Many bank leaders I talk to are very aware of the importance of innovation in the face of a fast-paced, changing environment. Yet, they have trouble promoting change and adopting more modern and efficient processes and technology — contributing to the struggle of making their bank more innovative. While every institution is slightly different, I wanted to share a few practical approaches to achieve internally led innovation that were very effective during my 12 years at Alphabet’s Google and another six working with the most innovative community and regional banks.
A recent survey from McKinsey & Co. found that 84% of CEOs understand innovation is imperative to achieve growth, yet a mere 6% are satisfied with the level of innovation within their organizations. These numbers reinforce that executives have the desire to promote innovation, but continue to struggle with execution and strategy.
One of the main problems I see institutions having in their typical approaches to innovation is the reliance on external paid consultants instead of activating an existing resource within their bank: their own employees. Employees already have a deep understanding of issues that both they and customers experience with the existing services and technology stack and are in a unique position to generate ideas for improvements. Not to mention they are also highly motivated to drive these innovations to a successful completion.
Embracing this approach of where the innovation most likely comes will enable bank leadership to focus on creating an environment that is conducive for innovation. Here are three practical suggestions executives and boards should consider:
1. Make it “Safe” to Fail
The foundation of a successful bank business model includes managing risk, such as balancing the downside of defaulting loans with the benefit of interest income on performing loans. And just like it is impossible to benefit from interest income without risking the principle, it is not possible to innovate without trying some things that, in retrospect, do not work out as originally planned.
The key here is to make sure everyone in the organization knows it’s OK to try things and sometimes fail. Without trial and error, there is no reward. Organizations that minimize the negativity around failure and view it as an opportunity to become better are often the ones that are able to move forward and innovate.
2. Encourage “Bottom-Up” Ideation
Most are familiar with “top-down” change that stems from leadership teams and management. However, this approach makes it harder to innovate; in many cases, it ignores the unique context that front line employees have gleaned. These employees use the bank software and speak with customers, giving them a unique and very valuable perspective. They know what is causing pain and what modifications and improvements would make customers happier. The key to promoting innovation is to extend the opportunity for ideation to all employees in a “bottom-up” approach, allowing their voices to be heard while embracing and appreciating their creativity and insight.
Giving employees a safe space to voice their ideas and an opportunity to provide feedback is at the core of innovation. Executives can achieve this by shifting the organizational process from a one-pass, top-down approach to a two or more-pass approach. This is front line employees can propose ideas that management reviews and vice versa: management proposals are reviewed by the same front line employees for feedback. Management proposals’ are then refined to reflect the employee feedback. This allows management to incorporate all relevant context and makes everyone feels part of the process.
3. Enable an Agile Approach
While planning everything down to the smallest detail may seem like the safer option, it is important that boards and management teams accept that the unexpected is inevitable. Rather than trying to foresee every aspect, it is important to incorporate an agile mindset. An agile approach starts small and observes, adjusts course based on those observations and continues to course correct through repeated observation/adjustment steps. This allows the organization to absorb the unforeseen while still continually making progress. Over time, the pressure to be correct all the time will dissipate; the bank will feel more in control and enabled to make appropriate adjustments to increase the chances of the best possible outcome.
The rate of change around us and within financial services is steadily increasing; it is impossible to predict and plan for what will happen in the next few years. Instead, it is crucial that bank boards and management teams embrace adaptability as a critical element of corporate survival.