Steering Enterprise Toward Innovation

The very qualities you can count on in large enterprises, such as stability and predictability, can have the unintended effect of holding back innovation, says Geeta Wilson, Vice President of Consumer Experience and Enterprise Transformation at the health insurance company Humana. So how do you get a slow-moving enterprise to embrace necessary change? Geeta has tackled this question from the inside. 

When it comes to beginning to innovate, Geeta echoes what many other leaders before her have said about arriving at a breakthrough concept: “You’re in it for the long haul. It’s not going to happen overnight.”

This might be frustrating for leaders with a pressing desire to “improve the customer experience yesterday,” Geeta explains, but innovation requires more than just customer empathy. “You also need to get deep management empathy, because there may be more under the hood that you need to uncover,” Geeta explains, such as projects in the works or timing that a particular team or employee is unaware of.

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All great acts of innovation need a leader who has “an unwavering desire to improve despite what you may run into,” Geeta says. However, that leader won’t be enough if you don’t bring “as many people along as you can,” she adds. Geeta says you have to identify the stakeholders and then “give them a chance to shape and inform the vision so you don’t leave anyone behind,” however works best, whether through one-on-one or group meetings.

She speaks from experience at Humana, three years ago she helped her team make a “very small Lean transformation.” They didn’t wait for the organization as a whole to adopt Lean, but took their permission to do a reframe and ran with it. “I think we had a significant influence in that we said, ‘It starts with us.’”

The first step in their Lean transformation was the tough decision to be co-located in one office, which was a big change and sacrifice for many of those who telecommuted, but improved communication. “As a team we had to say we’ll only use certain communication vehicles and the more in-person the better.”

While not every team may require co-location, it may be worth looking at as a possible strategy when communication is challenging.

Design shared values

Geeta feels that communication is only successful when a team has a set of shared values and behaviors that bring individuals together. She describes a poster that hangs on the office wall that highlights four main goals: Strive for shared vision; cultivate genuine trust; speak truth while you preserve relationships; own the outcomes. “We sign up to those,” Geeta says. It creates a culture of individuals who strive for a “collective win” over an individual win.

She knows this can be difficult for people who are “logically competitive” and who need personal wins to feel motivated. It’s something that a team leader needs to take into consideration when organizing a team.

To Geeta, sometimes high emotional intelligence is more important than high competency when trying to innovate as a team.

Introduce routines to cement change

Lean transformation doesn’t have to be all serious either. Geeta feels that a little fun can improve the innovation process. Once the team put communication and shared values in place, they slowly embedded other changes with fun playful daily rituals that they continue to work with “religiously every day as a team.” These include “The Daily Jolt” in the morning, which starts with some music, report-outs on each team’s work, the barriers they’re facing, and anything they need feedback on.

“That helps cross-functional collaboration,” Geeta says. All teams know what the other is doing—no need to write an email to summarize; no need to have another meeting.

Then they do what she calls an “LED Moment.” Something that stimulates thinking for the day: A video you’ve watched, a poem you’ve read, any platform or forum.” These are what Geeta calls “life moments,” which bring the team together cohesively by helping them get to know each other. “In the early stages we didn’t know each other; now we know people’s dog’s names.”

In addition, they have Drop-in Thursdays, where, for an hour and a half, anyone from any part of the organization can come in and ask questions. “We stop our agenda for others’ agendas, do demonstrations, even bring in consumers,” Geeta explains.

Create a baseline

Innovation can mean entering unknown territory where, if you’re truly doing something new, as Geeta’s team was, you’ll have to figure out “a good measurement system up front in order to measure the impact.” For example, Geeta’s team at Humana rolled out a new-to-them artificial intelligence (AI). “We had to create a baseline for measurement by comparing ourselves with a control group.”

When creating a baseline, she urges, “Make sure you have a good measurement system that is grounded in business outcomes as well as consumer outcomes.”

After that, Geeta urges not to get complacent with experimentation or skip the testing stage altogether. “You can’t bypass the iterative process, even when you think you know what to do,” Geeta says, because it’s not the project you’re serving, but the customer.

She is, however, sympathetic to how difficult such change can be within an organization or company that has been working in a certain way for a long time. “This work is not for the faint-hearted. You need the ability to deal with the roller coaster and the patience and fortitude to manage it without getting discouraged.”

Thank you to Jordan Rosenfeld for contributing this piece. If you seek to bring the entrepreneurial spirit to your organization, Lean Startup Company can help.