To reinvent healthcare, Cambia first reinvented itself: How they built a culture of innovation

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The insights behind the innovation, from one of the most forward-thinking companies you’ve never heard of

Ask people to name the most innovative companies, and the likelihood is high that behemoths like Amazon, Netflix, Tesla, and Uber come to everyone’s mind. The fame and glory of those organizations and their disruption efforts is all too familiar, top of mind, and highly-publicized.

But having an eccentric founder, a well-funded strategy, or a high-profile CEO isn’t the only way to innovate. 

Look no further than Portland-based Cambia Health Solutions, unsung heroes in a healthcare industry not particularly known for its groundbreaking ideas. 

Thanks to the company’s unrelenting focus on innovation — an astounding 88% of Cambia employees believe the company supports innovation — Cambia has launched diverse businesses that perfectly complement the company’s cause: providing quality and consumer-friendly healthcare in more affordable and simpler ways. 

They’ve created products like MedSavvy, an information source for patients and their families that offers easy access to medication choices, quality, costs, and more. Cambia is also the company behind Basefit, a startup designed to improve the health of military personnel and soldiers. 

Behind their enviable success, there’s empathy at play. 

“Most people have a story in healthcare. They may have a family member who’s been through challenges or they have personally, and most people here want to solve those problems,” says Max Janasik, VP of Innovation. 

Many companies merely pay lip service to a culture of participation and problem solving. But at Cambia, Max says, the focus became finding ways to bring people’s ideas to life. 

Critical to achieving this was a key decision the company made years ago, one that profoundly reimagined its identity. 

Cambia’s origin story dates back more than 100 years ago. “We were historically focused on insurance and we needed to figure out a way to diversify and to bring [in] other solutions,” Max says, noting that the business model needed to become both a “buy and acquire culture” and a “maker culture,” as he puts it. 

Alongside a series of mergers, eight years ago Cambia founded a dedicated innovation team dubbed the Innovation Force — a common innovation investment nowadays, but ahead of its time back in 2011. 

“In order to change the culture, we needed a dedicated team, but the team had to be both coaches and players,” says Max. “They couldn’t just be innovation cheerleaders. They couldn’t be folks who didn’t actually practice innovation.”

Mohan Nair was tapped to lead the Innovation Force, and he intentionally built a team of varied backgrounds, healthcare expertise, and career levels. “It was about having a team of people that were multi-disciplinary and diverse in their thinking,” says Nicole Cathcart, Director of Innovation. 

Ideas come in from across the organization, and Nicole estimates there’s over 2,000 ideas in the pipeline right now. 

Together, three different disciplines work to experiment and bring these ideas to life. Information curators report on competitors and market opportunity, business designers evaluate consumer need, and rapid prototypers are left to test technical feasibility and create tangible examples of what’s being built.

With this set up, Cambia does their due diligence on concept validation, however long it may take. And that patience pays off with new ideas that extend beyond the company’s core competencies. The very definition of innovation. 

“We’re taking and breaking an idea down, and we’re wanting to make sure it has a user we’re solving for, an economic buyer, and a material problem worth solving. When those things all strike in the middle, you know you’re onto something,” says Max. 

While the Innovation Force is Cambia’s specific approach to accelerating innovation and internal processes, it’s a powerful example that serves to highlight some key pillars to consider if you’re looking to infuse innovation into your organization.


Why It’s Important for Innovation to be in Your Organization’s DNA

Have innovation in your DNA

By design, Cambia’s culture is shaped around innovation as an obligation, not an option. 

“Innovation is one of our values. It’s the right and responsibility of all of us to practice it,” says Nicole. She goes on to explain that innovation is a mandate from leadership, saying that Mohan, Cambia’s Chief Innovation Officer, stresses “causes are taken, missions are given.” 

In theory, this is a great concept. In practice, it’s easier said than done, particularly at larger companies with clearly-defined departments, tasks, priorities, and roles. Cambia combats these inevitable innovative roadblocks by emphasizing cross-functional collaboration and incentivizing. 

“People in silos tend to think they can’t break out of those to solve problems that require larger context,” notes Ravi Vedanayagam, Director of Innovation. “Innovation busts through that concept and basically says, ‘As an employee, you have the right to walk over to that other silo and get people there to cooperate with you to solve a problem together.’” 

But encouragement alone sometimes isn’t enough to motivate large groups to move in a similar direction. You need to find ways to reward people for participation. 

“We’re taking and breaking an idea down, and we make sure it has a user we’re solving for, an economic buyer, and a material problem worth solving. When those things all strike in the middle, you know you’re onto something.”

