How CSAA’s Chief Innovation Officer Approaches Disruption

By Kaitlin Milliken |  March 16, 2021


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Kaitlin Milliken: Hey, you’re listening to Innovation Answered, the podcast for corporate innovators. And we’re back with another episode of this special season where we take you inside the C-suite of big organizations. In each episode, we’ll interview a different C-level leader to talk about how they help make innovation happen. I’m your host, Kaitlin Milliken from InnoLead.

Today, we’re going to take a deep dive into the psyches of Chief Innovation Officers. How do they set priorities? What do they do to influence culture? And how do they build their portfolios to really move the needle in their companies?

To get answers, we called Debbie Brackeen of CSAA, an affiliate of the company AAA. Debbie is the organization’s Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer. While CSAA once sold AAA auto insurance to customers in Northern California, Nevada and Utah, today the company sells auto and home insurance nationwide. That’s 23 states and the District of Columbia.

However, the insurance industry is dealing with the threat of disruption. Smaller, new insurance providers — like Lemonade and Rocket Companies — have gone public, creating a tech-forward alternative to traditional players. Shifts in mobility are also on the horizon. Now insurance companies need to account for how autonomous vehicles and ride-sharing will shift the demand for car insurance.

As Chief Innovation Officer, Debbie has to keep an eye on these trends. In her role, she reports directly to the CEO, setting growth strategies and looking for more sources of revenue.

Debbie will share how she decides what opportunities are likely to deliver the most impact after this break.


Kaitlin Milliken: In this show, we talk about metrics, a lot. Each innovator has a different take based on their company’s priorities and how far along the road they are. So our team wanted to gather best practices from across businesses. For our latest research report, Developing Innovation Metrics & Reports, our team gathered survey data from 196 innovators. In the report we cover a lot of ground. That includes: the different financial and non-financial metrics teams collect, and how often teams are reporting the data to senior leadership. To download the report, visit

This report is only available for InnoLead members. Not yet a member? Visit to sign up. Now back to the show.


Kaitlin Milliken: And we’re back, with Debbie Brackeen, the Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer at CSAA. During the conversation she shares how she approaches CSAA’s innovation portfolio, the metrics that matter, and disruption in the insurance space.

So tell us about your role as a Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer at CSAA. Who do you report to? And what is your mandate?

Debbie Brackeen: Yeah, happy to. I report to the CEO directly, which I think is a big advantage for anybody in these types of roles. My team’s mandate is really about both setting the long-term vision and strategy for the company, and then on the innovation side, developing hopefully innovative new solutions and businesses that are going to help us diversify and grow so we can have the opportunity to serve more customers.

Kaitlin Milliken: How does your team decide what opportunities and ventures are the right ones for you to pursue?

Debbie Brackeen: So how do we figure out what we’re going to do? It does start with strategy. So in our case, we follow a fairly straightforward playbook in that we kind of look out into the future five, 10… We’ve done exercises where we go out as far out as like 30 or 40 years into the future, which seems crazy, because who knows what it’s going to look like then, but to just imagine: What’s going to be different and true in the future? What kind of role as a company do we want to play in that future?

And then from there, we use a tried-and-true, somewhat old model from McKinsey, the three horizons of growth. We identify, let’s say the domains in which we think we need to grow, want to grow, think we’re going to get disrupted and you know, what are we going to do about it? So we basically identify opportunity areas where we want to play. It usually results in some strategic focus areas and opportunity areas, as I said that we’re going to do our work within.

Kaitlin Milliken: Yeah, I love to get a sense of what those strategic focus areas are, if you could be a little bit more specific?

Debbie Brackeen: The current focus areas that we’re working in include mobility, which is a big one. And I’ll come back to that about why. Insurtech. We’re an insurance company, there’s a lot of venture capital investment going into startups, chipping away at different opportunities across the value chain. And the third one is sort of a catch all: adjacencies. We recently invested, for example, in a company that’s sort of like trying to compete with Rocket Mortgage called LoanSnap, they’re a mortgage originator. And as an insurance company, why are we investing in that? Well, we sell homeowners insurance, and if you’re going to buy a home, and you don’t already have a home and homeowners insurance, you need it.

Mobility is a really important category for strategically. The world is in the midst of defining the next century of automotive and mobility and transportation, and it’s not going to be based on the internal combustion engine as the last century has been. Personal passenger auto insurance is two-thirds of our business. So that’s going to change. And so that’s a really important space for us to be monitoring, researching, actively placing some bets, and understanding how all the changes that are going on today are going to affect our business.

