Innovation in the Fast Lane

How Progressive defies the image of the staid insurance company by constantly pushing for digital transformation

Innovation in the Fast Lane

Staying at the cutting edge of digital when you’re one of the U.S.’s largest auto insurers—with 29,000 employees, $21 billion in revenue, and regulators in 50 states—isn’t easy. Yet Progressive has found a way: Its Business Innovation Garage (BIG) lets any employee, from claims adjuster to customer service rep, run experiments and develop digital prototypes with the goal of improving both customer experience and internal business practices. All of which is done with the support of staff tech experts.

Here, chief information officer Steve Broz, a 15-year veteran of the Mayfield Village, Ohio–based company, talks about how the Innovation Garage helps Progressive stay ahead.

What does the Business Innovation Garage actually look like?

More like a technology company than what you’d picture an insurance company in the Midwest to be. We’ve got all the latest gear that people are playing with—virtual reality, large touch screens to enable interaction with data, visualization tools. We intentionally put it in a very public place, right on the main thoroughfare of one of our campuses, and it’s got glass walls.

Steve Broz, Chief Information Officer at Progressive [Photo: Progressive Insurance]

Sounds like a significant investment in terms of time and money. What problem is BIG
designed to solve?

At a company of our size, to get something production-ready is not a small undertaking. The ability to prototype and bring in outside tools and ideas and try them out in a secure space was something that made that a lot easier to do. Our idea was that people could bring their ideas to the Garage and try them out quickly and at relatively low cost. It allows us to move with speed because the most sensitive information and systems aren’t necessarily accessible from the Garage.

How about a quick case study?

The claims unit approached us and said, “We’d like to add some energy around innovation.” So we got a group of developers and claims people together for a day and a half and had a code jam, a hackathon. One idea was that customers could use their smartphones to take photographs of the damage to their vehicle so that we could make estimates. That would save time and money while giving customers control over the process. We ran a pilot to learn how this would affect our claims workforce and workflow, and then we developed a full-scale production app. It launched this summer and customers are very happy.

Are you creating other apps? Is that the way forward?

Our upcoming Snapshot mobile app is another huge innovation. The idea is that it will relay data from people’s phones to see if their driving behaviors qualify them for an insurance discount.

How did that app come to life?

We’re great at using data to accurately price the risk of any given customer. More than 20 years ago, we had this idea: How much better could we be at that if we didn’t just know about the person and the car, but also knew how that car is driven? We did an experiment in Texas in the late ’90s where we had units the size of Yellow Pages that had to be installed by a professional in your trunk. It was valuable, but a hassle. Over time, technology changed, and a little less than 10 years later, we could shrink all that hardware into a device that plugged into the diagnostic port of your car. The Snapshot mobile app is the next step. Most of us now carry around smartphones that capture a lot of data. If customers share that with us, we can provide them with the most accurate rate possible.

The tech cycle has sped up dramatically. How do you evaluate which technologies to focus on?

Part of it is letting people play. For instance, we don’t yet know how to apply virtual reality, but we brought in the hardware and software to let people imagine how it could be applied to various challenges that our employees and our customers face. We try to leave the funnel open at the top. It’s an organic, free-market approach.

What challenges does the Innovation Garage face?

Prioritizing. We don’t have unlimited capacity to tackle the work that comes in.

How does prioritizing ideas mesh with a free-market approach?

It’s tricky. For our organization, prioritizing works well if everything is quantified, but by their nature these ideas are early. They don’t have full-blown cost-benefit analyses behind them. One thing that helps us is that projects move through the Garage quickly. Even if you have to wait, in two months, we’ll get you in. I think that makes it less stressful than it might otherwise be.

Given how dynamic the digital landscape has become and how lightning fast the changes are, how do you stay ahead?

Innovation services are a big part of it—code jams, the Innovation Garage, the usability lab. And keeping our eyes and ears open to what’s going on in the world around us. As many great ideas as we have internally, there are just as many, if not more, outside of our four walls. Being able to look at those, build on them, and, when the time is right, make them our own is an important piece of the puzzle.


This article was created for and commissioned by Cognizant.

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