I bet your bank has a standardised innovation process. Maybe an innovation idea portal and associated management platform? There are criteria, stage-gates and proof points, pre-agreed, approved and standardised so that the innovation process can be managed, governed and held to account like any other department within your bank.
As innovation folks, we follow the process, of course, and we go through the motions, of course. But if you look closely, you will find us retro-fitting a lot, and doing stuff out of sequence a lot, and building big dreams out of the smallest possible activities all the time. The truth is, the process is for you. The truth is, this kind of process doesn’t work. If it did, you wouldn’t need innovation as a function. The truth is, you want the benefits of change, but not the messy journey of getting there. And for us, the reality of getting change to stick in a bank is much more confrontational, much more chaotic, much less managed, much more frustrating, and a lot more fun that the process we all pay lip-service to suggests.
And you, banker colleagues, fight us every step of the way. Consciously and unconsciously, by mocking and belittling, by making us jump through time-wasting and unnecessary hoops, by failing to ask any important questions, yet insisting we answer a million irrelevant ones before you allow us to do what we were hired to do; by insisting that the new world needs to feel like the old, but look and “do new” at the same time. To do the job you hired us to do, we need to fight you. So we do. We do what it takes – whatever it takes.
You want to get a new thing done in a bank? Don’t tell how big your vision is. Ask for the smallest possible thing to get you on your big way. Don’t give people big chunks to digest. Don’t make them carry your vision. Don’t lie – never lie – but don’t bore or scare them into inaction. Keep your ask small and light. The grand narrative is for the board, the clients and the media. Save it for them.
When asking people to say yes to things in the office, make them as small as can be. And always take the burden of responsibility for whatever may go wrong. And take the burden of responsibility for stitching things together when the time comes.
Also, there’s the hierarchy and the appropriate levels of ownership within the structure. And there’s what you know about people. The guy who will build a prototype on his train ride home; the gal in risk who has the imagination to digest anything you throw her way and help you ring-fence and do it right (she is a real person by the way – her name is Katey and I miss working with her).
There’s the team that will build a low-fidelity prototype with kitchen roll and sticky tape. There’s the boss who will use their sign-off authority strategically to incrementally get you as far as you can go without fearing taking ownership; without hiding behind escalations and premature alignments. There are the people who will get this done because of who they are, not where they are. Go to them. Go to them first. Go to them always. They are your tribe. They are the ones you do this for and the ones you do this with.
Championing radical change, doing more, and living with unanswered questions is in nobody’s job description no matter how much organisations try to talk about innovation becoming part of our DNA. So why would anyone spend any time on innovation? Why would they work longer on things that are harder, and that most colleagues will not support because it’s more and harder work? One of two reasons:
- They may do it for themselves because you can help them make it work for their career; because you will help them get exposure; because you will help them learn, and you need to be aware of this and you need to be OK with this.
- They may do it for you because they trust you; because you’ve been a good colleague and you asked; because they like working with what you bring. People will do it for you, so remember to deserve that love, whatever you do. Every word you say in the office needs to make you worthy of this.
Be authentic, be present, be bold, be unafraid to ask, and remember your integrity is your biggest asset. Remember that when you fight the unnecessary fights in the boardroom, and when the chips are down, your colleagues will do things for you. Not for the firm. For you. Remember to always be the person people would do things for.
You will never have enough resources or enough decision-maker mindshare. ‘Piggy back’ is the name of the game. Regulation is your friend, as it sets an agenda you can leverage to borrow some of its urgent momentum, or add the flavour of value creation on top of necessity. Client needs are gospel – you can use them to shape your innovation agenda and gain urgency, and justify the value of what you advocate.
Competitor launches or fines, executives’ pet topics and favourite themes – whatever it is that shapes a transformational agenda or ties your agenda to a cause championed by a greater force, borrow it without shame or compunction. Tie your colours to every mast that stands strong, tall and visible.
Innovation touches every aspect of the business and operations. Don’t be a purist. Go where there’s mindshare. It’s not opportunism – it’s good sense. Innovation is often seen as a side-of-desk exercise, as something to be done on top of normal, ‘real’ work. If people are focusing on something and you show you can be aligned with that priority, willing and able to help, adding value where it matters, you don’t only stop being an extra thing to be done, you become useful. And when you’re useful, you’re listened to.
Lend your energy, creativity and never say die approach to the causes (if not the methods) that matter to your organisation. And borrow their visibility, as often as you need to – until you become one of those causes yourself. One caveat: your help has to be genuine. The value you add needs to be realised. This cannot be PR.
Steal people’s throwaway comments, steal their cynicism, steal the last thing they said and make it a hitch for your work. That thing they said can’t get done? What if it can? That thing they just said is important but has no budget? Invite them into your world of making something out of nothing. That thing they said last time you met? You were listening, you heard the hidden depth and had this idea, on the back of their comment, their concern, their frustration with the inadequacy of the options they are presented with. Steal the words and turn them into doorways.
Walk in holding aloft your ideas and say, “Hey, isn’t this yours? I’m sure that’s what you were talking about.” There’s no praise to be had, nor prizes. If the ideas stand a chance of survival, they will find foster homes in the business lines. If you’re doing this for the glory, you’re in the wrong job.
So there you are. There is a process, and we do as we must by it. Yet, all around it, we do what it takes to get things going, to keep them moving, and to make them stick. We’re gluttons for punishment. We are geeks. We believe that better tech, greater agility and higher commitment to human-centric design is better for our colleagues and our customers. We believe in this stuff – in a world of cynics. So we come back and do what it takes, day after day. All is fair in love and war, they say. And this is both.
READ NEXT: Managing innovation in banking
Image by sunshadow, Shutterstock.com