4 Ways to Help Your Agency Innovate

“In baseball, you can fail 70% of the time and still be considered a strong player.”
– Terry Jones, founder of Travelocity.com and founding CEO of its competitor, Kayak.com.


I’ve had the opportunity to hear Terry Jones’s presentations at two different industry events over the last year. I’ve also recently finished his new book—ON Innovation—which I recommend. It provides 72 deceptively simple ideas for stimulating innovation within an organization based on his experience as the CIO at American Airlines, Sabre, the president and CEO of Travelocity, and founder of Kayak.com.

The world’s future leaders overwhelmingly believe that today’s businesses can grow only if they can innovate—and that today’s business leaders aren’t demonstrating they’re up to the task.

“The future for any business today depends entirely on its ability to innovate, and the youngest adults, ‘the idea generation,’ know that,” says Jones. “The millennials are the group known for pioneering new ideas, rethinking processes, end-running hierarchies and solving problems by doing what simply makes sense to them. We need to listen to them; they’re the innovators!”

But the worldwide survey of adults born after 1982 found that only 26% believe their bosses are doing enough to encourage innovation. The study by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited, published in January, reported 78% believe innovation is crucial for growing businesses.

Jones says there are some definite steps business leaders can and should take to ensure their company [your agency] is hearing employees’ ideas, recognizing opportunities, and ensuring a clear path to execution.

  1. Build a culture of experimentation. Not every project will succeed but you can’t learn from mistakes if you don’t allow them to happen. The corollary: Always analyze what went wrong. Why didn’t it work? To use a sports analogy, watch the “game films” to improve and learn as much from failure as you do from success. One fast and easy way to experiment is to test options out online. Whether it’s polling customers, measuring which approach gets the best response, or allowing a segment of your customer base to test drive a new tool, the results can be invaluable.
  2. Kill projects, not people. In many companies, people stop offering ideas and volunteering for projects because the punishment for failure is greater than the reward for success. Lunch with the boss or a $100 bonus do not compensate for the risk of being demoted or fired, or suffering a tarnished reputation. When a project fails in a company with a culture of experimentation, the first thing you should do is say, “Bob, what would you like to work on now?!”
  3. Break thru the “Bozone layer.” Some of the greatest ideas for innovation will come from the employees on the front lines—those in direct contact with customers or production. But their ideas will never float up to the executive suite if you’ve created a “Bozone layer” by making it too risky for your staff to experiment. (See No. 2.) While you’re turning the culture around, find ways to reach down to CSRs and other people on the front lines to solicit ideas. Implement them and reward the contributors with a big, public shout-out—which will help you start changing the culture.
  4. Install “sensors” to pick up customers’ ideas. Don’t just look to employees for innovation—learn from your customers. They have ideas for new products and new ways they want to interact with you. Their customer service complaints are a fertile source of ideas for improvement. Listen! Social media or a forum on the agency website is a good sensor for picking up ideas. For customer service complaints, Travelocity installed a lobby phone booth where anyone in the company could listen in on customer service calls. Once a month, everyone was expected to provide feedback on at least two of those calls, and suggest an improvement to eliminate similar future calls plus a work-around for the interim.

Consumer expectations are changing faster than the industry’s current ability to innovate and change. Helping your organization build and cultivate a culture of innovation will help you continue to be successful in the coming years.

Steve Anderson provides information to insurance agents about how they can use technology to increase revenue and/or reduce expenses. He speaks professionally to hundreds of agents each year on the future of technology, the social web, and how insurance agencies can establish their Internet presence.

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