How Bupa turns great ideas into successful products

The healthcare group has an interesting and successful approach to innovation, based on helping the business get the most from its creative projects. We interviewed John Moore, Head of Bupa’s Customer Lab about their innovations in HealthTech.

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Businesses thrive on three things: ideas, people and process. This is as true of a big public company as it is of a two-person start-up. Find a winning idea that customers want, get the right people on board to create and sell it, put the processes in place to make it commercially viable, and any firm is off to a winning start.

While established companies have all this in place, they are constantly on the lookout for ideas that will open new markets and establish themselves further in existing ones. The problem is that sometimes the other two parts of that triumvirate – people and process – can get in the way. New ideas often require new ways of working, and different types of roles to make the most of those ideas.

Big companies try many ways to solve this, many of which are not successful. However, Aviva’s “innovation garage” is one notable exception and Bupa’s “customer lab” is another. The international healthcare group purposely locates its customer lab within the company because its aim is not just to come up with new ideas but to help the business – people and process – transform itself around those ideas.

Customer lab

John Moore is an Australian who set the lab up in 2017. He comes from a background of services marketing and digital roles in banking, telecommunications and insurance. He explains how he created a small team of 12 people with complementary skills.

They employ a designer to take a structured approach to what they do, an actuary to make sure that the ideas they’re working on will be a commercial success, a technologist to help make the ideas work within Bupa’s technology stack, and a storyteller to bring to life the work the customer lab is doing. All this is supported by Product Owners and some strategy staff. John says that not all firms would need an actuary, he would recommend a strong finance member, but this is useful to Bupa as an insurance provider.

He also explains that he didn’t choose to call his team an “innovation lab” as that implies ideas that aren’t necessarily rooted in business reality. John points out that one of the best lessons that corporate firms can take from start-up culture is a company founder’s ability to talk about a customer problem. He says that they don’t talk about what the business is trying to do but what the customer wants help with. John is yet to meet with a start-up who doesn’t clearly start the conversation with the “customer problem” their idea solves.

The customer lab work focuses on three elements: business acceleration, their “B table” work and how they rethink the system.

Business acceleration – a 90-day programme

Business acceleration is how the team solve business problems. They select an area of the business to work on by looking solely at what problem or challenge has the most backing from senior managers to solve it. John says that this often the best predictor of whether a team will have success and also – crucially for the customer lab – that they create a product that will “see the light of day”. The team tend to make sure they have a project sponsor from the executive team to indicate the importance of the project to the company as a whole and another sponsor in the business in which they are working.

Once they’ve selected an area of the business and a specific problem to work on, they run a 90-day programme with high-performing product owners and product staff. This ensures that not only are they coming up with new ideas and embedding new ways of working but also training big groups of staff on new product development skills and showing them the power of agile working practices.

The B table

As well as working with colleagues in Bupa, the team also work with external start-ups. The “B table” refers to a desk in the team’s office where they discuss ideas. John explains that they’ve steered away from the traditional “Dragon’s Den” type approach as, although this can lead large companies to find some great ideas, they’re not necessarily ideas that the business can make use of.

Instead, they ask start-ups to base their pitches on how they will solve a real business problem that Bupa has and also how they will work with Bupa to solve it.

Each of the winning start-ups that they select has a sponsor in the business and these start-ups then sit in the relevant business unit for 10 weeks, contributing to a project aimed at solving a particular challenge and learning a lot more about how Bupa operates. At the end of this period, Bupa will decide whether it will use the start-up as a supplier and, if it signs an agreement to take on a sufficiently big order, the company will often take an equity stake in the start-up as well.

Rethinking the system

Rethinking the system is where the customer lab team looks ahead in time to see “what could be possible if…”, says John. “We focus on no more than two topics each year and, while this piece of work is only a small part of everyone’s role (similar to Google’s 20% time rule [a famous management decision that let employees devote a full day a week to side projects that help the firm]), it is designed to educate Bupa on what is coming and what could be possible if we took advantage of cutting-edge solutions out there.

“The ideas are unlikely to be ideas Bupa is ready for today, however they have the potential to shape our strategy for the future. It really is our opportunity to look into the crystal ball and imagine what could be possible and to bring this to life.”

All three of these elements combine to make an “innovation” programme that is about far more than just new ideas or exciting technology. While the customer lab certainly does help Bupa come up with novel ways to solve customers’ problems, it is just as much about reinventing the company’s processes and how employees get their work done.

InsightCatherine Adams