“It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.”
A few years ago, Brent Dixon taught me an ice-breaker exercise. He kicks off an event by having audience members draw a picture of the person sitting next to them. Then, participants are to stand up, show the picture, and tell the group about who they drew. The response is usually some combination of giggles, disgust, and “are you serious?” looks of exasperation. While the event is certainly funny for the facilitator, it can be downright uncomfortable for the participants.
Failure sucks. If anyone can testify to that, it’s me. So, when someone who isn’t very good at drawing, or simply doesn’t think she is good at drawing, is asked to create a picture with pen and paper it feels like she is being asked to fail—in front of her peers, no less.
Recently, I amended this exercise. After the drawing and introductions, I ask a simple question: “how many of you are artists?” Typically, I can expect one or two hands to go up in an audience of fifty. I follow up with: “How many do you think would go up in a kindergarten class?” The answer is almost always, “All of them.”
Something happens between childhood and adulthood. We learn that criticism hurts. We learn that when we pour ourselves into something, we become vulnerable. We learn that putting our best foot forward means hiding all of our imperfections. We learn that it’s hard to learn how to do new things. We learn that it’s better to be satisfied with “good enough” than to risk our reputations from the failure that a new approach may introduce.
Alas, we’re drawn to a “best practices” mentality—credit unions, vendors, and each of us as individuals. It’s natural. It’s understandable.
It’s ruining us.
This past week Tim McAlpine and I traveled to San Francisco to attend the Launch Festival. We eat, sleep, and breathe credit unions, so it was awkward to sit in an audience filled with developers, startups, and venture capitalists while my Facebook and Twitter streams were overtaken by my friends at CUNA’s GAC. Not only did I feel like I was missing out (on friends, new connections, and educational content), I was being exposed to new terminology, types of people, and ways of thinking that made me feel out of place. We met millionaires younger than my baseball cap. We heard from a doctor who found a way to create real baby heart ventricles and heart tissue from fat cells. We watched a live broadcast of TWiT’s “This Week in Tech,” the brainchild of Leo LaPorte, which is downloaded 800k times each week. We visited the campuses of Facebook, Google, and Apple—young companies that have transformed their markets (and worth a combined $1 trillion).
It’s easy to leave an experience like this and feel like an underachiever. Inadequate. A failure. It’s easy to use others’ successes to highlight our own shortcomings. It would have been much more comfortable to surround myself with familiar subjects, people, and political structures. I could have left this event filled with doubt, regret, and defeat. Instead, I left energized. I left thinking “if they can do it, so can we.”
Here are some themes that we can easily apply right now in credit unions:
- If you want to be a better credit union, find the best people… where they are. The resumes of the people at the Launch festival were unreal. These were the biggest brains in the world of technology and entrepreneurship. The people behind the one and only booth set up to recruit that talent may have been the smartest. If your credit union is going to improve, develop an archetype of the perfect employee, and discover the best place to find a large number of people who fit that description. Seems obvious, but credit unions (and most companies) don’t do it.
- Be a great presenter. It was amazing to see how many great technologies and ideas failed at Launch simply because of how they were presented. It doesn’t matter how good your credit union is if you can’t communicate how, and why people should care.
- Your idea, by itself, doesn’t matter. A 48-hour pre-conference hack-a-thon produced dozens of working technologies that have a decent chance at success. If your credit union doesn’t bring its ideas to life, someone else will. Ideas don’t matter, action does.
- They're aiming for you. Several new ideas are taking direct aim at financial services. Coin, Credible, and Knox, are all ideas that credit unions could (should?) have brought to life. Financial services innovation is happening outside our walls, instead of inside them. How much longer will those walls exist?
- A foot in the water doesn’t cut it. These entrepreneurs put everything into their ideas. 80-hour weeks and all of their life savings are on the line. They truly believe that their ideas can improve people’s lives, and failure is not an option. They’re all in. Are you?
I also discovered some really neat technology that we’re going to put to use right away at the CU Water Cooler Symposium. We’re really proud of the Symposium, but make sure we change it up somehow every year. This year, for example, we’ll allow five audience members to perform a PechaKucha on stage. In 2012, we turned the event into an interactive game (and invited the American Bankers Association’s Keith Leggett to speak). The first three years of the event, we allowed the public to pick a guest speaker through a “Be a Speaker” contest. These, and the countless other ideas we have tried, all had the potential to end poorly (and some of them did). And the new venue, technology, and presentation styles we try may fail as well.
But artists can’t worry about failure.
Matt Davis is the co-founder of 6th Story, LLC and CU Water Cooler. He's a leading thinker, writer, speaker, and creator in the credit union world. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with his wife and two sons.