How Safeco Is Creating Innovative Offerings That Drive Value for the IA Channel

Industry Experts, Personal Lines, Technology

Innovation is a term I hear a lot and not just because it’s my job, either. it’s difficult to turn anywhere these days and not see innovation touted as the key to solving business problems.

But if you ask five people how to create innovative offerings that will drive added value to their business, you’ll be lucky if you only get five different answers. Most can be boiled down to a few key points, however.

  • Acknowledge that no one can be sure what the next awesome idea will be.
  • Take steps to increase the odds the concept we design will be a hit.
  • Understand the greatest new thing can still fall flat if the environment isn’t right.

There’s a lot to unpack from each of these, and I’ll dive deeper in upcoming posts. For now, I’ll discuss at a high level, how we’re approaching them at Safeco, and briefly touch on some work we’re doing in light of them.

Acknowledge that no one can be sure what the next awesome idea will be

This seems fairly obvious at first glance, but trips up a lot of organizations as they work to build the next big thing.

One approach to solve this problem is to develop as many different products as you can and see what sticks. This is the basic strategy within the angel investment/venture capitalist space where a portfolio of startups is built with the foreknowledge that 80 to 90 percent will lose money, 10 to 15 percent will break even and the few remaining companies will make up for the failures in spades.

Within the corporate world, it’s called “fail fast.” Rather than creating large projects or taking years to build an offering, create something small and learn from it. If it’s one of the 80 to 90 percent of concepts that fail, you’ll still learn a ton and will be better for it the next go-round. Rapid iteration is another term used to describe this concept.

The Insurance Advisor skill for Amazon Alexa is one example of Safeco’s move toward rapid iteration. We went from concept development to launch in around four months and identified several areas of opportunity to make the next launch move more quickly. We expect to go through three or four iterations within the first year alone.

Take steps to increase the odds the concept we design will be a hit

Beyond simply trying a lot of things, there is tremendous evidence to support the notion that we can increase the probability of success. To do this we need to stop thinking with our business hats shoved so tightly onto our foreheads that it restricts our view. Instead, we need to approach problems first from the perspective of the user. Empathizing with our users and understanding how our business fits into their lives help us to reimagine what we might be able to offer that our users would truly value.

There are myriad ways we can go about extricating our heads from our business hats and getting closer to our users. Earlier this year, Safeco opened an innovation space at one of the Seattle WeWork locations. Because the space is located outside the main Seattle campus, people who go there separate themselves from the day-to-day business grind. That simple change in scenery can help remove business caps pretty quickly. The space also offers proximity to tech startups of all varieties, again helping our team and those we’re working with take a step away from being an insurance carrier – so we can think as an insurance user.

In fact, I wrote this post while sitting in our innovation space recently.

Understand the greatest new thing can still fall flat if the environment isn’t right

The final consideration is at least as critical as the prior two, perhaps more so than both combined. A bad idea in the right environment may look good in the short run. But as with the internet companies of the late 90s, bad ideas invariably come crashing down. More problematic, great ideas put out in the wrong environment will fail just as inevitably. was a delivery site during the 90s boom that offered urban dwellers delivery in under an hour. There were many reasons why Kozmo wasn’t successful, but 15 years later – with people far more comfortable with online purchasing, sharing economy services enabling crowdsourcing of delivery drivers, etc. – we see a glut of ultra-fast delivery offerings once again.

Similarly here at Safeco, we understand that if our agent partners don’t have visibility into what we’re doing and why, and don’t feel engaged with our innovation process, we run the same risk as Kozmo – putting great ideas into the wrong environment.

Samuel Affolter

Senior Director of Research and Innovation

Sam leads Agent Research & Innovation discovering and developing new solutions to meet the needs of our agents and their customers. He has analytics and product management experience across a variety of insurance functions including Product, Underwriting, and Marketing. Sam spent 3.5 years at Amazon drinking the customer-centric Koolaid and brings that and an agile-motivated scrappiness with him back. Over the past 2 years his team has piloted over a dozen solutions and scaled several including Safeco’s Pet Insurance and Home Warranty partnerships and being first-to-market with Safeco’s award winning Insurance Advisor skill for Amazon’s Alexa platform.

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5 years ago

A true testament to Safeco’s promise of a new, innovative culture. It is exciting to see Safeco start thinking more like a nimble start-up than an old-school ‘insurance company’ with risk averse decision making. Great article, Sam.

Agent for the Future™