Getting leadership buy-in, ‘no time syndrome,’ and premature scaling: Stories from Humana, GE, Intuit

How do you get senior leadership buy-in for innovation — and cope with people in the organization who say they simply don’t have time to innovate?

Those were just two of many topics we covered in a recent IL Live call co-hosted with our strategic partner, Moves the Needle. The call featured Geeta Wilson, VP of Customer Experience — Enterprise Transformation at Humana; Aaron Eden, Chief Operating Officer of Moves the Needle and a former Product Leadership Catalyst at Intuit; and Simeon Sessley, a former Innovation Leader at GE and now an executive-in-residence at Moves the Needle.

Eden discussed the importance of an innovation agenda that includes near-term and long-term pay-offs. “What I see in most organizations is that innovation programs tend to die after about two years or so,” he said. “In most situations, it’s because there’s not a good balance between short- and the long-term impact. I think people that are drawn to innovation are drawn to the sexiness of it. ‘Hey, I’m going to go create the new flying car!’ That takes years, no matter what methodology or approach you’re using.”

A lightly-edited transcript of the call is below. You can also click play to hear the complete audio, or the “down arrow” to download an MP3 file for later listening.

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Spurring innovation inside Humana

Geeta Wilson: When we think about innovation, we think about something different, something new, something that is not the norm…

One of our values is rethinking routine, and pioneering simplicity is another one.

When I think about innovation in Humana…[there are] actual innovation labs that focus on a lot of the broader innovation goals that we have around our consumer’s health, and participating in their health goals with them.

Then we have an opportunity that exists in many functions…of rethinking routine. Or put another way, working differently, challenging the norm or challenging convention, within our own areas.

When I think about what role our team plays… we’re a small group of people in the company. Our team at large is about 140 people, and our company at large is about 50,000-plus people.

That ratio means that it would be absurd to think that a customer experience organization would be innovating with a customer by themselves.

Our role… is driving accelerated improvement to the consumer‑experience, and making an impact so they see it. It can mean when simple things online are not simple, [or] getting an answer to their question quickly. Innovating and rethinking a routine for us would be, how can we make that happen quicker and better than it is today? We will work with organizations [inside Humana] and collaborate with them to do that.

Or it could be simply things that we have done that we haven’t thought through…like in our industry today there is an ID card that gets dispersed. For years, the consumer has grown accustomed to having an ID card. Does it have to be physical, or can it be digital?

Many consumers [might] like to have the option of having it on their phone, for example. We’ve innovated around that. When I think about the role of our team, it is really safeguarding that consumer experience to be the best that it can be, and then unleashing the creative potential in the company to, at scale, be innovative in their own areas in the interest of the consumer.

Delivering impact in a large organization

Aaron Eden: I was meeting with one of the airlines [in Europe.] They’ve got a three-person innovation team. One of the team members is 50 percent dedicated, so effectively [they are] two‑and‑a‑half team members.

They’re supposed to come up with something big and impactful. The organization has told them that they get a pass on the first year. They don’t need to worry about driving new revenue for the first year, but then what’s to say what happens after that?

What I see in most organizations is that innovation programs tend to die after about two years or so. In most situations, it’s because there’s not a good balance between short- and the long-term impact. I think people that are drawn to innovation are drawn to the sexiness of it. “Hey, I’m going to go create the new flying car!”

That takes years, no matter what methodology or approach you’re using. Launching a new successful business takes time. …The way that I talk to innovation teams that are really early on is that you’re building a shield for yourself.

You’ve got to put some points on the board and build a shield for yourself, so that when some executive in the organization gets impatient or decides that they need to put those funds towards something else, you’ve already built up that case.

Since this was an airline, they looked at opportunities to do partnering-type innovation work with the airport, which also had an innovation team. That’s a way to expand their reach while not increasing head count directly.

The second one was leveraging other employees inside the organization to work on more incremental type innovations that could put some points on the board. The third one was really around putting points on the board, driving some bottom-line impact so that they could then make a case to increase the size of their innovation team.

It really is this delicate back-and-forth dance of how do we continue to drive business impact on the short-term while continuing to build the case for the impact that we’re trying to create [over] the long-term. It just takes time and patience.

Early adopters and resisters

Simeon Sessley: [With the FastWorks program at GE, which sought to introduce the lean startup methodology,] we actually started very small. It was underneath some great leadership, specifically some leaders who knew that once they got traction at the business level and at the functional level, they can then scale up. With that there was also a huge effort to actually educate the leaders in a meaningful way, which was done over an entire day. …It allowed for them to get direct exposure to the methodology, to some of the thought leaders, [and] it allowed for [those of] us who were delivering the message to see who were the early adopters. That was key, because we didn’t in anyway expect for all the leadership to get it.

