Allstate Shares Hard Lessons In Driving Innovation - InformationWeek

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11/2/2012
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Allstate Shares Hard Lessons In Driving Innovation

Creating an innovation group was a small step. Learning from rejection and winning over skeptics was the real challenge.

Allstate has spent more than five years honing a formal approach to innovation. It hasn't always gone smoothly -- insert Mayhem joke here -- but director of technology innovation Matt Manzella doesn't hide from the hard lessons he has learned.

Manzella shared his experience at the recent InformationWeek 500 Conference, and you can view his presentation below. Here are a few of the lessons I took away:

Focus On The Burning Issues

When Allstate's innovation lab started, it was a place where people could offer ideas, and the lab staff would pursue the ones it considered most interesting.

"We had a lot of orphaned ideas," Manzella said. "People would drop them off and not really want to work on them." Even if the lab took them up, when it would bring an idea or prototype to a business unit, "we heard 'no' a lot." Business unit leaders weren't involved in honing the idea, so they weren't interested in implementing it.

[ Learn more about Allstate's innovation lab. See Allstate, Quintiles Succeed With New IT Rulebook. ]

Now the innovation lab works almost exclusively with a business unit. It does "innovation blitzes" -- 10-day sprints to solicit employee input on a business problem, using an online tool for commenting and voting. The questions posed in the blitz are honed with business unit leaders to make sure they're aimed at the biggest problems or opportunities.

Expect Rejection; Don't Give Up

One of the biggest skeptics of the innovation blitz idea initially was the claims department, Manzella said. Its leaders' concerns were purely practical: The department has thousands of employees on the phones, and their time is closely monitored to make sure the group runs as efficiently as possible. How would it account for time spent "ideating?"

Now the claims department is one of the biggest advocates of the blitzes. A turning point was from one idea, which got 500 "up" votes and hundreds of comments in the blitz system, that saves the department about $18 million a year. One accommodation: The claims department has branded its innovation blitzes "Gold Mine" so that claims people know that it's discussing topics relevant to their roles.

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Manzella's advice still holds: "If you're going to work on an innovation team, you better have a thick skin. Because you're going to hear 'no' a lot."

Get Executive Support

Brainstorming of the kind Allstate is doing just won't work unless employees know that it's OK to take time to contribute, and that their bosses expect them to. Manzella recalled how in one of the earlier idea-generating efforts, one that involved a big investment of time, some employees took time off because they weren't sure it would be OK to contribute on the clock. On the flip side, when one group ran its first blitz, the group's president passed through the cafeteria asking: "Have you put an idea in the blitz?" Executives need to comment in the tool as well.

It ties back to that focus on burning problems: Work on the right questions, and get people involved who have the budget and influence to move things forward.

Acknowledge The Effort

People want to know that their ideas are being considered, or they won't keep contributing. But Manzella doesn't think that requires cash rewards or prizes. Allstate did offer a chance to win an Xbox console with its first blitzes, and some people gamed the system to win them, Manzella said. Now they're focused on leader boards that offer recognition for ideas that get many votes and comments, and for top contributors.

For more details on Allstate's experience, view Manzella's presentation here:

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