Q&A: Setting Up a New Innovation Function from Scratch

By Scott Kirsner |  June 23, 2022

Headquartered in Napa, California, The Doctors Company is the largest physician-owned malpractice insurance carrier in the US. With its subsidiaries and affiliates, it has $6.5 billion in assets, $1.2 billion in revenue, and over 1,000 employees.

Jim Suchara, Senior Vice President and Innovation Officer, The Doctors Company

Jim Suchara joined The Doctors Company in September 2021 as Senior Vice President and Innovation Officer, after spending a decade at Amerisure Insurance, where he served as as Vice President of IT and then Vice President of Innovation.

We spoke with Suchara earlier this year about entering a new organization to spur innovation.

How did your past experience help you in setting up an innovation strategy at The Doctors Company?

My past experience helped me understand three key things.

First, innovation starts at the top. Executive level sponsorship and support is vital to long-term innovation success and is especially needed during the typical ups and downs that inevitably occur as innovation evolves and matures.

Second, it is critical to align innovation strategy to a company’s needs. While there are several common characteristics of all successful innovation programs, each organization is unique, and you can’t take a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

The final thing I can share from experience is that a strategy is only as good as your ability to execute against it. I’ve learned to take a structured approach in setting up an innovation framework, ranging from definition and vision to services, engagement model, and maturity model. Collaboration with other leaders during this process to create shared objectives is a key to success.

A strategy is only as good as your ability to execute against it. 

Though it may seem appealing to set up a greenfield practice for innovation to break away from corporate gravity, often even if those teams are solid and the strategy is sound, when they develop new innovations that they think are worthy of corporate adoption, it’s really hard to get back in the corporate “door.” You also end up with a lack of co-ownership — the business owning the ideas, the concepts, and the results.

For these reasons, we set our innovation practice up at the “group” level, spanning our main medical professional liability writer and then to its subsidiaries and affiliates. At the group level, integrating in this way gives us enough reach to have broader corporate impact. It was set up under Bob White, who is now President of The Doctors Company. This puts us at a peer level with the different business unit leaders and other key corporate stakeholders.

Let’s talk about how you assessed what was already in place. Who was innovating already?

There have been — and are — many great examples of innovation here at The Doctors Company. The Doctors Company has been active in innovation through new markets and distribution channels, digital platforms, advanced use of data and analytics, and customer experience.

Importantly, our goal is not to impede or reroute all existing innovative efforts through our new practice, or to claim that innovation was “invented here.” Rather, we aim to promote and celebrate ongoing innovation throughout our company, while also creating an environment that acts as an engine or accelerator to those new innovative ideas that can use our support.

How did you define what you wanted to do?

Each company within the TDC Group is a mission-driven organization. The mission of the group is to build the pre-eminent platform for service to healthcare. We collaborated heavily with our senior leadership team, including our CEO, to create a common definition for how we think about innovation in support of this mission.

This led to the development of our innovation vision, a series of supporting service pillars, an engagement model, and maturity model. Based on this innovation “framework,” we seek to have an innovation practice that acts as an engine or accelerator that helps remove barriers to progress for our company in support of our mission.

You need to build relationships, recognize where people are innovating already, and be respectful of that. We want to curate it and celebrate it, not get in the way of it.

There are really two fronts of innovation that we need to track with: innovation happening within insurance, and within our customers/members’ practices, in the healthcare environment. We want to promote and reward the practice of good medicine, and there is lots going on there with digital health and medtech — billions of dollars of investment going into those technology areas, along with new healthcare models being introduced by non-traditional market entrants.

The first few months in the job have been important. You need to build relationships, recognize where people are innovating already, and be respectful of that. We want to curate it and celebrate it, not get in the way of it.

I always try to make a distinction between innovation — which can happen anywhere and everywhere in a company — versus innovation management as a practice. In our new practice, we want to promote innovation at every level, all across the organization.

How did you define what you didn’t want to do?

Something we didn’t want to do was establish innovation as its own “silo” and ignore the importance of developing an innovative culture throughout our organization. Culture is a key part of our innovation vision and mission. We feel that a culture of innovation leads to a robust, replenishable, sustainable pipeline of innovation opportunities. Though we are just beginning the culture-building process, some of our key goals include engaging our employees to become involved in ideation and collaborate with each other; exposing them to external perspectives and open innovation opportunities; and encouraging them every step of the way.

What was your first idea challenge about?

We intentionally went very broad to surface existing ideas that may have been waiting for an accelerator through innovation. We solicited ideas that support our mission, align with our strategic priorities, and, in particular, help us advance our customer experience at all levels of the organization.

While broad challenges are important to the mix, as we seek in the future to ramp up engagement and response rates, I’ve found that more targeted and specific challenge will help achieve higher participation levels. There’s something more tangible for everyone to aim at in all levels of the organization.

What’s your plan for the rest of 2022?

This is our innovation practice’s first full year, and it’s an exciting time. On our innovation roadmap, this first year’s theme is “Establish and Align,” meaning we are establishing our innovation practice and aligning strategy and tactics with the unique needs of our organization. We’ll be observing as we execute initial innovation opportunities to identify refinements to our approach along the way.

While we’re still getting the word out about innovation to our various teams and stakeholders, we’ve already executed our first idea challenge to our employees and have selected a handful of submissions to pursue via proofs of concept and projects. We’re in the process of introducing a design thinking-oriented framework to support our execution of these efforts. It’s already been a great learning opportunity for us.

I’m in the process of building out our innovation team and collaborating with other executive leaders to refine our innovation offerings and underlying processes. In addition to executing against our initial pipeline of projects, creating an idea management environment that engages our employees and helps nurture raw ideas and concepts into actionable efforts is a priority in the latter half of 2022.

What’s your advice for someone just coming into an innovation role?

Meet everybody and anybody you can, all across the organization, at all levels. Get to know about them — who they are, what drives them, what their business objectives are, where they think innovation needs to go to support them. I always ask, “What do you hope we would do? What do you hope we would not do? What’s already working? What kind of things would you want to improve upon? What other advice would you have for me?” Just with those questions, I get a lot of feedback, great insights, and reams of notes that I keep for years — they’re always great to come back to.


(Featured image by Derek Finch on Unsplash)