Kaitlin Milliken: When it comes to those three horizons, what does your portfolio look like in that sense?

Debbie Brackeen: When I started four years ago at the company, innovation as a function in the company was essentially new. My CEO at the time really had a desire not to build just an innovation department, but to help the whole company be more innovative. Our mix of activity, and focus, and effort skewed more toward Horizon 1, you know. How can we partner with different aspects of the existing business to help them think more creatively and innovatively about how we can better serve customers today, four years later?

Yeah, the good news is the company has become a lot more innovative. Right now, I’d say we’re kind of at a 20 percent maybe working with the core business; 25 percent adjacencies, Horizon 2; and the remainder 5 percent more looking at future, Horizon 3 things — like in the universe of autonomous vehicles, which isn’t here yet but obviously being developed, what are the opportunities for us to offer new products and solutions?

Kaitlin Milliken: Not everyone who listens to this show is in the insurance sector. Can you talk a little bit about how that industry is changing? And how innovation is helping your team at CSA prepare for those shifting trends?

Debbie Brackeen: There’s a lot going on in insurance right now. It’s a legacy industry, and there’s some huge incumbents, but one of the things that we monitor in strategy is sort of well, “Who’s in the US, who are the top 10 insurers?” So you have your State Farms and your Liberty Mutuals. What’s interesting is the top 10 insurers in the US haven’t really changed in the last 15 years. However, the position of who’s where in the top 10 has had a lot of change.

However, this last year, we’ve seen a lot of M&A activity. Statefarm made its first acquisition in like 98 or 100 years. A small one, but a meaningful and I think, somewhat symbolic move, given that they haven’t ever done that before. Allstate — they’re more acquisitive. They bought SquareTrade a few years ago, and they bought National General this past year. On the insurtech front, we have Lemonade that’s gone public. Routes’ gone public, and there are insuretech that are not public that are acquiring insurance businesses and becoming full second. There’s a lot going on.

There’s a lot of channel diversification, so used to have people who are kind of committed to a particular channel, like captive agents or the direct-channel-only, but basically everybody’s diversifying to a more omni-channel or multi-channel approach. So there is no shortage of change in the industry. And we’re just trying to find ways to better serve our customers. And you know, as I said, diversify and grow.

Kaitlin Milliken: I do want to pivot and talk a little bit about innovation victories and challenges. Can you share some success stories from your time at CSA a working on innovation?

Debbie Brackeen: One of the early I think success stories that we had was partnering with an insurtech company called Cape Analytics. We also invested in Cape Analytics. They purchase aerial and satellite imagery, and they apply machine learning learning algorithms to basically assess property area conditions around a home and the roof of a home. It turns out the structure and health of a roof on a home matters greatly when you’re trying to price and underwrite homeowners insurance. And we started with them in a pilot like most people do. We probably did two or three consecutive pilots before becoming a full-fledged subscriber to their service.

One of the biggest challenges was just the cultural and human reluctance to change perhaps and working with our homeowners seemed to really understand the value of partnering with a third-party company who’s going to continually invest in their capabilities getting better on that front, it took a while to get comfortable with understanding how that was going to work. But that’s been a really successful partnership that we’ve had with Cape Analytics, and their technology continues to get better.

Probably one of the things I’m most proud of since I joined the company is, you know, when I looked at what was going on in mobility, as we mentioned earlier, how do you skate to where the puck is going in mobility? If people who used to have two cars in the garage for a family decided, “Yeah, we only need one car because we’re using Uber and Lyft. Or we’re using some other shared mobility service.” Those miles that somebody was previously driving that we were insuring are going someplace else. So how can we play there, wherever those miles are going? We decided to start a new business in commercial auto insurance focused on the new mobility and sharing economy sector. So that business, it took us almost two years to stand it up and get all the buy-in from everybody required to be able to do that. But we launched that business officially, last year, we’re writing tens of millions of dollars of premium. And that’s pretty exciting for me, I never, ever would have thought that I’d be here talking to you saying, “Yeah, we started a new commercial insurance company.” But it’s… I’m very proud of that. And I think that’s a big success story. And they’re going to be a big part of our future growth.

Kaitlin Milliken: Moving into the tougher challenges portion of the show, what are some challenges that folks in that role typically face or that you’ve faced, in your time working in innovation? And do you have any tips for overcoming those obstacles?

