Advice from Cambia Health’s Chief Innovation Officer


In March of 2015, InnoLead brought a group of 50 innovation executives to a Seattle Field Study, during which we visited the innovation labs of Starbucks, Staples, Microsoft Research, and others. One of our visits was to Cambia Grove, the healthcare innovation space established by Cambia Health Solutions, a non-profit family of healthcare businesses with 5,500 employees. This week, we asked their SVP and Chief Innovation Officer Mohan Nair to share lessons they’ve learned so far.

In the five years since founding our innovation team at Cambia, we’ve built five companies from employee ideas, have engaged more than 29 percent of employees in innovation activities, and have begun looking at co-innovation and co-creation across industries. Perhaps most importantly, we’ve worked hard to establish a cutting-edge culture: 84 percent of our employees believe that Cambia encourages innovation.

But these successes do not mean we are successful…at least not yet.

Getting to this point has meant constantly maintaining a delicate balance of activities, focus, and relationships — something to which most InnoLead members can relate, I’m sure.

Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned along the way:

1. Balance Starmaking with Talent Spotlighting

Conventional wisdom has always been, “Put a spotlight on your intrapreneurs.” As you shine a light on employees’ innovation activities, you can eliminate barriers and normalize innovation activity for the rest.

We’ve done that well at Cambia. For example, we highlighted at every turn the efforts of one particular corporate entrepreneur, who came to us with an idea that turned into a disruptive product and company.

But in promoting a single leader’s efforts to create something transformational, we missed countless opportunities to promote those pursuing and acting on smaller innovation opportunities within their everyday jobs — arguably a more attainable goal for the majority of employees.

By focusing closely on a single entrepreneur, we actually missed some opportunities to democratize innovation, and might have created an unattainable expectation for others.

Here’s how you can do it differently:

  • Highlight small innovations. Your innovation team has tremendous power in promoting your corporate intrapreneurs. Don’t exclusively shine the spotlight on a few. Instead, use your starmaking ability to spread the word about “micro” innovators as much as you do the “macro” innovators.
  • Promotional ownership. Give someone on your team the specific responsibility for internal marketing, tied to your corporation’s internal communications function, and engage your whole team to look for and support promotional activities. 
  • Set a baseline. Aim to promote a certain number (i.e., 20) of different employees each year in depth. With that, you turn innovation activities — even small process improvements — into your standards of operations.


Two of our spotlights on employees who pitched disruptive ideas to senior leadership.

2. Understand the Profile of Your Intrapreneurs

Employees participate in corporate entrepreneurship activities for a variety of reasons — you’ll see newly-minted MBAs looking to make a mark, and soon-to-be-fired employees looking to salvage their careers.

Hopefully, a significant number of your participants are top performers who are earnestly trying to improve the company and grow in their positions. In that sense, engagement in innovation can be a mechanism for creating an informal network of your high performers.

But it can also be a mechanism for understanding your workforce and your hidden management challenges, thereby improving the odds of innovation success.

For example, we came to understand that some employees were sharing their ideas with us because of barriers they faced in other parts of the organization. They were certainly leveraging our crowdsourcing platform appropriately, but it became apparent that there were other underlying management issues we needed to address. This has been invaluable in understanding where the allies — and obstacles — of innovation exist in the organization.

Similarly, it became apparent that some employees were sharing ideas in an effort to hide existing performance issues, or to spend less time on their core job function. Others submitted ideas out of a misguided pursuit of fame or fortune, and — as a result — were rarely open to the advice of others when it came time to refine or improve their ideas. Over time, we found that engaging with either of these types of employees can be problematic; in fact, we discovered that lack of humility is more dangerous than lack of skill or ability.

The more data you have to understand the profile of those who engage with you, the more you will understand how to tailor your approach. For us, it meant a vetting process in our initial engagement, and a coaching system for working with employees. This is where we were able to investigate true intent and ability, and determine how we should engage moving forward. 


Results of our innovation program, including how more of our innovators perform over benchmark.

3. Operationalize through “Servant Leadership”

As I know InnoLead has covered extensively, a productive working relationship with the business units has been a major challenge for many innovation teams and programs. Some people on the operational sides of the business may either resist your efforts to work with them, or feel threatened.

