Gluten-Free Underwriting: A Reflection on Insurance Innovation

We remain careful not to deviate from the age-old recipes that made us successful. But it is finally time to start rethinking them, and in many ways, reimaging and repackaging them too.

(Photo credit: Kultigin.)

It is no secret that I am a proud Greek American. And as any Greek can tell you, I love the three Fs: family, friends, and food. As such, I am fortunate to have recipes for Greek delicacies that have been handed down in my family for generations: baklava, spanakopita, avogolemono soup, and countless others. These are amazing recipes, and the same traditions, processes, and techniques have been kept intact and lovingly passed from one generation to the next. Brought over to America from my Greek ancestor via Ellis Island, these are true family treasures that are shared among our sons, daughters, and cousins. One particular recipe for baklava is over 150 years old! Of course, all families have their own special cuisine; it is what make us distinct and gives our own brand. In fact, our food is often what brings us together.

But I am also a longtime insurance professional, and not much crosses my mind that doesn’t remind me of something having to do with insurance. And it occurs to me that my Greek food world can provide a great analogy for the traditions and cultures in the insurance industry – but more about that later.

Recently, I made our family baklava. I thought about the longevity of the recipe – my grandmother and mother – hand rolling the filo dough, teaching me the technique and process of cracking and finely chopping the walnuts. When I was young, we had to chop the nuts by hand or hand-roll them with an empty glass bottle. And it would take hours! But it was worth the work, and we never wavered from the process or the recipe. We would even cut the pieces the same, so it would not differ from our baklava. We always had the same, guaranteed success – it was so predictable.

But like most things, my grandmother’s and mother’s techniques and processes slowly began to modernize. First came the availability of shelled walnuts, then crushed/chopped walnuts, then a food processor to grind them. What used to take hours now took minutes. Filo dough also became available in pre-sliced sheets in the frozen section of the grocery store! What innovation! The techniques changed, but the recipe remained the same.

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Today, my daughters have taken over cooking with the age old recipes. They are Gen-Ys, risk takers who are not afraid of failure and who are always looking for a better way. Well, my youngest called me recently about what she called “Gluten-Free Baklava.” At first I was confused. How could you change Yiayia’s (that’s Greek for grandmother) age old recipe and come out with something that even resembles baklava? She simply explained that she pulled out the wheat-filled filo and made the insides almost like a walnut brittle, substituting egg whites for the butter and filo. And then she cooked it in muffin tins. She kept many of the elements of the recipe, but put them together in a new way and reinvented it. No more cutting and she saved time and calories. What an interesting solution—and might I add—a delicious one! What a way to rethink, but still hold on to, tradition. I am so proud of her.

I am also very proud of being a career insurance professional. And I can clearly see a correlation to insurance in this story. So what does this mean? Insurers have their own favorite recipe for product, pricing, and underwriting. It is tried and true; it adheres to tradition; it’s safe; it’s predictable. Insurers have what they like, know what they do differently than other insurers, and stick to it. Like my baklava recipe makeover, we have done a great job at modernizing and optimizing our processes in product development, pricing, and underwriting. (It’s kind of like getting an insurance food processor that makes things happen faster and more easily.) We are also introducing data (like our pre-packaged nuts), and it is making life much easier. It is time to make “Gluten-Free” underwriting, using new sources of data, new partnerships, new channels and even new types of services—the new set of ingredients for our continued success. Emerging technologies, digital transformation, and innovative thinking are making it all possible. In fact, it’s time to create a whole new “Gluten-Free Insurance”—insurance for the 21st century!

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Deb Smallwood // Deb Smallwood, founder of SMA, is highly respected throughout the insurance industry for strategic thinking, thought provoking research, and advisory skills in helping insurance companies re-think, re-energize, and re-tool their IT plans and technology investments for profitable growth and differentiation. Insurers and solution providers turn to Smallwood for insight and guidance on business and IT linkage, strategy, and architecture. Those seeking an edge in today’s highly competitive world turn to Smallwood to capitalize on her deep industry knowledge and experience and her specialized understanding of distribution, portals, agent connectivity, and underwriting automation.

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