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Revving up your innovation engine: the heart and soul

This is the second article in a 2 part series. You can read the first part here.
In looking at the macro landscape, it’s evident that many traditional financial services organizations have picked up a clear call to arms. They are re-thinking, re-imagining, and disrupting their own business to keep pace with the level of change driven by technology and customer expectations. Labs, innovation centers, incubators, and accelerators are ubiquitous among top and mid-tier financial institutions. Many of them have their own science around placing bets and enabling test and learn within their organization (i.e., the 'Focus' and 'Enable' parts of the Innovation Engine - Figure A). However, not all of them place equal value on the second half ('Foster' and 'Connect' of the innovation engine), which focuses not on the science, but rather the art of fostering an innovation culture that emphasizes building bridges through multiple connection points.
Figure A: Innovation Engine
Fostering a culture of innovation might sound challenging given the time change management takes. The great news is that there are easy-to-implement tactics that allow you to score some quick wins for your innovation team as well as the broader organization. Figure B highlights two examples.
Figure B: Two Quick Wins for Fostering a Culture of Innovation
  What was the concept you tested? Why did you test it? What did you learn? Sharing metrics, or better yet, sharing customer verbatims can be really powerful mechanisms to bring home the value of the concept. Fidelity Labs does a fantastic job at describing innovation journeys on their website. You can view areas of opportunity where they are focused, as well as success stories through their comprehensive list of case studies.

You can also gather immediate feedback on your activities through the process of storytelling. In my previous role at Wells Fargo, the team showcased demos through the innovation lab, and also took the show on the road at various off-sites. The original intent was to present our innovations. However, very quickly, we realized that these forums were valuable for gathering immediate commentary from employees – what do you think about this concept? Do you think your customers would use this? Thumbs up or thumbs down? What could make this better?

Another aspect of fostering an innovation culture is leveraging the power of the crowd for ideas. This can be done through idea forums – think My Starbucks Idea. It can also be done through less onerous mechanisms that aren’t as resource-intense – think hackathons and design-a-thons where developers, designers, and product teams come together to make, tinker, and create around a problem statement. Simpler yet, just gather a cross-functional group of employees who happen to be available, grab a conference room, and have a quick brainstorm around a particular customer or business problem.

Connecting the dots across the organization is really about building bridges, internally and externally, to create a network effect around innovation. You don’t know what you don’t know, so making sure you view different internal stakeholders as part of your innovation constellation is critical to staying connected to key enterprise partners. For instance, there’s no single group that can know everything about the needs of different lines of business customers. So, having the right partners in the lines of business, collaborating with them on ideas, and co-sponsoring pilots, both generates goodwill and ensures that there’s mutual skin in the game when placing bets – no matter how large or small.

Similarly, from an external perspective, it’s always good to keep a pulse on what’s happening outside of the organization. Providing thought leadership around key macro trends and reporting back to the organization is one such way of connecting the dots from outside and bringing it back in. Probably the most powerful way is by making connections with other innovation groups either in financial services, or outside of the industry. Visiting other labs or innovation centers and having a conversation around how you approach innovation and even sharing use cases around innovation agendas can shed light on new customer problems and business opportunities.

In focusing on innovation culture and networks of internal and external partners, you are able to disseminate the job of innovation across the enterprise, rather than contain it to a small subset of employees who get to do the 'cool stuff'. You begin to build the bridges needed to sustain a healthy innovation pipeline and establish relationships that inspire new ideas, while helping you understand the pros and cons of existing concepts. This part of the engine is focused less on methodology and process and more on soft skills – building trust, listening, gathering feedback, making sense of the data, connecting ideas, diverging and converging on new opportunities.

A continuous journey.
Start with the development of an innovation agenda, sustain it by activating on concepts through a healthy pipeline, and continuously feed the engine with additional ideas brought in from your network of enterprise stakeholders, inspired by external communities. Most importantly, enjoy the journey as you celebrate the wins, learn from the losses, and ultimately launch new innovations that drive value for your customers and for your business.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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