Innovating from Within: The 10 x 10 Laws

November 12, 2020

According to Malcolm Gladwell, author of “Outliers,” it takes 10 years or 10,000 hours to become truly successful at something. A decade ago, in October 2010, I took over as SVP/Chief Innovation Officer at Cambia Health Solutions. I was asked by my CEO to bring it to life. He encouraged me to pick my team, define a budget, and craft the agenda to bring innovation into the enterprise and, more importantly, to our customers. 

Mohan Nair, Cambia Health Solutions

Cambia, a $9.8 billion enterprise serving two million consumers, knew me as the EVP/Chief Marketing Executive prior to this appointment — and now I was asked to create a team to innovate. I was chartered to generate an innovation-centered culture that is sustainable, create a capability in every employee to bring new solutions to old problems, and to bring the undefined future to the present. I knew that we had to start from within.

Although I believe we are much more than a scorecard — we generated the following outcomes: 

  • Five internally-generated companies defined, created, and launched in seven years
  • 2,900+ cumulative ideas from employees, orchestrated by an idea management system and process
  • Graduated five CxOs in 10 years
  • Average of six implementable ideas per year that moved to operational value

The culture score of the company’s innovation efforts hovers around 86 percent engagement, with the US average being 71 percent. About 88 percent of our employees believe their manager supports their innovation efforts, with the US average being 75 percent. By many metrics, I consider our program to be a success. 

So, I offer 10 laws that my team Innovation Force has used over the past 10 years to activate change and transformation:

1. Treat innovation as a tactic, not a strategy.

Innovation is the instrument of market transformation and disruption. We use innovation culture and its output to express this. If we don’t give innovation real objectives, outputs, and outcomes, it loses value quickly. 

2. Start with immediate value.

Many innovation teams are required to produce leaps in vision and solutions. These take time and luck. So, focus on assisting operational leaders in their deepest challenges first. If you are a member or lead a team, use the skills to accelerate operational value. You are accelerators of the future, but need to do this by enabling your internal units to accelerate to meet today’s demands.

3. Make your budget smaller than your dreams.

Consider non-enterprise style funding. Deliver iterative benefits for the consumer, requesting more funds to continue the work once you have defined the value.

4. Find your flywheel for innovation.

The flywheel is a continuous self-generating way that the organization can grasp what you are trying to achieve within an innovation department. Our flywheel begins with ideas driving innovation, where people with ideas are the secret to start the rotation of the wheel. When we engage people with ideas internally, we give them license to broaden their skills, license to be heard, and freedom to create. When we accelerate a department, we help leaders find their own innovation signature — their own way to build out solutions and solve tough to crack problems. But the final spin of our flywheel is the innovation team. Our innovation group is also working in sync to generate our own solutions, capabilities, and even startups to show the way.

5. Control innovation theater.

In an interview in “OFF SCRIPT” with Jamie Foxx, Denzel Washington declared that branding for an actor is about being good — not being known.

Hiring from the outside, having “petting zoo” relationships with startups, creating labs, painting the walls to design on, yellow stickies to capture ideas — these are all good things to do, but do not generate results by themselves. You need to find a recipe for innovation, a way these theatrical tools will deliver the results, and know sometimes you may need to be heavy handed in one or omit another to get the perfect serving.

6. Your team is the symbol — not the destination — of innovation.

When your team tries to gain attention with operating teams, they will face rejections, and they will be challenged. Keep them focused and motivated on the goal to transform the company and its people. I remind my team that we exist because the problem exists. Produce only to engage others and avoid making your team a silo, unless your charter demands it.

7. Choose ideas to fuel innovation. Create a system to capture and engage.

Motivate ideas regularly from the employees and encourage this daily. Without these ideas, the bloodstream of innovation does not flow. We have captured thousands of ideas within our platform. Every idea submitted has exposure to the entire organization for peers and leadership to engage and iterate on. Our team offers a full review and partnership on graduated ideas to help grow, not only the thought, but the person. Ideas are one of the ways to express inclusion and equity.

8. Be the change you want to see.

Great leaders say less and do more. Be inclusive, drive equity, and bring diversity to the process. Innovation is a great way to bring everyone into market transformation. My group has led by example, by building new assets and companies. This work is not for an ego boost, but to gather energy from the actions of collaborating, nurturing, and learning.

9. Trust and test yourself.

There are always more nay-sayers then yay-sayers. Pay attention to people but listen to your instincts. I know innovative teams that believe they must be agile within the market, and within their organization. They end up changing and pivoting so often that they lose their way. In these moments, when people say to drop or pivot — you must test your own innovation mojo. Remember that you were funded based on the skill and ability to predict the market — not to get marching orders. So, know that you will need to defend your considerations to prove a point and it may be painful, given your need to serve. But remember that it is for the customer and their families.

10. Be guided by your true north.

My last law to abide by as an innovator, is perhaps my most cherished. When all else fails, your values and the reason you do this work is your superpower. Innovation leaders like you have a natural ability to hold on to the reason of why we do what we do — and that is the mechanism to get you through the what. You are not alone; we are needed now more than ever. Our customers, our society, our organizations, our employees need us to rebuild the future they deserve.


Mohan Nair, SVP/Chief Innovation Officer at Cambia Health Solutions, has led Innovation Force, a team of 12 business designers, prototypers, and information curators for the past 10 years. He is the author of three books on measurement, and most recently he released Strategic Business Transformation: The 7 Deadly Sins to Avoid. He has run three startups and been a CxO in three enterprise-sized businesses.