Inside Selective Insurance’s LAUNCH Innovation Lab

IIR talks with Selective’s Amy Cusack about the way LAUNCH applies consistency, discipline, and structure to how the company practices outcome-driven innovation.

(On Feb. 6, 2020, members of Selective’s Casualty Team gathered in LAUNCH for a SAFe—Scaled Agile Framework—planning session to map out 2020 objectives designed to foster interactive collaboration as well as break out sessions. Credit: David Zweier.)

In October 2019, Selective Insurance (Branchville, N.J.) officially opened its LAUNCH Innovation Lab, along with the company’s first department solely dedicated to innovation—operates out of and manages the lab. Though technology innovation has been a focus of the Sussex County-based super-regional property/casualty carrier for decades, LAUNCH provides a physical space designed to enable what Amy Cusack, AVP Innovation and Strategy, calls “methodical creativity.” While those two words may seem like an oxymoron, Cusack acknowledges, she insists that a well-designed process fosters purposeful creativity. IIR spoke with Cusack about how LAUNCH supports a methodical, outcome-driven innovation process calculated to situate Selective as a leader in the industry.

Amy Cusack, AVP Innovation and Strategy, Selective Insurance.

Insurance Innovation Reporter: Since first reporting on Selective in the early 2000s, I’ve always thought of the company as having a focus on using technology to drive innovation. Why did the company see the need for LAUNCH and dedicated innovation resources?

Amy Cusack, AVP, Innovation and Strategy, Selective Insurance: It’s true. In fact, we have always considered ourselves an innovative company, dating back to the birth of our ‘high touch’ commitment in the 1920s, our adoption of automation in the 1950s and 1960s, our unique and leading field model approach in the 1990s, up through our more recent investments in a superior customer experience delivered by our top-notch employees and agents. Opening LAUNCH, and more importantly dedicating a team to innovation, allowed us to put consistency, discipline, and structure around how we innovate and empower our colleagues to embrace their innovative mindsets and focus on the future.  By blending our innovation and strategy efforts, we put the right structure in place to ensure we are innovating in smart, strategically aligned methods to deliver unique insurance solutions to our customers.

IIR: How was LAUNCH designed to function? How does it formalize and, as one might say, “industrialize” innovation efforts?

AC: Our core Innovation and Strategy team has four members, but we’ve now had hundreds of employees working in some capacity, either in LAUNCH or our virtual innovation environment. The physical space is designed to enable methodical creativity. While those two words may seem like an oxymoron, the reality is that for creativity to be meaningful, it needs a well-designed process behind it.  We heavily leverage design thinking techniques, which are enabled by our large workspace, fully movable and modular workspaces, and a lifetime supply of sticky notes and markers. Behind the scenes, our Innovation team works hard to ensure collaboration is directionally sound and outcome-driven.

IIR: The debut of LAUNCH came shortly before the pandemic hit. How did COVID-19 affect how the Innovation team works?

AC: Right now the physical space of LAUNCH is used as a communications hub for our leadership team to deliver periodic updates to the employee base.  The connection between our leaders and employees during the pandemic has been tremendous, and we are so thrilled that LAUNCH could play a role in that.

(Nov. 1, 2019, a Personal Lines design-thinking session was held in LAUNCH one week after officially opening. Credit: David Zweier. Click to enlarge.)

As far as our day-to-day innovation operations, we have moved our methodologies to a virtual environment utilizing MS TEAMS, online whiteboard software, and polling capabilities. We’ve also perfected the art of keeping groups of folks engaged in the virtual setting—something that is not as easy to do compared to an in-person setting. Our post-session survey results suggest we are still highly effective at things like fostering high levels of engagement, delivering innovative outcomes, providing comfort for sharing and collaborating, and our use of technology. This all points to a successful transition from the in-person to virtual environment.

IIR: Would you go as far as to say the creation of the Innovation function and opening of LAUNCH turned out to be fortuitous in light of the pandemic?

AC: That’s an interesting question. The reality of the pandemic is that, due to office closings, we were only able to work in our innovation lab for ten weeks from the start of 2020 through March. But one of the unpredictable positive outcomes of building the lab and promoting our innovation function was that we had everyone’s attention, and we used the opportunity to remind employees that navigating the challenges of the pandemic was actually innovation at work. Having that foundation already in place enabled us to seamlessly transition our newly built capabilities into a virtual setting with already high engagement levels throughout the company.

