Revitalizing a Tradition of Innovation at CSAA Insurance Group: An Interview with Marik Brockman

Three years ago CSAA Insurance Group insourced all strategic planning to address the quickening pace of business evolution, and has recently accelerated innovation during an era of technological and social change.

(CSAA Insurance Group headquarters in Walnut Creek, Calif.)

Upon being called to help refresh the strategy of an organization with more than a century of history, one might think in terms of making a traditional organization modern. But Marik Brockman didn’t think that way about his then role as head of strategy at CSAA Insurance Group, a Walnut Creek, Calif.-based AAA insurer, founded in 1902.  And he thinks even less that way in his new role as VP of Strategy & Innovation.

Marik Brockman, VP of Strategy & Innovation, CSAA Insurance Group.

Marik Brockman, VP of Strategy & Innovation, CSAA Insurance Group.

“Innovation is in the DNA of our organization,” Brockman says. “AAA has a history of innovation going back to the early 1900s—in addition to shaping the way Americans navigated the country’s roads, the American Automobile Association influenced the first wave of traffic devices and has been instrumental in federal safety advancements across the decades right up to the present time.

CSAA Insurance Group’s roots go back to the Automobile Club of California, which traces its history to the year 1900. It became officially incorporated in California as a Non-Profit Mutual Benefit Corporation affiliated with the AAA in 1907. Today the company is one of the nation’s largest insurers, and the largest in AAA, serving members across 23 states and Washington, D.C.

Brockman joined CSAA Insurance Group in late 2013 to create an internal strategic planning function that would spare the company from depending on external consultants for needed change. “The strategy in place was developed in 2011 and, while things were going quite well, the company saw the need to move at a quicker place and refresh its strategy on a more frequent basis,” he relates.

During 2014, Brockman worked with CSAA Insurance Group’s senior leadership to develop a new strategy and build a culture of innovation. “This was undertaken in a collaborative way so that the leadership owned the strategy from the start, in a way that wouldn’t be the case with externally sourced strategic planning,” he explains.

CSAA traces its origins to a 1900 meeting at San Francisco's Cliff House of automobile enthusiasts seeking to form a club dedicated to helping car owners get where they wanted to go with greater comfort, safety and convenience. Source: CSAA Insurance Group.

CSAA Insurance Group traces its origins to a 1900 meeting at San Francisco’s Cliff House of automobile enthusiasts seeking to form a club dedicated to helping car owners get where they wanted to go with greater comfort, safety and convenience. Source: CSAA Insurance Group.

Brockman’s team consists of two parts, one a four-person Strategy team with professionals specializing in strategic, market-trend, and competitor analysis. The second part is a Corporate Development Team versed in some of the same disciplines, but also strategic partnerships, strategic investment, and mergers and acquisitions.

Brockman’s work began with the Strategy team, whose job was to lead strategic planning as well as to assist all strategic initiatives. With the refresh of the strategy and its launch in 2015, that meant shepherding six initiatives, some new, some retooled, some already in various stages of maturity:

  • Develop a culture of insight and innovation
  • Accelerate and innovate products and services
  • Create the perfect customer experience
  • Expand distribution and grow membership
  • Connect to the digital world
  • Complete and optimize CSAA Insurance Group’s member-centric platform

“We have worked to help launch initiatives, built business cases for them, or run subprojects within them,” Brockman relates. “We manage projects and frame major tracks of work as they get staffed up. We also ensure that the strategic capabilities each is expected to deliver meets the appropriate level of industry competitiveness.”

The team reevaluates all strategic initiatives annually in terms of scope of capabilities and timing, according to Brockman. “The external business environment continues to move, so we understand that something that we thought would make us competitive two years ago may no longer do so,” he explains. “So we can help to make a judgment through our assessment of capabilities relative to the market.”

Brockman’s Strategy team joined with the Corporate Development team in 2015. The two now form the Strategy and Innovation group. Following the strategy refresh, Brockman’s team has worked on strategic partnerships with companies with capabilities that can help advance the new strategy. “That includes companies who have something we need or can create synergy, as well as strategic investments in companies relevant to our industry, and in funds that invest in such companies,” Brockman says.

Accelerating Innovation

One of the most important objectives of Brockman’s team is to accelerate innovation through interaction with the various business areas. The team identifies three distinct types of innovation: incremental, sustaining, and disruptive.

To support incremental innovations, in Dec. 2015 the company launched the Innovation Exchange, a platform that lets business groups launch “challenge” questions to address a particular problem. Associates can propose challenges or they may be invited by different groups to weigh in on a given challenge; some challenges may be addressed to the entire employee base, Brockman explains. Those invited to a given challenge can share ideas and rate others’ ideas.

Technology showcase held at CSAA Insurance Group's headquarters. Source: CSAA Insurance Group.

Technology showcase held at CSAA Insurance Group’s headquarters. Source: CSAA Insurance Group.

The first challenge on the Innovation Exchange was aimed at reducing the number of handoffs in CSAA Insurance Group’s correspondence and billing fulfilment center. One hundred employees participated in the challenge, generating 72 ideas. Twelve of those were graduated to expert review, and all of those moved to an implementation phase, with three now fully implemented. Brockman relates that CSAA Insurance Group exceeded its benchmarks for the challenge, with a participation rate of 77 percent (100 of 132 associates invited), 451 comments, and 475 votes. More importantly, the process resulted in multiple process changes that will save time and effort and are expected to produce cost savings and improved efficiency.

The Innovation Exchange has now shepherded two challenges through completion, with three more currently in their final stages.

People Empowered to Drive Change

“Through participating in Innovation Exchange, people are empowered to drive change,” Brockman says. “The best thing is that they can improve an idea by sharing additional ideas—they can sort of pile on. An idea that started off well can grow into something even more impressive.”

Brockman’s teams are exploring disruptive innovation directed at new business models, new customers and new ways of interacting with customers. However, in addition to the work done through the Innovation Exchange, results over shorter term are expected to come primarily from sustaining innovation. Brockman defines that category as focused on launching new, differentiated products and services that drive value to members.

“We are innovative and continuously pursue excellence.” Motto in frosted glass at CSAA Insurance Group headquarters.

“We are innovative and continuously pursue excellence.” Motto in frosted glass at CSAA Insurance Group headquarters.

“As we log early successes from our test-and-learn environment, we expect to ramp up our innovation capabilities and drive new ideas and pilots into new products and services,” Brockman says. “We will track the volume and success of projects and new offerings, using metrics specific to each project.”

Over the longer term, CSAA Insurance Group expects both top- and bottom-line impact from its innovation acceleration efforts. “We expect to generate new revenue for growth as traditional P&C personal lines continue to mature—and as auto insurance premiums begin an expected decline around the year 2025 owing to autonomous vehicles,” Brockman comments. “We will achieve this by creating new products and services that strengthen our relationships with members in emerging areas of the future of transportation, connected homes, and the way people interact with their environment.”

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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 or (503) 936-2803.

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