Cultivating Innovation within your Agency

Problem solving, innovating, cost cutting or just making things easier are all reasons why many insurance agency owners wish they had a Ouija Board at their beck and call. With new sources of problems and concerns exploding in our business arena daily, making the right decision has never been more difficult. Happily, it can be reported that a far superior decision making tool to the mystical Board already exists. No, it’s not another $20,000 add on to your management system. The tool I refer to is the collective brain power of the group of individuals employed in your agency. Including yourself, there are at least two, possibly ten, perhaps thirty or even two hundred or more mostly idle right sides of the human brain situated at various locations throughout your office. Individual power plants waiting to be networked together. Ripened crops biding the harvester’s hands.

The most prominent obstacles to tapping the creative resources currently lying dormant within your agency are the culture of the agency, its structure of management and its leadership style. An agency that fosters intense inter-departmental competition, does not involve its employees in the decision making processes, utilizes carrot-on-the-stick controls, or is a place where basically the owner is king, will be unable to fully tap into employee creativity. Employees in this agency will be reluctant to open up with the quantity and variety of responses which creative, innovation-seeking teamwork requires. I am not speaking here of a “Suggestion Box” solutions which can exist under all management conditions. Rather we seek true creative interaction among employees. Agency personnel must be confident, knowing that they can make any suggestion and there won’t be hell to pay. Hidden agendas, invisible agency boundaries, a scarcity mentality all restrict the free flow of ideas necessary for good creative ideas session.

The ultimate goal is a gathering of innovative ideas. Your quest can be for a solution to a processing or systems problem; it can be a search for a new service which your agency can offer. Marketing strategies are often born as the result of creative group interaction. Dilemmas concerning management can often be uniquely resolved when the task of resolution is openly shared with a “tuned in” group of employees.

Dr. James Higgins, in his 1994 book, 101 Creative Problem-Solving Techniques identified an eight stage creative problem solving process: Step 1, Environmental Analysis, advocates that you constantly monitor both internal and external organizational environments, searching for signs of problems as well as opportunities. This is an information-gathering step. Here, an agency can, as part of an ongoing process, collect information concerning new products, insurance company actions, competitor activities, potential problems festering in the legislature or useful client information. Anything which might lead to problems or opportunities for the agency should be collected.

In Steps 2 and 3, environmental information is analyzed and you recognize a problem or opportunity. Once recognized, the problem is identified. It is here that you insure that your agency’s efforts are not merely eliminating symptoms but addressing the real issue. You also establish the objectives you seek to accomplish during the problem-solving process.

Step 4 asks that you make assumptions about future factors. These assumptions are about conditions, costs, etc., which will serve as parameters for the next steps in the process. In step 5, generating alternatives, all known options are catalogued and then, through creative exchange of ideas, new options and alternatives are developed. This is the step which lends itself best to the group creative process.

You choose among alternatives previously generated by the group in Step 6. Step 7 calls for implementation of your plan, including specific goals and reasonable deadlines. Control is Dr. Higgins’ final step in the process. Here you evaluate the results determining the extent to which the actions you took have solved the problem.

If you are not of a mind to regularly invoke the complete eight step process, consider a t a minimum, incorporating an environmental analysis at your regular meetings. You can’t take advantage of an opportunity unless you know it exists. Regular bench-marking and Best Practices comparisons can be used as standards for agency improvement. Outside consultants can provide an unbiased, objective opinion concerning your agency’s present and future course. New trends, products, laws, opportunities, etc. can often be shared by employees attending outside classes and seminars. You must set up the framework for these discussions to occur.

Once an opportunity or problem has been identified and you want to use the creative capacity of a group, there are easily fifty different methods to tap this resource. The previously mentioned book by Dr. Higgins and a book called Thunderbolt Thinking by Grace McGartland both provide easily followed examples to stimulate and encourage creative contributions from your staff. Briefly, the most common technique used is “Brainstorming”. Here all your staff’s brain power is used to storm the opportunity or problem at hand. The quantity of ideas are more important that striving for quality and anything goes, so let loose with those wild and crazy “what ifs”. One key to achieving a successful brainstorming session is that no criticism is allowed. Criticism will stifle further unique contributions and defeat the purpose of brainstorming.

Role-playing can also help solve problems. Have one or two people play dissatisfied clients. Allow them to air their grievances, have others seek to find their causes for their distress. Then combine to resolve. Losing renewals? Have some fun, let someone actually become the renewal policy. Remember too, that once decisions are made, you must appoint a person or persons to follow up and monitor the implementation and progress.

Your people will only be as creative as you will allow them to be. Consider the words of Albert Einstein: “Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labor in freedom”.