Debbie Brackeen: I’ve been probably doing corporate innovation for at least half my career. So at least 15 years, maybe it’s always something you can get better at is figuring out how to help people be comfortable with change. People also often have a difficult time imagining something as possible that they’ve never personally done, or they’ve never seen the company do so finding ways to bring to life the future possibility that I may see as an innovation leader — making it accessible, understandable, relatable. So, storytelling, using data and evidence, if you can find it.

A very pragmatic challenge that I think a lot of innovation teams have is competing with the core business, for everything, mindshare resource. The last two companies that I’ve been in, we’ve worked to create separate forums in processes by which to fund and approve innovation or new bets that are separate and distinct from however the core business allocates discretionary capital and investment.

In some markets, they don’t exist yet. You can’t go get the numbers on how big they are already… That market will be big, it’s just not big right now. There’s something about courage, and being brave, and being willing to be honest about what you know, and what you don’t. Adam Grant just wrote his latest book, it’s something like “Think Again.” And it’s really about being open to what you don’t know, that you need to go learn about in order to be open to new opportunities. So to me, it’s like a really tough problem to solve and multi-layered. And, oddly, I am very motivated by that.

Kaitlin Milliken: So when it comes to working on a new initiative, or an innovation project, what are some metrics that you found are very important for determining if something is successful, and if it should move forward?

Debbie Brackeen: If you’re trying to grow, you have to be able to think in terms of how big can this idea be, and you may not be able to completely measure the size of that market today if it’s a new and emerging or nascent market, but you can use proxies to try to estimate it. And I think you can, grounded in evidence associated with other related trends, make the case for why you should start exploring something in this area. Revenue potential market size is important.

If you’re looking to improve retention, you know, there’s a whole bunch of things you could do with customer experience that aren’t going to drive top-line revenue, but might drive retention and stickiness with those customers, and, you know, increase the odds, they’re gonna stay with you as opposed to go to some competitor.

In our business, cost and expense ratio matters a lot. And then I think, how do you make decisions and have evidence that caused you to say, “Yes, this project should go from the proof of concept phase to the pilot phase or from pilot to scale.” I think those are harder and you have to evaluate metrics on two levels kind of simultaneously. One is, is there data that supports persevering to use the persevering? To use the pivot kill terminology from lean. I think you also have to be cognizant of the macro-perspective of the opportunity costs of continuing to work on something just because “Yeah, looks not unreasonable to keep going.” Unless you’re resource constrained, which most of us are.

Steve Jobs is attributed, you know, with a quote, that’s something like, “The hardest thing you ever have to do is say no to good ideas or great ideas, because you just can’t do all of them.” It sort of argues for making sure you always have lots of new ideas that you’re looking at and considering so that your selection of the ones you decide to put your resource behind is as best as it possibly can be.

Kaitlin Milliken: At the beginning, you mentioned that you report directly to the CEO, what are some best practices for working with and getting support for that top leader at big companies?

Debbie Brackeen: The larger the organization is, I think, the harder it can be to get the support and buy-in that you need from top leadership just because of the breadth and the complexity of large global companies. In my case, I think it’s just really important to be aligned on where should the focus be.

So we did have a CEO change in the last couple years since I joined. And the first CEO, as I alluded to, cared greatly about making sure that I was focused not only on delivering some specific innovation, deliverables, new businesses, new products and solutions, but helping the whole company be more innovative, building an innovative culture. We had a CEO change a little less than two years ago. And you know, the company has progressed since that CEO transition happened. How can I be helpful? What can I focus on? And do I have the team focused on the things that make the most sense to you right now?

And certainly last year was just crazy, because it was a crazy year with the pandemic. And we did scenario planning, we did a whole bunch of things that we didn’t know we were going to be working on last year. So I think communication and alignment continuously kind of checking in on that is really important.

When I’ve worked for much larger companies like Citi and HP, you have to be more deliberate. Innovation, in some ways, is on every CEO’s mind. But how do you bring it to life? How do you measure the actual value of the innovation investments you’re making can be tricky, and not straightforward. How do you know that the innovation thing was exactly the thing that added value, as opposed to all the other things that contribute to the success of a new business. So having seen your sponsorship for innovation activities is absolutely essential. I think no matter what size company you are, or what industry you’re in.

Kaitlin Milliken: We covered a lot of ground in this interview. So I want to close with one lesson that you want our audience to leave with, and how you learn that lesson.

