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In today’s complex and rapidly changing business environment, the challenge is no longer to simply sell a product or service, but to deliver a memorable and desired experience – for customers, partners, and clients.

Traditionally, a company’s view of the customer experience was limited to the direct interaction with the customer – product purchase, product interaction, customer service. Today, this has evolved into a more holistic approach in terms of the role a company, brand, and product/service play in the life of the customer. It has become not just about what they are asking for, but what they need. And what they need might not even be on their radar screen.

A quote from Steve Jobs comes to mind. “People don't know what they want until you show it to them … Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.”1

Take the healthcare industry, for example. The passing of the 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA) represented a significant industry disruptor, shifting the power base to place more decision-making with individuals, essentially moving the industry from a B2B to a more B2C focus. Key players including healthcare providers, insurance brokers, employers, and insurance companies, had long been entrenched in their silos, each with a piece of the healthcare puzzle they had worked hard to protect. Because of how they make their money and risks to profits or reducing their piece of the pie if the roles between these players evolved, there was and is an incentive for maintaining the status quo.

Yet there were and are ample opportunities to significantly improve customer experience by focusing on what actual consumers of healthcare need. Improving the customer experience goes far beyond improving the efficiency and effectiveness of contact centers. There is an opportunity to “wow” the customer by freeing up their time, making healthcare easier to understand and navigate, and helping them make decisions that are both more effective and less expensive. Disruptors help anticipate, plan for, and provide security for life events. They challenge underlying assumptions in the structure of the healthcare industry around how health plans are constructed and administered, and how data can be shared to help support and make providers more effective and efficient. The goal is to create an intimacy with customers by delivering a remarkable, differentiated, total experience that will endear customers to the companies that were serving them first, and advocating for customers rather than protecting each company’s own current space.

This desired transformation required visionary innovation - solutions to needs or problems that were unarticulated or previously didn’t exist.

So how does a company cultivate such visionary innovation? In my experience, there are 5 key factors for success.

#1 - Design an Effective Innovation Team
With careful thought and intent, identify and source individuals who will collaboratively inspire, nurture, and drive the creative process. Some guidelines:

Smaller is better. Smaller teams are more nimble, agile, and flexible. Innovation flourishes with a tight core team, ideally 12 people or less.

Diverse backgrounds and skills provide much needed varying perspectives that will challenge the group to look at things in different ways and consider different approaches to envisioning and solving problems.

While the creativity necessary to cultivate innovation can benefit from a certain level of structure, too much regimentation can be counterproductive. Make sure you have individuals who can thrive in undefined and nebulous zones.

Consider staffing your team with one or more individuals who: have a product and/or service design mindset and background; are strong in data and data analytics; are from your industry; are from a disruptive industry; and, are out-of-the-box thinkers. Also make sure you have a strong leader/facilitator who brings the group together, yet understands that different team members may need to take the lead when matters relevant to their area of expertise are being explored and decided.


#2 - Set the Vision
Within your organization, there should be an executive-level sponsor who pushes the team to think big. The vision may not be clear at the onset of the team. Or the innovation process may drive to a new or very different vision. Be open and receptive. In either case, the vision should focus on major impacts, not minor steps. Challenge yourself with key questions: What role do we want to play in people’s lives? What challenges are we trying to overcome? What opportunities might be possible? What if ….?  And most importantly, the sponsor should give the team the freedom to come up with ideas that would cannibalize the current business model if that is what is needed to reach the best outcome.

#3 - Provide the Opportunity to Create
Breakthrough innovation requires taking chances – and sometimes many of them.

Risk & Failure
Failure is inevitable in the innovation process. Allow ample room for experimentation. Provide a safe environment where risk and failure are embraced and accepted.

While the creativity necessary to foster innovation can benefit from a certain level of structure, too much regimentation can be counterproductive. For true innovation, it’s better to set the goal, and then let your team figure out how to get there. Ultimately, the innovation team will help senior management understand the results and benefits of their ideas for achieving the desired customer experience outcome.

Provide a creative, think-tank environment where the innovation process can flourish. Take into account factors that enable people to feel comfortable breaking out of existing patterns to generate new ideas. It may be a non-traditional workspace such as an innovation lab. Or unstructured time to unwind and relax, allowing creative energies to recharge. Or an atmosphere of levity where people can enjoy each other, be themselves, and have fun. Or the ability of the team to communicate and collaborate with customers or others outside the industry who think differently. Listen and respond to inputs from your innovation team throughout the process.

Don’t burden your core innovation team with the charge to determine how to scale or integrate their ideas within the larger organization – there might be too many initial barriers that would inhibit the innovation process. Scalability is best moved to a different team once the most viable innovation ideas are identified.

#4 - Establish a High Level of Visibility
Given the potential for innovation initiatives to fall in priority as organizations focus more on day-to-day business that drives sales and profits, it is critical to ensure top-level executive buy-in, commitment, and ongoing support for innovation to thrive. Ideally, the innovation team would report to someone high enough in the organization who will ensure they can strike a balance between the team being separate, yet still supporting the business.

#5 - Fuel the Energy
Keep the momentum and the energy going with a short-interval focus that allows for iteration and when necessary, quick failure, while driving to a longer-term end goal. This allows rapid decision-making and clear guidance as to the team’s direction, both of which are essential for maximizing your team’s ability to foster innovation. Speed to prove out ideas matters.


According to McKinsey2, 80% of executives believe their current business models are at risk, suggesting the need for a new, more innovative approach. And while 84% of executives agreed that innovation is important to their growth strategy, only 6% were satisfied with the outcome in terms of innovation performance.

With an intentional design approach, a nurturing environment, and ongoing support from the top, your innovation team should flourish, providing the visionary ideas and innovations essential to achieving a meaningful, differentiated customer experience and driving sustainable results for your business.


1 The Best Steve Jobs Quotes from his Biography. Business Insider website.

Growth & Innovation: Strategy & Corporate Finance. McKinsey website.


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Kathryn Hayley is an ECC Executive Partner based in Chicago, Illinois, USA. Prior to ECC, Kathryn was an experienced CEO with over 30 years of sector experience in healthcare, professional services, insurance, and financial services. She currently serves as a Board Director for numerous companies - public, private, and non-profit with additional board experience on both audit and compensation committees. Kathryn holds MBA in Marketing and Finance from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and a BS in Applied Computer Science from Illinois State University.