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Breaking Down Team Walls

Jason Macko, Senior Business Innovation Strategy Consultant at Highmark
Armida Ascano
December 11th, 2014

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Business, Health, Tech
Proving that innovation can shine brightly in unexpected places, Highmark is a health and wellness company dedicated to revolutionizing the realm of health. Heading up this initiative is Senior Business Innovation Strategy Consultant Jason Macko. Judging by his inspiring words and self-explanatory alias -- he goes by 'The Innovation Shark' on Twitter -- it's clear that Macko has a taste for all things new and imaginative. He sat down to discuss this with us.

6 Questions with Jason Macko

1. How do you motivate your team to generate good ideas?
In corporate America, not only do we have goals to hit numbers of concepts, but we also benchmark how many have moved through the whole process. It's not creating ideas for the sake of creating ideas, but the goal of creating a concept to be piloted, tested and eventually commercialized. For every 40 ideas that end up on the initial pipeline, we need four to actually come out as proven commercialized projects.

I also think that in our world, we're building for the business. We're motivated by the stakeholders inside our walls. Our juniors move freely with higher-ups, and that changes a lot and motivates you not to fail, especially at a high level knowing you're being looked up to.

2. What is the biggest challenge you face when innovating?
Inside Highmark, I would say it's the resources. To be able to test, build and prototype. If you are building something novel and disruptive, chances are it doesn't already exist. Bringing it to life from the ground up is a challenge.

Helping folks connect the dots and really pitching and selling it is an integral part of the process. You need a sponsor or champion who can see your vision early and embrace that and help you champion it; help it get where it needs to be. That's my job, essentially, and it has to start as soon as an idea is created.

3. What makes an innovative culture? How do you create a culture of innovation?
The ability for employees to be able to think about the definition of new, freely. I am a fan of the Google 80/20 rule: 80% of every Google employee's job is to do what they're told to do; 20% is new ways to make the company better. That type of goal from the top down is one way to create an innovation culture. To grant your team the flexibility and freedom to ideate. It's extremely important for us to grow and remain nimble.

Collaborative culture is also extremely important. Cross-collaborating outside your cubicle walls and thinking about the needs of others is the best way to remain innovative. Groups and departments that are typically silos getting together to provide new value always yields great results.

4. What’s an example of when you were most proud of your team?
Whenever a product is actually seen brought to life. You never forget the first time you see that billboard or direct mailer in tangible form. Two new businesses have been started from my group, and seeing the ribbon-cutting ceremony was incredible. The initial launch of something that was once a glimmer, that's probably the most rewarding.

The most memorable for me is the first business case I ever worked on, 3-4 yrs ago. It was a company -- a virtual avatar system -- made to encourage member engagement. It took 3 years to be integrated into the business, but it happened, which taught me not to give up on things because it will happen, but the timing needs to be right.

5. Do you have any team rituals to help encourage innovation?
We have an innovator of the quarter series. Every quarter, we pose a challenge to the employee population and ask for them to solve a problem with a new product, service or concept. Every quarter, they shift gears and look at a different part of Highmark's offerings or business. We go through the process to find three finalists who then build a presentation, do some homework and eventually, present to the innovation panel.

Each of the finalists wins a prize, but also gets recognition from the innovation department. We always regroup to see if idea can be taken forward and often, will actually put the idea into the pipeline for possible further work. Sure, a couple have come to fruition, but that is not main focus. The main focus is creating a space where everyone is comfortable sharing ideas.

6. Looking to the future, how will you continue to be a leader in innovation?
For me, it's continuously being out in front of the consumers and staying in touch with your team. As an innovation champion, I've kind of become the poster boy of innovation for the company. I spread the word and get everyone involved, and actually teach our general employees -- those who aren't innovators by nature -- how to pick, create and build innovative products and services.

One of the most rewarding things is that we have folks who have done this process with me numerous times because they love it and are just getting better at it -- I would say I understand the pride a teacher feels. If you spread the education, you keep adding value to the business.
References: linkedin