Debbie Brancel is the Ignite Structure & Process Director at American Family Insurance. Ignite is the way American Family Insurance is working to drive a culture of customer-driven innovation.
Before this job, I spent 15 years at American Family in very traditional insurance roles. I was in the actuarial area, business performance analysis, product management, underwriting. It might seem, from my resume, that it would be unusual for me to be in an innovation area.
But outside of work, my husband and I run a small business that we started together. In 2002 we rode RAGBRAI® — it’s the oldest and longest bike ride in the US. My husband was determined that, while we rode, we would come up with a business idea together. (Yeah — this is what we do while we’re “on vacation”.)
It’s a little bit like going through an accelerator — we just didn’t know it. We had time pressure. We had a goal. We even did onsite customer empathy interviews: we just walked up to potential customers and started asking them questions, finding out what they liked and didn’t like, taking notes.
We launched Brancel Bicycle Charters that year, providing full-service support for bicyclists to help them enjoy their cycling vacation. That year we had 50 customers, and have grown to nearly 700 since.
I’ve learned a lot about entrepreneurship and running a business from this experience. Today, my role allows me to blend this entrepreneurial spirit with my insurance knowledge.
We were all innovative as children, but lose that as we grow. We just need to give people the permission and the tools to do it again.
A good intrapreneur is somebody that’s going to be open minded and willing to re-learn how to use these tools, and to try new things. I think all the other things can be taught.
At American Family, we run bootcamps — three day events where people work on a real business problem. It is a powerful way to teach people new methods and tools. We know that participants aren’t necessarily going to solve that problem — the goal of the boot camp is really to get a taste of a different way of working.
I’m living proof of this. When I first heard about the bootcamp, I had a lot of questions. I was asked to attend by my manager, and I didn’t want to go. I just kept thinking, “wow — that’s a lot of days away from my desk.”
But when I got to the bootcamp, and my opinion completely changed. Suddenly, I’m thinking:
“Wait a second — We get to move quickly? Just dive right in?”
It was such a relief for me to be able to separate from the most burdensome corporate processes. We were focused on exploration, asking questions of customers, and seeing where that took us.
That made so much sense to me. When you boil it all the way down, when you take away the jargon, this way of working resonates with people in a very logical way. It is the way the world ideally would work.
Our accelerators are cross-functional groups of people tackling a business problem provided by one of our core business areas. 100% of an employee’s time is allocated to the accelerators, which are scoped to be 90 days with the possibility to extend.
We’re very intentional about ensuring accelerator ideas will have impact — we’re not just running training for 90 days. We source problems from within business units to ensure alignment to our strategy, to what our customers are going to need.
While we haven’t yet been in the accelerator game quite long enough to have an idea that we’ve successfully taken all the way to market (though we have a few now that are getting close!), through a partnership with finance we’ve developed a way to understand the value of accelerators.
We look at the outcomes, and the cost of those outcomes compared to the cost if we had tackled them without the accelerators.
Right now, some of the greatest value has come from how much we were able to learn.
For example, we might have a product we want to roll out using a new distribution channel. Through the accelerator, we might learn that customers were not seeking that product in that distribution channel. We would then stop that stream of work from moving forward, and focus on providing value to those customers.
In the past, we would not have investigated whether the customer was interested or not. Because of the accelerator, we are able to speak directly to customers about ways that they wish to be engaged.
We can take what we learn there and apply it to our business, but without spending nearly as much money as we would otherwise.
When you work at a large company, it can be easy to lose sight of your own personal tie to the company’s mission. People can fall into the trap of believing “It’s somebody else’s job to fix that problem”.
As an entrepreneur, you understand that nobody is going to bail you out of that problem. If a customer is unhappy, you will have to solve that problem or make that improvement. The accountability is all on you.
What we’ve seen as a result of Ignite, and other aligned efforts across the country, is that employees’ leadership behaviours are starting to switch. We’re starting to see more of that personal accountability coming into the corporate world.
That’s what I find to be the most exciting. We’re really, truly engaging people, some of whom have been for a long time, with a new message:
“You are heavily empowered, but accountable for coming up with the solutions to the business problems that you see before you.”