innovation certainly is not something “you can just do on the side”; it requires grit and consistent effort: “In the experimentation phase, the structure of the SWICHes is really helpful to shape the idea and get feedback from the market as soon as possible. However, it requires more time to scale ideas up and we are currently running a number of pilots with customers.”

A different way

Sometimes ideas take a different turn, and sometimes they end up at different places within the organization. One of the ideas focused on increasing the (fire) safety of stables within agricultural businesses. “Within farms and stables welding work takes place, and if you do not take the right precautions, it is easy for hay or wood to catch fire”, explains Nicole. Through structured experimentation the original idea changed, and focus was shifted to prevention. Nicole explains: “By making use of virtual reality, we can visualize the risks and change behavior. The idea is currently being worked on in collaboration with other parts of the business, and by involving the original work group we ensure the knowledge is shared and safeguarded.”

Innovation spreading like a wildfire

Since the implementation of the COIN Framework Nicole notices that innovation is spreading “like a wildfire” through the organization: “The most important thing is that we just started and by doing so began learning what works best for our organization. Otherwise, it can be easy to get stuck on talking hypothetically about what is possible, what is not, and why. In that sense, the COIN Framework offers a comprehensive framework to structure everything related to innovation." Even though much has been achieved in the first year there is still plenty of work to be done, especially regarding strategy and sharpening the so-called ‘Value Goals’. Nicole elaborates: “We have gone back a few steps to our vision; what is our mission as Achmea Schade Bedrijven and what role does innovation play? At the same time, we have to be realistic as we have a large IT rationalization program happening. This requires a lot of resources, so what does that mean for innovation and how do we ensure everyone can support in its implementation? These are good and necessary conversations to have.”

Innovation in COVID-times

Like many other companies, everyone within Achmea has been working from home since March last year. According to Nicole, the lack of personal interaction is certainly a hindering factor for her role as innovation manager: “When you are physically present at the different departments it easy to see what is going on. You join meetings and if there is something interesting it is easy to start the process to explore it further.” Because of COVID-19, this step is suddenly a lot more formal: “Now someone has to consciously decide that their idea is important enough to reach out to me through online channels and this often does not happen. This means the department managers play a more important role in making innovation a priority, which brings us back to the strategic aspect I mentioned before: what do you expect from your department and what kind of ideas are we looking for?

Onwards & upwards

Over the past year, great steps have been made. Achmea Schade Bedrijven is currently also looking into how to shape big themes, like becoming more data-driven in the way of working. Nicole explains: “We have the ambition to grow as a data-driven insurance company, but these things are a bit harder to try and experiment with. The how and the value in the long run are often hard to establish, so we try to make it concrete by creating examples and case-studies.” Moreover, innovation has become an important part of the organizational culture. This means that day-to-day processes are also being looked at with an innovation-lens: “For our IT rationalization program we need to convert customers to a new system. This requires different customer information than we currently have and contacting every client to obtain this information costs a lot of time and resources. By looking at these processes through a lens of innovation we try to make this more convenient and efficient and see if there is a way so we can add value for the client with this extra touch point.” According to Nicole it is this combination of developing innovations and tackling practical and everyday problems in an innovative way that leads to a sustainable innovation culture: “Working this way means we constantly develop our innovation capabilities and culture, with the aim of becoming a organization that continuously innovates!”

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