USAA – a study in pervasive innovation

by Bryan Mahoney

USAA - a study in pervasive innovationIn USAA’s world, innovation is conducted with one goal in mind: benefit the customer. In this member-based insurance and banking organization, no idea is a bad idea – there’s a structure in place that makes an innovator out of each and every employee, and their efforts yield 95% participation.

It results in a company that looks and behaves like no other auto insurer – or bank, or car dealer, or home insurer …

Last week, USAA flew bloggers from the financial service, military and innovation spaces to take a peek under the hood of its innovation program. We saw the new innovations that may transform the way insurance companies and banks do business, in the same way USAA pioneered check depositing through photos taken with a smartphone.

Here, an Open Innovation Lab provides the headquarters for engineers to try the wild ideas that may or may not get them closer to the end game of ultimate customer service. They wheel out a workerbot – a Skype-equipped laptop on a column attached to a Roomba controlled by the person calling in on the other end. It’s a prototype, naturally, but it’s this type of idea that is given flesh by the innovation team.

It’s this kind of thing that surprises you most in strolling the company’s innovation space. Innovation is everywhere, and ideas can spark new insurance products or new tools to keep home inspectors safe.

USAA by the numbers


ideas last year


Participation Rate


patents in the last year

Mick Simonelli, the Enterprise Innovation Executive Leader at USAA, says ideas are vetted with an attitude of “fail fast, fail cheaply.”

His program approaches innovation in one of three ways – an open employee engagement program, continuous (incremental) innovation, and revolutionary, where ideas may have a higher risk of failure and not necessarily ROI-based, or even may run contrary to the business leadership’s desires. That doesn’t stop them from pursuing the ideas, because challenging convention is the name of USAA’s innovation game.

Called ICE, Innovation Community for the Enterprise has a presence throughout USAA’s sprawling campus in San Antonio. In its customer service center, ICE posters featured photos of employees in the department who have won innovation recent Challenges.

In the Innovation Lab, R&D brings those ideas to life. They demonstrated a prototype app that scans your driver’s license bar code to get your information and begin an application for a checking account. A telescoping pole with a camera on the end allows adjustors a peek at your roof without ever leaving the ground. And an iPad app allows members to re-create the scene of an accident using cars they animate with their own voice-over.

The mission of the Innovation Lab is to provide all employees a way to realize their ideas. The VIP – Volunteer Innovation Program – matches resources to individual employees to help develop their ideas, no matter where they work.

A key theme we heard over the two days was Leadership – strong investment from the top of the organization (in resources and in mission) helps fuel USAA’s innovation effort. It is directly tied to everyone’s work – teams working on new projects are often made of different departments or disciplines, helping eliminate or prevent silos from occurring.

image credit: (USAA campus in San Antonio, Texas)

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Bryan MahoneyBryan Mahoney is the business writer and content editor at Imaginatik, an innovation management consultancy and software company based in Boston.

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  1. Nice article. As a USAA member I am interested in your thoughts about why USAA has been so successful at innovation. Of all the companies you have looked at from an innovation perspective, where would they rate against the best and why?

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