I had brought no earth shattering "wow" or wild idea. It was simple. A pragmatic approach that wouldn't require anyone to go too far out of his or her comfort zone, or even push any limits. It was very doable. It was what I had come to know as "very credit union."
I had seen great ideas put forth here before, some maybe my own, and I had heard plenty of talk about how something could or couldn't be done. But rarely had I seen a whole lot of anything really awesome getting done. It's just how things went. The fellow I worked with on this with and myself were a couple of the biggest dreamers in the place, and we both could get a lot done, but we were a little jaded. Building out awesome ideas with great potential had generally been met with the same old things done in the same old fashion. Well, maybe with a new logo.
So there we were, offering a pragmatic, simple, applicable solution, with low risk and pretty readily seen results. Perfect. It's what we have come to do. It's what nearly everyone does. It got us this far, right?
"Our innovation is a joke"
"Our innovation is a joke," was the president's reply to the pitch. Yea, man. He now saw, like few too many others, that the status quo was getting too risky, limiting, and not really the answer to a world that changes in days, not decades. He was honest enough to look at the reality of an industry in flux, and asked for an honest answer to a very real question—what can we do to survive and prosper? Not just now, but 10 or twenty years from now. He was not limiting his view to perceptions formed by years of success and the traditional, head-in-the-sand ignorance of the financial services industry.
Reality. It happens. And unfortunately, it is all-too-often veiled by the perceptions of what we think we are, rather than what we actually are. We are a growing organization claiming innovation as a core competency, but the reality was, we weren't innovative at all. Creative, smart and successful? We had that covered pretty well. And if nothing else, a group of real smart people can be real eloquent so we always sound good. But Innovative? Eh, no. We just weren’t there.
So, the president told us to come back with a "platform for innovation." We did. After one week, 20 hours of meetings, and a lot of investigation, we had a plan. This grand scheme would have us divorce from 30 combined years of successful creative/design management, communications, web development and marketing support. We'd devote our time to look beyond our walls, our industry and ourselves to build a focused, dedicated effort into true innovation. If we knew nothing else, we knew hard work, dedication and a passion brings success. You have to think like a winner.
Twenty minutes into that presentation, the plan was a go. We became full-time innovation strategists. Our task was getting this "core competency" of innovation up and rolling. To look for the opportunities and answers that would help us move forward, scan the horizon for the pitfalls that would hold us back, and seek ways to ensure our future as a viable financial institution. It's pretty obvious, things are coming at this industry from everywhere.
Well, thirteen months have passed, and a few things have stood out in a big way. And not just for me; for everyone I've encountered that's involved with innovation.
If you don't have executive buy-in, continue with what you were doing. The only reason we are having any success at all is that the CEO gets it. He knows traditional ways, no matter how successful they have been, can not be looked to as an answer for the challenges of the future. It helps if the Board grasps the concept as well; maybe then they'll support the CEO. You need a friend at the top.
Find your allies. Not everyone will get it. Not everyone will want to and so many will resent you for spending your time researching, discovering and playing. Others will see the value and will help you get points on the board. Embrace these people and be sure they know you appreciate their support. And there's a good chance they'll appreciate you more than you appreciate them.
If you don't like roller coasters, don't get on one. I say this because the highs are really high and the lows are really low. And it can cycle through a couple times in just a day. At least half a dozen times I have asked myself why I got myself into this and why did I leave something I was very comfortable—and good at—doing. But, at least ten times I have thanked the powers that be for making me the lucky guy doing this. Given those numbers, I feel I'm still winning, but you should know this is not a smooth ride.
And just a couple keywords:
Momentum. Keep moving even if someone (and there will likely be many) tries to hold you back with his or her sensibilities. You're a pioneer and must push on as such!
Patience. You need it. I don't have it, my partner does. He seems healthier. Things in real life don't always move at the pace we'd like them, and it can be frustrating. Be patient and don't let it take away from your drive to succeed.
Humor. Laugh through good times and bad. Well, that or cry. And in this field, whiners go home with nothing. But that pretty much fits all of life, doesn't it?
I know. We're tremendously fortunate our president and board see the value of staff dedicated to innovation. Most don't have that. But in looking to find ways to embrace the future, you're reading this blog. You're looking outside your sandbox. Take that, go forth and do good work. Be relentless. And seize opportunity when and where you can—you just never know how a meeting may turn out.
Michael Spink is an Innovation Strategist with Local Government Federal Credit Union in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is a father, husband, communicator, cooperator, foodie, dreamer, antagonist, cheerleader, innovator and doer. Forever indebted to my wife and kids, friends and associates, cooperatives, Filene's i3 group, and my most awesome partner Lamar, because each and every one helps me see life and work through a different lens each and every day... and that's just cool.