These are extraordinarily difficult times for insurers to grow their business, with the United States and Europe struggling to jump-start their economies and a double-dip recession still not out of the question.

But the economy is not the sole obstacle confronting carriers. There’s also the more fundamental need to change how the industry does business to meet rapidly evolving consumer expectations in terms of products, distribution, service and technology.

To succeed in this demanding environment, insurers will need to come up with creative strategies to generate growth. At the same time, they must keep striving to improve operational excellence to squeeze costs out of the system and adapt to domestic and global regulatory reforms.

The pressure is also on for insurers to differentiate themselves in a very competitive market by driving innovation in products and services, defending their brands, and winning the war for talent.

These are achievable goals—and worth pursing since insurers cannot afford to merely hunker down and wait for a broad economic rebound to boost their bottom lines. Indeed, it’s looking as if high unemployment, low interest rates and a volatile investment market may be the “new normal” for quite some time to come.

Therefore, companies should remain on the offensive by rethinking and reshaping the status quo so they can excel no matter what state the economy is in.

While achieving growth, operational excellence and innovation in such a difficult economic and competitive environment might be easier said than done, opportunities are available for insurers that seize the moment and keep growing throughout what could turn out to be a very difficult decade ahead.

One option is to attract new customers as well as take market share away from competitors by tweaking existing products and launching new ones. On a broader basis, carriers can reevaluate their distribution systems, revisit their marketing strategies and consider reinventing their customer experience.

Another possibility is to expand into emerging markets. Indeed, with the U.S. and Western European economies failing to deliver consistent, large-scale growth, it’s only natural for insurers to consider potentially greener pastures in faster-growing countries, including giants such as China, India and Brazil, as well as smaller economies with upside potential such as Colombia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey and Vietnam.

While there are often obstacles to overcome in foreign markets—including local regulatory hurdles, infrastructure and distribution challenges, tax considerations as well as cultural differences—the need for insurance coverage to meet the financial-security demands of an expanding middle class and private-sector business community could provide significant growth opportunities for those with the resources and capabilities to capitalize on them.

A third option is to expand by merging with or buying other carriers. Indeed, the time appears to be ripe for more consolidation in insurance, which still suffers from excess capital, bargain pricing after years of cuts in P&C rates, and low returns on investment for both life and non-life carriers.

Merger volume was indeed on the rise in 2011. However, deals tended to be strategic, bolt-on acquisitions, with buyers adding new product lines and distribution channels as well as expanding their geographic reach into emerging markets internationally. Sellers, on the other hand, shored up their bottom lines by divesting non-core or underperforming books of business and subsidiaries while withdrawing from foreign markets where they lacked sufficient scale.

Still, with more carriers undergoing strategic reviews for potential M&As of late, the stage is perhaps being set for an uptick in bigger deals in 2012, particularly if organic growth remains as challenging as is expected over the short to medium term.

Last but not least, technology can also be a game-changer for insurers, whether it’s to add new capacity or functionality via cloud computing, enhance their internal and external communications ability via social media, expand their use of predictive analytics, or capitalize on the vast potential of Web and mobile applications.

There are no easy answers for insurers looking to grow their businesses in this difficult environment. Whether a carrier chooses to launch a new product line or reinvent an existing one; expand abroad through a joint venture or acquire an existing operation closer to home; add a new technology in-house or enhance their tech capabilities via a third-party cloud; branch out with a new distribution system or revamp the one they already employ—there will be obstacles to overcome and risks to take.

Yet even in economic conditions as challenging as these, insurers can make an impact on their own initiative through sound, strategic investments to secure growth, achieve operational excellence and drive innovation.

The main ingredient is a willingness to remain proactive rather than maintain the status quo and hope for overall economic conditions to improve. While the economy no doubt has a major impact on insurer growth, carriers need not wait for a rising tide to lift all boats to bolster their bottom lines.