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Letter from the Chief Innovation Officer: Conversations About Innovation with St. Jude

Jeff Semenchuk discusses what St. Jude and Blue Shield of California learned together while preparing for a SXSW presentation that never came to be

When Blue Shield of California started its focused effort to build innovation capability across the organization, we talked to many companies that created similar groups within their organization. While this was not a new practice for me, it was a new concept for our 81-year-old nonprofit health plan, and we were mining for ideas that would equip our colleagues to innovate effectively—we sometimes refer to this as “teaching them to fish.” One of these organizations was St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and their fundraising and awareness wing – American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC).

jeff semenchuk sq
Jeff Semenchuk

ALSAC was developed in 1957 by Danny Thomas even before St. Jude had opened its first hospital, which occurred five years later in Memphis, Tenn. This was because St. Jude’s mission is to ensure that no child is denied treatment based on race, religion, or a family’s ability to pay, so they needed a robust fundraising plan. Today, it costs $2.8 million a day to provide care and conduct research focused on catastrophic diseases in children, particularly leukemia and cancer.

Like Blue Shield, St. Jude is not driven to do work for a shareholder audience. Instead, they’re working towards aiding the 8,500 children they treat each year. So, their 14-person innovation team, which was created in 2016 and has a transformation plan that spans until 2030, has been able to provide many capabilities and tools to guide colleagues in order to accomplish their enterprise innovation goals.

It’s that transformation work that I was looking forward to discuss on stage at SXSW 2020 with Jay Jump, Executive Director of Business Transformation & Innovation at ALSAC, until the event was cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns.

Still, St. Jude’s learnings are too precious to keep under wraps and I’d like to share some of the key themes behind their innovation success.

  • Finding a focus:
    • This means having a clear mission – a strong, well-defined “North Star” to drive all efforts, set ambitious targets, and develop and communicate a clear strategy, as we have done at Blue Shield. Then execute on the priorities that the organization can rally around, which means we don’t just innovate for innovation’s sake. We need tangible work done to push the needle forward.

Here’s an example of our Strategy on a Page which is driving forces that inform our decisions:

  • Establishing an approach:
    • We need to recognize that innovation is a team sport (both internally and externally) and it’s likely we won’t get it right the first time. What’s needed are human-centered design process and pilot programs and partnerships that can iterate and collaborate with people outside our organizations to create tangible impact. Some people would call this “fail fast” while others might call this “learn fast.”  

Our work with IDEO to create Future State Journey Maps for four different segments – member / employer (client), physician (partner), and colleague (co-workers) allowed for us identify what the utopian experience is for people in each of these population segments through extensive user research and cross-functional collaboration. We want Blue Shield to grow with each group as they go through life and have different needs to be met by their insurer, and our journey map work helps guide our initiatives to ensure we’re focusing on the right programs for these audience segments.

  • Ensuring diversity and inclusion:
    • Seeking diverse perspectives is essential to this kind of work. If you have a team of similar people together - background, job function, etc. – it is unlikely that you are designing for a holistic pool of people. If design thinking is what we’re after, limiting sameness is necessary to create approaches that speak to lots of different people!
  • Promoting adoption and engagement:
    • Storytelling makes this whole process human – what has and hasn’t worked within our organizations and for other notable companies. This helps with connecting the dots on why this work is important and how it all ties together, which hopefully creates believers in the process as a result.


We have done this with Innovation in Action profiles on colleagues excelling in experimenting and creating change, Conversations About Innovation with leaders in other industries sharing what has and hasn’t worked for other large companies, as well as new initiatives that allows us to crowdsource great ideas from Blue Shield employees through BlueTank, Innovation Challenges, and Hackathon.

These are just few of the important themes that organizations should keep in mind when they place innovation at the heart of their efforts to transform. And this is also true here at Blue Shield of California, where our north star is to create a health care system that is worthy of our family and friends and sustainably affordable.

Jeff Semenchuk, is chief innovation officer at Blue Shield of California. His presentation with St. Jude, Inside Out: How Culture Drives Innovation, was set to take place at SXSW on Monday, March 16th in Austin, Texas.


St. Jude treats 8,500 children a year at a cost of $2.8 million a day