Debbie Brackeen: People are often capable of much more and things that they never imagined that they can do. And one of the things I really appreciate about our current CEO is that he often reminds us of that. Those other guys over there that you think are the more obvious ones who can go win this new emerging market space that we’re looking at, they’re no smarter than you are. They’re no smarter or better than we are. So why can’t we? Why shouldn’t we take a run at this?

You know, it’s a lesson I’ve learned in different contexts, both in my personal life and in my professional life. I think it’s something to really never lose sight of. It’s really easy to be an armchair quarterback, and for other people who aren’t sitting in your seat to tell you all the reasons why that’s a bad idea, or you won’t be successful, or it’ll never work or, or, or. Fill in the blank, right? Having the courage of your convictions and being willing to be wrong. Like, who really knows what’s going to happen? And we don’t really know.

Look at what everybody did last year after everybody had to go work from home. People are like, “Oh, my gosh, I never would have thought that that would be so seamless, and that we could achieve that and just you know, a matter of two weeks, and everybody did it. Everybody adapted.” Humans are amazingly adaptive. So I think that’s a good lesson for us to carry into innovation work in corporations.

Kaitlin Milliken: Great. Thank you again, Debbie, for your time. That was super, super helpful.

Debbie Brackeen: Thank you. That was fun. I appreciate it.


Kaitlin Milliken: So Debbie emphasized the importance of keeping teams inspired to unlock the best, most innovative solutions. To gather more best practices for crafting an effective innovation strategy, I sat down with Frazer Bennett. Frazer is the Chief Innovation Officer at PA Consulting. PA is a global consultancy that’s bringing ingenuity to life, with over 3,200 experts around the world working across a range of industries. PA Consulting is also a sponsor of today’s episode. During the conversation, Frazer shares his experience both as a Chief Innovation Officer and as an advisor to other innovators at big companies.

Kaitlin Milliken: To get us started, what are some common challenges that Chief Innovation Officers face?

Frazer Bennett: Chief Innovation Officers — and I can say this because I am one — I think Chief Innovation Officers have been going through something of an existential crisis. In recent years, we have a sort of an era where the Chief Innovation Officer was seen as the great white hope to help, in particular, large organizations face the challenge of a competitive threat from a digital revolution and from the rise of the internet era. And in many cases, I think there’s been a frustration because it’s been seeing that the Chief Innovation Officer has perhaps failed to deliver on the promise. But in no way should that land at the feet of the Chief Innovation Officer, because in some ways, it comes back to some pretty simple things like ensuring that the objectives were measurable. It’s a big challenge to help organizations to make the kind of shift that they want to. It’s 50 percent cultural change. It’s 50 percent inspiring and driving innovation in product and service. And it’s also 50 percent in trying to help shift the company purpose, and many of these things are very difficult to measure. So once we get that piece right, I think it will be a whole lot easier.

Kaitlin Milliken: Fifty percent for each, 150 percent in total, that can be quite the challenge to figure out how to balance it, define a mandate. What are some other things that chief innovation officers can be doing or should be doing to overcome those roadblocks?

Frazer Bennett: We have a role to inspire our people, but importantly to inspire the leadership. We inspire change, by inspiring changing amongst our peers, as much as we do amongst our people, if you like. It’s probably 80 percent a leadership challenge. Okay? To what extent can we inspire our colleagues across the organization to come on this journey with us. That takes bravery, it takes willingness to take risk and get stuff wrong and evidence that it’s okay to get stuff wrong. And something that we can discuss a little bit later, I think, and that’s about the willingness to operate within constraints.

Kaitlin Milliken: So Frazer, you mentioned that constraints can be a really powerful tool in helping unlock innovation. Do you have any examples of that at these larger companies?

Frazer Bennett: It’s interesting, isn’t it? Because the larger companies look with envy at these young, nimble small startups and say, “Well, that’s the reason we can’t innovate.” And yet the small, nimble young companies look with envy on the large corporations that you know, “If only we had the might of Amazon behind us or Microsoft.” So actually, the scale of your organization does not… It introduces different constraints. But it doesn’t mean it’s any harder or easier to innovate.

I’ll give you one example. We’ve worked with a company in Europe called BDR Thermea. They are a 400 year… I think, 400-year-old company that make domestic boilers. And innovating with them to develop a digital connected thermostat product, not only inspire them think differently about their product offer, but also helps them to completely think differently about the kind of organization they need to be the kind of sales force they need to have the kind of way they market themselves. And indeed, whether they are a product business after all, or are they actually going to transform their service business.

