How to Spur Enterprise-Wide Innovation

By David Peterson

I have just walked off the stage at a regional banking association conference. I spent 60 minutes encouraging financial institution executives to “think about how they think” and to get a spark of innovation started at their institution. Now chatting with attendees, the question they most frequently ask is, “How can I get innovation started at my organization?”

The answer depends on what your role is in the institution and how free you are to innovate.

If you are the CEO and you want innovation to flourish, you have the power and resources to make it happen. As you get further down the org chart, your ability to innovate may depend on how much your boss or supervisor values innovation. I believe each person working at a financial institution falls into one of three innovation categories:

  • You are completely free to innovate (within reason).
  • You have a desire to innovate but are being blocked from innovation by someone higher up in the organization.
  • You are the innovation roadblock.

If you are free to innovate and are not doing so, what’s stopping you?

Regardless of whether you are the CEO, a mid-manager or just a hard-working cube farm associate, there are opportunities for innovation all around you. All it takes is action on your part.

If you are eager to innovate but are being blocked, then step back and examine what is being blocked. Are you asking for a significant budget or wanting to do something that may be difficult to explain? Many times, innovation is blocked because the amount of money involved is too high, the innovator has not articulated his idea clearly, or the benefit of said innovation is unclear.

If you are not getting approval for large budget items, then start smaller.

Find some areas where no money would be needed to innovate. Chances are, if you are not spending money, you may not need anyone’s approval to innovate. Show you can be successful in small innovations, and your superiors are likely to be more receptive to your bigger ideas. And, if you are not presenting your ideas well, you need to boost your speaking ability. Toastmasters is a well-regarded and accessible way to greatly improve your speaking and presentation skills—there are chapters everywhere, even in rural areas.

But, if you are the one blocking innovation, stand aside.

Take a deep introspective look at your stance on innovation and decide if it is healthy for the long-term success of your organization.

If you manage the budget, then work with potential innovators to find ways to say yes. Help them find smaller budget projects to begin, so they can prove their innovation skills. By stifling innovation, you are negating the prospect of someone in your organization creating something truly revolutionary.

To those who would say there are some really bad ideas promoted as innovation, I understand. Not all ideas are huge winners. But when you are the roadblock, shutting down ideas unless there is a guaranteed win, you are training those below you to stop innovating. And it won’t matter how much you encourage innovation if your actions do not back up that admonition. What you do shouts so loud they will not hear what you say.

So, what should innovators try to accomplish?

You should spend time and energy (or encourage others) to find innovative ways to achieve the following:

  1. Reduce cost of operation.
  2. Generate additional revenue.
  3. Create a new product or service.
  4. Improve the customer experience.

Pick something small to start—say a seven-step process that has been executed many times each week for years. Can you evaluate each of those steps and see if they are still necessary? Eliminating even one step out of a multi-step process can add up to significant time savings.

Suppose you determined that a step taking one minute could be eliminated from a process done 250 times a week across your enterprise. That equals about 217 man-hours in a year’s time. Not earth shattering but still meaningful. Now those 217 hours can be used to focus on other innovations to reduce costs or improve customer experience.

Small innovations lead to other small innovations, which lead to medium innovations, and soon you are tackling big innovations.

If one person starts, others will see the impact and take notice, particularly if that employee is lauded and rewarded for her efforts. Don’t punish anyone that fails. Innovation is risky business and failure is sure to be a part. Accept those failures as learning lessons and make sure that failures are not repeated. If you learn from a mistake and continue thinking and innovating, the end result will be a positive one.

One other point: make innovation a part of the annual review process.

I was recently chatting with a client from a midwestern financial institution, and she told me she had added an innovation element to their annual review. They are telling their employees in the most direct, non-ambiguous way possible that the organization values innovation. When someone’s raise or bonus is predicated, at least in part, on how much they innovated, you will see innovation flourish.

Be the spark of innovation, regardless of where you sit on the org chart. Raise your hand, have an idea, get to work, and come up with meaningful results.

Don’t exaggerate your success, but be prepared to give an account of how your innovation saved time, saved money, created something new, or improved the customer experience. You may not get immediate kudos for your innovation, but keep innovating. Your creativity and ideas will get noticed in the long run. And, even if they are not, you can know you are making a difference—a tangible difference—for your organization and the customers you serve.

David Peterson is chief strategic officer at i7strategies, a consulting and strategic planning firm specializing in financial institutions and the companies that serve them.