-Max Janasik

Somewhat remarkably, Max argues that rewards don’t come in the obvious form of financial incentive, but instead in the promise of making a difference for consumers or healthcare providers. “It’s really about enabling the igniters, the people with ideas, to give them the space, the time, the right environment, and the resources to make their ideas a reality,” he says. 

Igniters are the matches that light the fire. 

“They’re fueled by passion. Something inside of them says, ‘I can change the system,’ and that alone is rewarding for them. At the end of the day, those are the kind of people we see who ultimately can be successful as entrepreneurs or GMs within the new business that we create,” says Max.

Develop teams of nimble, innovation ambassadors across the organization

Incorporating a broad range of stakeholders, sourcing ideas from inside and outside the organization, and quickly validating ideas has been key to avoiding the red tape and bureaucracy that hinders many large organizations. 

According to Nicole, a ton of time is dedicated to engaging with employees and coaching them on developing their ideas. Max echoed Nicole’s thoughts, describing the ideation process at length.

“Across the company, we run different events and challenges. We engage with leaders, and we try to get all leaders to really drive engagement with their teams around encouraging people to share ideas,” he says. 

Cambia has leveraged their most valuable asset to generate ideas internally. 

Their employees. “You need to create a mechanism where employees can communicate and express their ideas. And once they express their ideas, you need to act on them,” says Ravi. “Now you’ve empowered people.”



They also have an idea management system called Spigit that captures every idea that’s submitted. “That kind of keeps a historical record of ideas.” Sounds like a project manager’s dream, but it also serves another critical purpose: Connecting people at all levels of the organization who are interested in similar topics, ideas, and solutions. 

“We note what people have shared before and might be interested in, even if they haven’t worked on an idea directly in the past,” Max explains. “It might not be the right time for every idea, it might not be the right solution, but growing people who are interested in these ideas is really what drives [the program].”

Externally, Max says they spend a lot of time comparing notes with other industries. “What are the best practices that we can learn from? How can we look at an industry like FinTech and combine that with healthcare?” Together with other innovation groups, Cambia evaluates partnerships “where we can create better solutions together.” 

Alpha in particular has been indispensable as Cambia embeds research in every step of the development process and scales the ability to bring credibility to employee ideas. 

“It’s really about enabling the igniters, the people with ideas, to give them the space, the time, the right environment, and the resources to make their ideas a reality.”

-Max Janasik

“Research is changing tremendously because consumers are changing tremendously. You might have gotten away with one or two focus groups in the past. It’s not adequate today to create products that you know your customers really want to use,” says Nicole. With Alpha, Cambia can “talk not just about how much we think this product should move forward, but hear our customers talk about how much they want to use the product.” 

What’s the a-ha moment that foreshadows funding? Nicole laughs when asked the question, as if to indicate an obvious answer. “The goal is to make the product inevitable. When people start talking independently of us, that’s when we know we’ll get it funded.” 


How to Introduce Breakthrough Innovation by Focusing on Outcomes

Invest in outcomes over outputs and results over talk

The engagement results speak for themselves: In 2015, Cambia started measuring how their employees perceived leadership’s support of innovation. At the time, only about 34% of employees agreed with that statement. Four years later, that number has increased to over 88%.

But nowhere is the success of the Innovation Force more evident than in the sheer number of innovation investments that have turned into marketable products — and introduced in a heavily regulated healthcare industry no less. 

We sat down with the team at Cambia to get the story behind one in particular: MedSavvy. Best of all, “the idea came from a single igniter,” says Max. 

That igniter was Sean Karbowicz, a former pharmacist and now General Manager of the product. He was inspired after noticing that most competitors were offering a one-size-fits-all approach to health solutions. 

MedSavvy instead took a customer-centric approach to healthcare. Which is not unlike how the Innovation Force functions across the wider organization. Because of customer-centricity and partnerships with other industries, “the complexity of the products that we’re offering has really changed over the years,” says Nicole.

In fact, the Innovation Force was an invaluable resource for the MedSavvy team, for product development and an introduction to Alpha. Using Alpha, they gathered direct input from consumers that helped evolve the product.

“The goal is to make the product inevitable. When people start talking independently of us, that’s when we know we’ll get funded.” 

Nicole Cathcart

Forget about business-building and revenue generating for a second. If you ask MedSavvy’s patients, the product has already been deemed a success. “What continues to really impress me is when people learn new information and have really good conversations with their doctors and end up on medication that improves their health and saves them money,” Sean says. “And we’ve heard many stories of people having that experience, and that’s unbelievable.”

If innovation were as simple as hiring an innovation lead, setting up an idea incubator, or calling for digital transformation, then Cambia deriving meaningful value from their innovation investments wouldn’t stand out as much as it does. Cambia’s takeaways are a masterclass for any organization looking to follow their lead.

*As of this article’s publication date, Max Janasik is no longer with Cambia. 

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