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free-ranging conversation with greg matthews (humana consumer innovation team)

November 15, 2009

in free-ranging conversations (interviews with wellness innovators)

welcome to the first free-ranging conversation, an ongoing series of wellness chats with managers, innovators, and experts from related disciplines. my first guest is greg matthews, director of humana’s consumer innovation team.

the consumer innovation team was created in 2000 and charged by mike mcallister, humana’s ceo, with the task of being disruptive to “business as usual—to be the sand in the oyster.” i chose greg as my first guest because i felt this idea of being the sand in the oyster set the perfect tone for what the “free-ranging conversation” series is all about: new ways of thinking about employee wellness programs.

i learned tons in the hour we shared, as evidenced below. i was particularly impressed by humana’s broad definition for “member”—employee, public, actual customer―and the way they’re turning the notion of wellness on its head. not program-centric, but patient-centric. built into our lives—what we like to do, how we like to do it.

where does your group typically get its ideas?

our ideas can come from anywhere. we’ve set ourselves up to be very good listeners and trend watchers. in terms of a formal innovation process, we have a daylong session every quarter with a representative group of employees. with them, we develop 20 to 30 different ideas for health problems we’re trying to solve; our team picks the 10 best ideas. for these, we develop a concept prototype—a storyboard, or a picture, a video, even clay models—some way to better demonstrate the idea. we then narrow these down to two or three to further develop to see if they have practical application. we build actual physical application prototypes that come to “live” on our floor. our employees, executives, partners, and guests can come and play with them for a few months to see how they’re best used and what we might do with them. we also have relationships with universities, engineers, and health entrepreneurs where we get additional ideas.

how do you determine whether there’s a practical application?

we pilot a lot of ideas with our employees. we piloted high-deductible health plans, our more options and choices for humana’s associates (mocha). (after eight years, this is now the only medical plan option humana offers.) early on, we incorporated “mocha mentors,” power users for annual enrollment who help answer other employees’ questions. we piloted our mobile phone-based nutrition project, which now operates under sensei. our freewheelin’ program was also piloted with employees, then taken to presidential conventions. now this prybakfreewheelinrogram is in its next stage: a joint venture with trek and crispin porter + bogusky, b-cycle.

it’s a laboratory approach. we build and incubate ideas. we test something on a small scale to learn whether the idea will work and how to leverage it. we survey and conduct data analysis before, during, and after pilots. eighty percent of our ideas don’t make it to real life.

when do you need to show the business roi of these ideas?

after the pilot, we develop a business plan. we see whether the idea will scale, whether we can be profitable. going back to the bike-sharing system, for example, we developed a business plan that led directly to this joint venture and b-cycle. another example is a health game we created with walt disney studios for their movie “g-force.” operation planet savers tied in to the movie and was part of the movie launch. the idea is to create products for commercial use.

disney-humana2what’s your team working on now?

we believe health rewards—financial incentives—are in their early development. they provide a “guardrail” for employees and are a great way to get someone started. we want to take rewards to the next level, to nonfinancial rewards, incorporating all of our innovations into rewards.

we’re also running two experiments with some communities right now. one is with an online health community. we’re testing the effect of dropping experts into existing social networking communities. the second experiment is in our guidance centers. we’re taking these real communities and bridging them with online social communities. the more we can incorporate social concepts, we’ll make wellness “sticky.”

unfortunately, most of us aren’t in idea incubators. what can companies take from you and apply themselves?

i think the most important takeaway for anyone who’s serious about making an impact in wellness is to stop thinking like a health professional. we default to a really paternalistic view of what people “ought to be doing” and are baffled when they don’t. then we think that maybe we haven’t communicated clearly enough about what people ought to be doing. but the truth is, in almost every case, a lack of knowledge isn’t the issue. it’s not our communication style. it’s that we haven’t fit our program into the typical health consumer’s lifestyle—we haven’t appealed to the things that they already want to do. it’s really at the core of any consumer-centered design.

question for greg?

greg’s agreed to make himself available to me for a little longer. so if you have a follow-up question or a thought, please leave a comment.

i want to say thanks to greg for his willingness to jump in and support this uninitiated endeavor. via his tweets, blog posts, and email exchanges, greg impressed me with his intelligence, creativity, energy, and generosity. after talking with him, i’m even more impressed. you can find him on twitter and contributing to his team’s crumple it up blog.


Leave a Comment

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Michelle James November 18, 2009 at 1:01 pm

Hi Greg,
Love hearing about the interaction you have with employees in allowing them to help develop ideas and actually following through on trying them.
What would you say was the biggest eye opener you learned from employees that changed your communication style?



Greg Matthews November 19, 2009 at 4:44 pm

That’s a really good question, Michelle. And the answer primarily points back to corporate hierarchy for me. We work in a big company, and when companies get big I don’t think there’s any way to avoid the formation of hierarchies. The problem is that hierarchies aren’t inherently great for innovation.

What we’ve found is that good ideas can come from anywhere – a person’s title and experience doesn’t enhance their ability to contribute to creativity (in fact, it may be a negative!). I think that our secret sauce (one of them, anyway) is that we’ve found a way, as an innovation team, to effectively eliminate hierarchy early in the innovation/design process so that every creative idea has equal voice and weight … but later on the process (when we’re implementing and commercializing) a more traditional employee/supervisor relationship resumes – because it’s valuable at the END of the process, and not valuable at the BEGINNING.

What that’s meant is that we’ve had to build a team of people that is pretty comfortable with ambiguity in relationships and professional development. It’s our hope (and it’s proved to be true so far) that the kind of work we do far outweighs any downsides associated with having non-traditional roles, relationships and communication styles.

Hope that helps; if I haven’t interpreted your question in the way you intended, just let me know; I’d be happy to pull up a virtual chair with you and have a conversation right here in Fran’s comments section!


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