So from a really simple innovation, operating in very high constraints, because they had a tiny amount of budget and very little time, it became a catalyst to inspire much more transformational change within that company.

Kaitlin Milliken: What should innovators and Chief Innovation Officers be doing to gain that support from other C-suite leaders?

Frazer Bennett: The vast majority of the C-suite have a really clearly defined mandate and role. And that’s not always the case for the Chief Innovation Officer. And so building trust, being mindful of and in tune with the corporate objectives of a firm — living and breathing the purpose, yes, but also being in tune with those tangible objectives. That’s a great way of building trust with colleagues, in my experience.

Kaitlin Milliken: At large organizations, there’s a risk of having innovation siloed in one department, how can innovators better communicate wins?

Frazer Bennett: My heart sinks often when I go into an organization and see that they’ve created an innovation area. We observe repeatedly that innovation is a mindset and not a department. You know, it’s almost an oxymoron to have a Chief Innovation Officer.

My primary objective is to put myself out of a job, inspiring creativity, inspiring people to think differently, and challenge convention.

Kaitlin Milliken: This particular role is quite interesting. We’ve seen that they get created and then sometimes that position goes away and then they get recreated. How do you create a position, and create that innovation person, and follow a career path in that when there’s so much instability, for how these roles get created, how long they stick around?

Frazer Bennett: Let’s come back to the point that it isn’t a department and in some sense, therefore, it isn’t about having a senior role. If you are an innovator, or if you are the person that inspired others to look at the world from a different perspective and in doing so create the new, you’re never going to be out of a job. Our planet needs these people, [LAUGHS] desperately. You may not take that role, that job title, but you certainly aren’t going to be out of a job.

Maybe the career path, as you describe it for a Chief Innovation Officer is less pertinent, is less important. And it’s about being one of those people that perhaps has been able to inspire many, many more people to recognize the value of innovation in everything that they do in their role.

Kaitlin Milliken: What can innovators do at large companies to shift the culture at their organization to allow new ideas to blossom?

Frazer Bennett: Culture is the thing that when you’re in it, you don’t notice it, right? Think about the fun you have at Thanksgiving sitting around the table with your family and the family culture. You don’t even notice it. You feel more at home there than anywhere else.

So inspiring a cultural change is the thing that must start at the top. So I mentioned that kind of 80 percent interacting with peers and seniors role of a Chief Innovation Officer. If we are going to inspire a cultural change, we must start at the top of the organization. And as a Chief Innovation Officer, if I haven’t inspired my peers to aspire to the kind of change that we’re talking about, then I haven’t even started yet.

Kaitlin Milliken: You mentioned that innovation is a mindset, what are some of the most important qualities that are a part of that innovator’s mindset?

Frazer Bennett: I founded three companies, two semiconductor companies, and a software company. I founded a semiconductor company without venture finance, which — ask anybody in a semiconductor company — that’s a bonkers thing to try and do. And yet, I learned so much about innovation and how to inspire creativity because of that. And that’s around operating within constraints.

When you operate within an environment with many constraints. That’s one thing that does force you to be innovative. In this little company that I started, we didn’t have enough money, we didn’t have enough people. We didn’t have the infrastructure and equipment that we needed to design and deliver the product. And what did that do? It forced us to think differently about what’s the product that we’re going to build? How are we going to build it? How are we going to market it when we don’t have any marketing budget? Well, we go to the trade shows, and we operate in a guerrilla fashion.

PA has a product development lab in Cambridge in the UK. And again, we actually enjoy operating in the constraints of limited resources and limited time, because it every day inspires us to solve problems in a new way because we have to. And so if I was to pick one thing, I would pick the willingness and ability to operate in a constrained environment as the kind of secret sauce of innovation if you like.

Kaitlin Milliken: That’s a great note to end on. Thank you Frazer for your time.

Frazer Bennett: No problem. Thank you. Nice to speak to you.


Kaitlin Milliken: You’ve been listening to Innovation Answered. This episode was written and edited by me, Kaitlin Milliken. Special thanks to Debbie Brackeen and Frazer Bennet for sharing their insights. For more tips and tricks from inside the C-suite, be sure to subscribe to this special season of Innovation Answered. You can find our show wherever you get your podcasts and on our website, Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you soon.


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