What you want to be able to suss out is, who are those early adopters? Who are those resisters? Then from there, you can make a very thoughtful and strategic assessment on how do you go about rolling it out…

The other thing that you don’t want to be doing is try to push a boulder uphill, which can easily come back to roll over you. What I mean by pushing a boulder up the hill is, you’re trying to push a new paradigm. You’re trying to look at how can you be a little bit more nimble with your approach to innovation. I love what Geeta was talking about. How do you get a little more connected to the consumer [by] utilizing very pointed insights?

How do you actually react to the market a little bit more nimbly? If you’re trying to do that and introduce new innovation methodology, or take a different approach that does not have alignment and you’re trying to push it uphill, sometimes that’s going to be received. Quite often the gravitational pull can [mean] those particular skunkworks activities could roll over you and things change. You never had that air cover to stop that boulder…

Prioritizing work and demonstrating ‘management empathy’

Geeta Wilson: …There’s a little insight that I’ve gained after eight years of trying to do consumer experience [work] in organizations. That is having management empathy. I say that with a lot of respect, because sometimes when we prioritize our agenda, we may be very simplistic.

We may think “A+B=C,” [but] it’s important to line up what you’re trying to do with what the company at large is trying to do, and that might mean following the business strategy.

We made a commitment to do lean startup on lean startup, meaning that as an enterprise we would always [rapidly test.] We rolled out an MVP of our FastStart Lab here, and then we challenged ourselves to constantly test it and to make sure we [had] meaningful impact.

The way that we did that was listening to the consumer, [and] listening to our management. When we started the lab, we had broader goals [focused on the] “experience of the future.” Some of you know that we entered into an acquisition process, and that meant a different business outcome at that time. We were looking at more short-term priorities.

We lined up what we think could make a measurable impact in 12 to 18 months, and that meant getting something out the door in six to nine months — faster than perhaps what we’d been used to. We were prioritizing around what we know to be consumer problems. Second, [we were] lining up and linking to business outcomes. Third is understanding the trajectory of what it’s going to take and how long you have.

Your time has a lot to bear, in terms of how you prioritize. It’s your horizon planning. For us, we decided on fewer, bigger, and better. We decided to do fewer things well and be very clear that we could make a measurable impact.

I gave you an example around having quick and easy answers online. We found that that was not easy to do. People called our contact centers very frequently. In six months, we delivered a solution, but we saw the problem first.

In the first three months, we got just under a million dollar hit in searches — questions that people were asking online that they hadn’t been doing before. That has quadrupled in the last two years. That was because of the decision we made to prioritize our outcome against the business outcome… I do think linking metrics to business outcomes is important…

You might have decided like we did, to do lean startup on lean startup…and for whatever reason, the company was a different place. [You need to not]take that personally but to take it and say, you know what, “How can we move very quickly to the next thing?”

For us, once we decided where and we knew where the company was going, we like put all accelerators on to make sure that we could deliver on the things that we said we would.

Getting buy-in and dealing with skeptics

Geeta Wilson: I think [you’ve got] to oversteer on collaboration. When you think about an organization our size, you’ve got to bring people in — they have to be involved and feel they’re making a meaningful contribution.

At the very early stages, we brought over a hundred people into the lab, and took people from various disciplines and said, “How can we have your areas represented?”

…What I found is that developing a resilience is important. Our team [has] a key set of behaviors that we organize ourselves around. [They are] around owning the outcomes, striving for shared vision, speaking the truth while preserving the relationship, and cultivating genuine trust.

…Sometimes people just want to feel involved and engaged. The challenge that you have is that sometimes you do really have hard resistance and yet they are also instrumental.

That’s where there’s resiliency of the team and these behaviors are going to really help you, because you’re going to hold each other accountable. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. There’s a roller coaster. There’s highs and there’s lows. There’s valleys and there’s mountain tops.

When you have those mountain top experiences, and you bring a resistor in who was formerly very hard to engage with, it’s a great feeling. I have to keep saying that you’ve got to oversteer on collaboration…

If you want to go on the innovation path and make a real impact to the consumer, it’s going to be hard and you’re also going to have to do some things that you’re asking individuals to do, which might mean leading through ambiguity.

‘No time syndrome’

Aaron Eden: …The entire enterprise is set up to execute and execute well, which means you don’t screw up, you don’t fail, you don’t stick your neck out, you don’t try new things — because that puts you in a situation where things might not work. Usually, initial forms or resistance are fear of failure, or just not having a safe environment for employees to be able to try new things.

