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In Hot Pursuit of

Anthem’s David Crean makes innovation part
of the corporate DNA


Tell us about your role and responsibilities as Innovation Leader at Anthem, Inc.

I joined Anthem in May 2015 with the express goal to establish, build and grow an innovation capability. Since then, we’ve developed the people, the process and the place to seek and generate innovative ideas—inside and outside of Anthem—and bring them to life and to market. We encourage ideation by engaging business leaders and associates from across Anthem in how they can be part of innovation. We’re delivering a constant pipeline of innovation initiatives and bringing them to market through our 6,500-square-foot Innovation Studio at Technology Square in midtown Atlanta.

Describe the work that happens at the Innovation Studio.

All ideas go through a five-stage process through which they are progressively brought to life: Ideate, shape, define, execute and scale. We clearly identify the roles and responsibilities for those on each project. For instance, is a person on a project there to inform, consult, or are they responsible or accountable for progress? This is really important in a cross-functional matrix. There is always an innovation director who works with business leaders to identify and prioritize innovative ideas. On the business side, there is an initiative owner. The two are attached at the hip for any innovation we bring through the Innovation Studio.

Nearly every week, for two days, we have innovation workshops where a cross-functional group of 25-30 people go through a design thinking workshop to advance their ideas. The most promising ideas are then advanced through the innovation process by a multi-disciplinary team from across the business. These innovations range from practical innovations to more transformational and disruptive innovations. They also range from process improvements to digital solutions and emerging technologies. And they’re not just focused on one constituent. One may be consumer-focused; another may be provider-, employer- or broker-focused.

How has the culture responded to the innovation capability?

It has been very well received. We source ideas through an open ideation platform. Any associate can submit an idea through this crowdsourcing platform and feel part of the innovation happening. Typically about 50 people from across the organization touch every initiative. There’s an opportunity for associates from different areas of the company to get involved and bring the idea to life. Involvement in an innovation initiative becomes a source of pride. It really shifts the culture because people believe their ideas matter, and they are part of the innovation happening at Anthem.

What do you see as some of the biggest obstacles to innovation for health plans?

The challenge is that health plans are very large companies with lots of operational legacy systems. How do you transform and disrupt when so much energy goes into serving such a large customer base and keeping the operation functioning well? How do you become more disruptive if you are too tied into the current paradigm of the business?

Companies must also determine what innovation means to them. Is it making something more automated or digital, or do you really want to disrupt the existing business and operating model? It’s important to proactively define what innovation means to the business and focus on ideas that support that mission, or you’ll forever be chasing a never-ending number of ideas.

"Innovation means different things to different people. One company might view innovation as a venture fund, another might view it as an accelerator, another might view it as idea crowdsourcing, another might view it as design thinking workshops. None of these are wrong, right, good or bad. They are just flavors of innovation."

What can health plans, or any large health organization, do to make innovation part of the culture?

I’ve developed what I call the flavors of innovation. In speaking to dozens of Fortune 500 corporations, I’ve learned that innovation means different things to different people. One company might view innovation as a venture fund, another might view it as an accelerator, another might view it as idea crowdsourcing, another might view it as design thinking workshops. None of these are wrong, right, good or bad. They are just flavors of innovation.

What is important to consider when choosing the flavors of innovation for your company, is to ensure it aligns with your mission, your risk tolerance level and your funding level.

Are there any current or historical innovators that you admire?

Of course the legendary historic ones. Today, Elon Musk is a good example of a disruptive, blue-sky innovator. But going back to the flavors, corporate innovators don’t have to be a certain way. Maybe rather than being a blue-sky disruptor, the business might need an innovator that is able to navigate a large corporation, innovate and persuade people within the operational construct. One who can ensure innovations get into the fabric of the company.

What are your sources of inspiration when it comes to innovation?

We have many sources of inspiration in our industry when it comes to consumer engagement. We can learn from others. For instance, think about Amazon. How often do you need to call a 1-800 number to ask when your package has shipped, or to inquire about its status? They keep you abreast proactively. That can be a source of inspiration to insurance—proactively inform people. What if we apply that thinking to claims status or premium payments? So we look for inspiration in small, basic ways and ask why wouldn’t that have applicability to our world?

What do you like most about your job?

I like bringing a-ha moments into our industry and company. I also like being entrepreneurial and innovative within the construct of a large company. I like working with a fast-paced team whose job it is to challenge the status quo.

Do you have any special hobbies or interests?

I’m passionate about children and children’s causes, and the causes of the underserved. Some of these include Mercy Care Atlanta, which provides healthcare to the poor and marginalized; Central Men’s Shelter serving Atlanta’s homeless; The Cristo Rey School, which prepares underserved youth for college success; and Mustard Seed Communities, which provides lifelong residential care to children and adults with disabilities in Nicaragua.

I have three young adult children. When I have free time, I enjoy outdoor activities such as hiking, bike riding, paddle boarding and kayaking.