The more work that I find myself carrying out in sectors that are considered ‘low interest’ (code for ‘unsexy’, or boring), the more I realise how rewarding they can be. So I like this story because not only is it an insurance story, it’s in a part of the insurance world that’s traditionally least loved, and hence most ripe for disruption: the SME sector.

Now SMEs should themselves be exciting: They make up the largest, most diverse and most dynamic, portion of the UK’s private sector economy. With almost zero barriers to entry, SMEs are also a massive opportunity. Anyone can set up a business from their kitchen table and innovation is ubiquitous, from peer-to-peer lending and crowdfunding to 3-D printing and mobile payment technology.

But insurance companies like Aviva have often been slow to crack the code. With a big business culture, it was no surprise that it needed help ‘thinking’, and then ‘acting’, more like a small business. So we embarked on an adventure that we hoped would enable us to get closer to SMEs, find new ways to serve them, and (perhaps) bring about a little cultural revolution within Aviva.

The method was something we called ‘Gamechanger’, a collaborative, end-to-end, product and service innovation approach combining trends, data and market analysis, ethnography and co-creation.

History of success

The process delivers worked-through innovation concepts, not just insights or ideas, and we already had one success under our belt (the new home insurance proposition recently launched by Barclays).

Many of the elements will be familiar to qualitative researchers. We hung out with SMEs. We visited them in their places of work, from a sweet shop to a call centre. We ran workshops and we did interviews.

We drew on many of our favourite creative techniques to help reframe insurance: Art from Within (a psycho-drawing technique courtesy of Roy Langmaid and Nicky Forsythe), role play, storytelling.

All of this helped us find out things that were new, and challenging for Aviva. For example (drum roll….) small isn’t simple. You can be a four-man band, but a major supplier to Amazon for cloud services. You can run a team of 10 electricians, but work in nuclear power stations. You can run a wine shop, but have an MBA and a career in the city (before you got out during the recession).

Insurers often treat small businesses like simple businesses and that’s missing a big trick. Equally, we pointed out that small business owners work in their businesses nine to five and work on their businesses 24/7. When the insurance broker (the traditional channel) is closed. Another trick missed.

These stories were important. They challenged preconceptions that had held Aviva back and allowed it to see that a more customisable, flexible, offer was not just the right solution for larger, supposedly more advanced businesses, but also a requirement for smaller companies in a digital economy. These stories travelled. And have become part of its culture.

Enabling change

But for me the more important point about the work was how we deployed co-creation that would successfully challenge and enable a whole series of changes: to product (a pipeline of innovations that Aviva is working on), to brokers (an improved platform that won awards last year), to channel (a new direct offer that is targeting the busy, digitally-minded, SME) and to culture (new job titles with ‘customer’ in them, and new governance structures).

Among the very first acts for us was to start by uncovering taboos which we could challenge. We spent time doing what we call a ‘sacred cows’ exercise (“list all the assumptions that could hold you back”). We worked with customers and Aviva to generate breakthrough innovation ideas. We spent time with cross-functional teams exploring and sorting the possible from the desirable.

Co-creation, in our experience, is much more than an ideation technique, it’s an organisational learning approach. As Customer Solutions Director Ian Ferguson put it: “gamechanger has helped drive us on our journey to being a properly customer-first company.”