[There’s] also the no time syndrome, which is, “Oh, we don’t have enough time to innovate.”

…We actually advise our clients that if you’re going to try to find the leader to support you or continue to expand your efforts, that you do so without using the word innovation at all. [For] most leaders, that’s not on the list. That’s not a strategic priority. That’s a way of getting to some of the things they’re trying to accomplish. “Hey, I’ve got a target on my head that I’ve got to double my growth over the next five years.”

We know, as innovators, that one of the key ways you’re going to get there is through innovation. But the leader, in that case, doesn’t really care about that. They care about hitting that goal.

As an example, back when I was an Intuit employee and was in the midst of launching the “100 Startups in 100 Days” program inside of Intuit, one of the key things that I heard from leader after leader was that they were measured on their employee engagement scores. They were measured on the shareholder value they’re creating. …In cases where they were product leaders, they were measured on the Net Promoter Scores of their products. Many of them were having a difficult time figuring out how to raise their employee engagement scores.

I had some early anecdotal data that showed…that employees that were applying lean startup principles inside their organization seemed to be having a better time and enjoying themselves.

I worked with a single leader to start diving into some of those aspects, and found that…we were able to boost the employee engagement scores. It was a key thing that was important to him and in doing so, I taught him and his team about the application of lean startup in their business to drive specific business outcomes.

At a high level, I would say ditch talking about innovation. It’s not about the innovation and the sexiness and that stuff. The reason we do all of these things is to drive a business impact, and that is what those leaders care about. So get some empathy for them and start speaking their language as quickly as possible.

Who are your champions?

Simeon Sessley:  …I think the precursor to putting in any innovation program is really identifying who your champions are going to be.

…Once you get your Chief Human Resources Officer on board, and maybe somebody who is commercially-facing or looking at the market, those two individuals…cascade their approach to the Chief Financial Officer and General Counsel. …So you need some people from the top to really be those champions…

Aaron Eden:  …With the assumption that this is a team that’s going to be responsible for discovering new products and services, then think about it like a startup.

This is your founding team, so you got to have some individuals that are comfortable getting out with customers, some individuals that can hack some things together, some individuals that can design. You’ve got to have a product vision…

If your team is responsible for changing the culture, then similarly, think about, “Do we need somebody with some strong marketing skills to continue to push our message inside the organization?” We need somebody that’s got some good credibility to be able to interact with those leaders.

I know in founding Moves the Needle and also in my time at Intuit, my partner in crime at Intuit for the “100 Startups in 100 Days” program, he was extremely outgoing. He was really good at the product vision side of things, and I was really good at executing and making things repeatable. That’s why I’m COO for Moves the Needle.

…You want to have a small cross‑functional team. Not cross‑functional the way you think about things inside a large organization, but cross functional in [the sense of,] “We could go and launch a startup on this topic on our own if we wanted to.”

‘Find the largest pain point you can have an impact on’

Geeta Wilson: …When I started here at Humana, I had a $50,000 budget with about six to seven people. Now, we have a much larger budget, in the double digit millions, and a little larger sized organization. What I did was focus on the pain points that are significant in the organization. If you did just one or two things, it would make a big difference. Then, with your little team know how to influence multiple specialties within that large enterprise — because you know they exist — and make a case for those [people] rotating through or borrowing them for a project.

…You first have to start again with yourself and say, “What are you doing and why?” Then, find the largest pain point that you can have an impact on, and then share that with individuals…Let them shape it and then…let [leaders] know what you’re trying to do, and have a way [for them] to participate.

Taking credit for success

Geeta Wilson: If you’re doing this right, then you don’t have to worry about getting credit for [success,] because it will be known, it will be felt, it will be seen, and it’s actually such a great joy to watch those who are in the organization… speak to the benefits of the work that’s been done and feel a sense of pride.

That, to me, is the best compliment, when others are talking about the work and operationalizing it and making it live on.

It is a thankless job. …Keep moving, and know that the biggest compliment is when the work stays and it scales and it moves on without you.

Premature scaling

Aaron Eden: …I would have to say every organization that we’ve worked with [has] the desire to prematurely scale.

[You want to] spend a lot of time understanding, “Do I have enough evidence, and can I show that this really does work well enough that I should be scaling this thing? If it’s a new product or service, have I proven the entire business model and I should be scaling it?”

Or if you’re driving the change inside the organization, have [you] proven this works in all the different scenarios before [you] scale it across your organization?

It happens in organization after organization. Your ability to be methodical and be patient will pay off dividends in the long run.

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