Can holding an Innovation Day really have an impact on a company’s culture — or is it the corporate equivalent of throwing a raucous pep rally, then sending everyone back to the classroom?

For a big company take, we spoke to Ryan Armbruster, VP of Innovation Competency at UnitedHealth Group in Minnesota. The health insurer and provider of IT services chalked up $110 billion in 2012 revenue, $5.5 billion in profits, and has about 133,000 employees.

ryan-armbruster

Ryan Armbruster

Armbruster, who joined UnitedHealth in 2010, confesses that he was initially a skeptic about whether an Innovation Day conference would move the needle. We’d love to hear about your experiences; post a comment below.

What differentiates a successful Innovation Day from a flop?

I started working in innovation a decade ago at the Mayo Clinic. At that time, very few people were spending 100 percent of their time thinking about innovation. At Mayo, we started the SPARC lab, a skunkworks focused on the outpatient experience, and later created Mayo Clinic’s Center for Innovation.

UnitedHealth is #17 on the Fortune 100. Coming here was an amazing opportunity to think about health and have an impact on the population. I was hired by the C-level Innovation Council at UnitedHealth. They had been doing some benchmarking before I was hired, looking at other practices at large organizations.

When I got here four years ago, I thought having an Innovation Day could be a big waste of time. To me, innovation is about deep skills and competencies, not something you just celebrate on a single day. It can take a lot of resources to do a one-day conference. I was pretty new to the company, and I didn’t have an appreciation for the culture, and how it supports or inhibits innovation. At UnitedHealth and at most companies, it can always be more supportive.

We put on the first Innovation Day in 2011, in the center of the corporate headquarters. It was kind of this science fair, a low-fi way to start recognizing innovation.

But I was really surprised by it. People were shoulder to shoulder. There was an energy I hadn’t seen at the company since I started. At the end of the day, I had one of our corporate executives who’d been at the company for 25 years come up and say, “Ryan, I have to tell you, I haven’t seen this kind of energy since we were in the startup phase 25 years ago.”

The kind of recognition and celebration we were providing was a way to unlock the enthusiasm of our people.

The first year, we had 2,200 people show up in person, plus a virtual presence for others. This year, we 3,400 people in person, and we also had four regional Innovation Days. It has become a catalyst. Everybody looks forward to it.

Innovation Day is organized by the enterprise-level Innovation Council and supporting team. The Council is commissioned by the CEO, and it is made up of senior executives that represent the major business areas and accountable for enhancing innovation ability across the organization. Past speakers have included author Steven Johnson, innovation guru Larry Keeley, Geeksquad founder Robert Stephens, and Guy Kawasaki.

Our CEO Challenge culminates at Innovation Day. For the last one, we had 20,000 people submit or contribute to ideas. Other employees can cast votes using play money, whether they’re there in person or participating online. The winners get awards at Innovation Day.

All our business segments put up exhibits about what they’re working on, or what they have done over the past year. Communication is one of our biggest challenges, and Innovation Day gets people to talk to other businesses. It gives them exposure and builds relationships. There are just a lot of peripheral benefits we get out of the day from that kind of setting up relationships.I totally underestimated the impact Innovation Day would have.

Here’s an outline Armbruster provided of how UnitedHealth structures its Innovation Day.

UHGInnovationDayOverview