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Innovation at American Family Insurance

Posted by Jennifer von Briesen on Fri, May 30, 2014
american family insurance

Insurance companies aren’t what most people think of when they think of innovation, but you’d be surprised. American Family Insurance (AMFAM) based in Madison, Wisconsin, is doing some interesting things and a lot of it has to do with their Chairman/CEO (Jack Salzwedel), Chief Business Development Officer (Peter Gunder), and Innovation Director (Dawn Mortimer).It may seem counter-intuitive that firms in regulated and risk-averse industries have great innovation potential, but at South Street, we believe these constraints are huge catalysts for growth and change.

AMFAM’s previous innovation endeavors were focused on products and specific business areas. Now, AMFAM pursues innovation at three different levels across the entire organization: operational, transformational, and disruptive, with the ultimate goal being disruption and new business creation. What’s changed is the aspiration and intention to be a leader and disrupter, not a fast follower.

One focus for disruptive innovation is launching new business models such as Assure Start, insurance for small businesses sold directly online. Another focus is venture capital investing in start-up companies and early stage ventures that have differentiation potential. Related to this, in the past two years since Jack Salzwedel has been CEO, AMFAM has acquired Permanent General (a direct auto carrier) and Homesite insurance (home insurance).

Since setting up AMFAM’s enterprise-wide internal innovation program in late 2011, Dawn Mortimer has engaged 60 VIPs (Vital Innovation Partners) from different levels and functions across the business to participate actively in the innovation process. They spend 5-10% of their time to move ideas through the innovation funnel and review hundreds of submissions from employees and AMFAM’s agents. Using BrightIdea’s innovation platform, general and focused challenges have been launched and innovations have been achieved from new mobile apps to claims process improvements. Rewards and recognition for participants at each stage gate — from cash, to public recognition “Roof Raiser” and “People’s Choice” awards, to cool parking spots in the winter — have helped keep employee engagement high. And using a consulting model, the team of 8 innovation engineers works closely with business areas to fund pilot programs and proof of concepts.

AMFAM’s latest innovation endeavor has been focused, led from the top, well-funded, and aligned with overall strategic goals. This success story is still being written, but so far, it’s great to see a company embrace the innovation agenda and make such great progress despite its constraints.

Jennifer is a Director at South Street Strategy Group. She recently received the 2013 “Member of the Year” award by the Association for Strategic Planning (ASP), the preeminent professional association for those engaged in strategic thinking, planning and action.

Topics: South Street Strategy Group, strategy consulting, insurance research, growth and innovation