IIR: What did Selective learn from the pandemic, and what was its longer term effect on Selective’s posture towards innovation? 

AC: I suspect most people would say that the learnings we can take from the pandemic—both personal and professional—are endless. For the innovation team specifically, we remind ourselves daily of the fact that the environment in which we operate is rapidly changing and could turn on a dime at any moment.  Since we formalized our function in late 2019, we’ve been heavily invested in understanding our environment—whether it is customer expectations, agency dynamics, emerging technology, the macro-economy, talent-related trends, or anything else that can impact our stakeholders or us. The impact of the pandemic is yet another factor driving that change, and it’s something we are very mindful of as we decide in which areas to align our innovation efforts.

IIR: What is a typical day for the Innovation and Strategy team now

AC: This will probably sound cliché, but no day looks the same.  Now that we’ve been at this for over a year, we are all very confident in what each one of us needs to do to help our puzzle pieces fit together.  One of our team members spends a good deal of time scanning the environment—through engaging with our market research peers, checking out new vendor capabilities, chatting with agents, or picking the brains of our 2,500 colleagues who are all contributors to our overall mission. We also have another team member moving concepts at various stages of our innovation lifecycle through our process.

As a team, we are heavily involved in both general market research and specific customer insights gathering around potential new concepts to help enhance the overall customer experience. And we are also scoping out new ideas for transformational change in areas where we see the market quickly evolving.  Of course, we are having fun in the process. Our job is to collaborate daily with our exceptional colleagues, agency partners, and other stakeholders to help create our future. There’s no job more exciting than that.

IIR: What are some of the broad areas in which the team is pursuing innovation, be those technology areas or promising areas of the business or points in the insurance value chain?

AC: Overall, we look to innovate around concepts to improve our customer or agency experience, to identify ways to attract new customers to our great company, and to serve all of our stakeholders by finding ways to operate that keep our number one asset—our employees—highly engaged and operating efficiently.

In our first year, our primary innovations centered around becoming more of a full-service provider to our thousands of customers, regardless of size, through a suite of self-service safety management and loss control services. We were proud to roll out the first iteration of these services in early 2021, and work will continue building this capability over time.

(LAUNCH at sunrise. Credit: David Zweier. Click to enlarge.)

In addition, we are currently in the first round of market research related to two potential service offerings to our largest customer segments. We have one specific, very creative solution that our employees generated from the lab, and we are excited to learn our customers’ reactions to this. Finally, we have a few more transformational concepts that we are kicking around in early-stage discussions which I can’t get into just yet—but I’m looking forward to seeing where we end up.

IIR: How often is the Innovation team able to engage with Selective’s distribution strategy and its independent agent population? 

AC: When we first had to close the lab due to the pandemic, we had concerns that we would lose our chance to engage with our agency partners. In reality, the opposite has happened. Through our virtual capabilities, we’ve been able to interact with agents in collaboration with Selective business partners who bring their own expertise and rapport with our agency partners to the table. Our Innovation team’s ability to embed design thinking into the conversation makes for tremendous, idea-rich discussions with this key stakeholder group.

IIR: Now that LAUNCH is over a year old, how would you evaluate progress toward Selective’s innovation mission?

AC: Fundamentally, it is important to remember that LAUNCH is just a room. And while that room represents so much to our overall innovation agenda, nothing would ever happen in innovation without commitment from our company’s leadership and our employees. Our mandate to deliver unique insurance solutions for the organization is well understood, and the integration with other departments has been quite smooth. Every member of our innovation team came from within Selective, with experience in IT, Finance, our Business Analyst team, Agency Development, and our Project Management Office. We entered our Innovation roles with a solid understanding of our company and its culture, and with strong relationships all over the organization. To me, having our colleagues’ trust and partnership since day one has been the number one key to our success. We look forward to continuing to drive transformational change and situate Selective as a leader in the industry.

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Anthony R. O’Donnell // Anthony O'Donnell is Executive Editor of Insurance Innovation Reporter. For nearly two decades, he has been an observer and commentator on the use of information technology in the insurance industry, following industry trends and writing about the use of IT across all sectors of the insurance industry. He can be reached at [email protected] or (503) 936-2803.

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