This is normal. An organization is an organism, after all, and the operational arm of a company must, like a skeletal system, be strong and rigid enough to deliver on the core business offering. Its purpose is different from the nervous system of your company — the network of intelligence that informs your strategy. No matter the phase of maturity of your program, all of these systems must work together across the business to excel.

The businesses we have built have transferred over to the operational side of the business at various stages of maturity. In some cases, they have moved over when they were little more than a business plan; in other cases, there was a live product, a dedicated team, active customers, and revenue. In all of the situations, the end of incubation and the beginning of operationalization requires close ties and coordination. I cannot say that we have always done this handoff to my satisfaction; each time we learn how to do it better. But building trust in that handoff is essential, and trust is the biggest indicator of how well it will go.

Your program’s scale depends on the business unit leadership’s trust in you. Your team might be staffed to execute on ideas you develop from employees, but it’s unlikely you can have a transformative impact without business leaders taking on the responsibility for execution of ideas.We focused on building these relationships through a combination of tactics that propelled our success:

  • Servant leadership. My team treats all relationships as “servant leadership.” Part of everyone’s job is to serve the organization.?
  • Challenges. We aim to ignite the organization through innovation challenges. For example, the innovation team ran an innovation challenge two years ago with just the leaders of the organization, requiring the submission of an idea from each leader. We then worked with those leaders to refine ideas, coaching those who continued on to each stage of our innovation challenge. Ultimately, we had nine ideas for a “pitch day,” and ended up incubating one as a new business with tremendous potential. But the real advantage of that process was more pervasive: My innovation team got to meet with those leaders, built trust, and nurture relationships that last to this day.


Results of our innovation program, including how more of our innovators perform over benchmark.

4. Show ROI Quickly to Gain Credibility

Innovation activities have a series of intermediate and end outcomes. In the short term, you might have some runway to show how you are changing people’s hearts and minds, engaging them, and inspiring them to be innovative. But it is a rare organization that will not be expecting you ultimately to impact revenue or cost savings.

If your innovation team is a revenue-generator or a cost-saver, rather than a cost center, you face an easier road ahead.

When we began, we didn’t look for disruptive solutions to implement. Instead, we found a few multi-million-dollar incremental improvements and division-based ROI that gave us credibility for bigger projects. Usually, you will need to spend a year or more to develop the insights, products, and technology needed for truly transformative products and solutions. In the meantime, it’s important to have material, albeit smaller, successes to which you can point.

One example: consider tools to accelerate your sales team, for example, where you could generate substantial revenue. Again, looking for business champions and partners will also help you uncover opportunities where you can rapidly succeed. And when you succeed, highlight those business partners so that others engage with you.

5. Innovation as a Value

My experience in strategic business transformation (I actually wrote a book on the topic) has informed the way my team is recruited, organized, and directed.

Most innovation efforts and teams are objective- and revenue-based. This is reasonable, but limiting.

Our approach is different, and we aim for greater impact by starting with a cause: to transform the healthcare system. Our values reflect this cause, including innovation as a value.


Innovation as a value strikes deep chords for our employees and for my team. Striving to achieve a cause greater than ourselves creates passion for change that is unparalleled in the corporate world.

We can help employees with the mechanics of developing and pitching their ideas, but our true goal is to gain their commitment in helping our customers reach their best health. That passion with purpose is really the key to our program. Once that passion is awakened, we have created the readiness to truly evaluate and explore opportunities and to take the time to find ways to address them. And equally important, we have created the resilience needed to solve entrenched problems.

Remember that innovation is typically non-linear, unpredictable, and accelerated, as opposed to linear, predictable, and tied to quarterly rhythms, like the traditional business. Yet innovation systems, methods, and people must live in both worlds to achieve greatness. Achieving balance between the two is where the true benefits of innovation can be found.


Mohan Nair is a longtime innovator who previously served as a senior vice president and chief innovation officer at Cambia Health Solutions. In 2021, he became an operating partner and medical innovator-in-residence at Movac in New Zealand, where he serves startups in strategy and scale up.