Until several months ago, I was in charge of digital at Vancity, and I saw innovation linked inextricably to technology. I shared the concerns of many in financial services who looked at the disrupters in our industry and felt great concern about what I saw as a lack of systemic innovation amongst credit unions. We needed to modernize our approach to be relevant to new members.
In my new role in community investment, I have a different vantage point. I am still concerned about the lack of innovation within credit unions, but for very different reasons. I am far less concerned with the disrupters outside, and far more concerned with the lack of focus and vision within.
In my digital role I was constantly bombarded with sales pitches. There were around-the-clock emails and calls from venders telling me that I must focus on something new. CRM, BYOD, ERM, LOS, the acronyms were endless. If I listened to all of these people Vancity would be on every social media platform ever created, regardless of how many of our members were using that platform. It was a giant buffet, and the choices and options were paralyzing. It looked and smelled a little like innovation, but it was about technology solutions, not really about innovation.
Innovation is a form of creativity, an aptitude for looking at a situation and seeing a way to solve a problem differently than you previously relied on, and hopefully differently from your competitors. And in order to unleash creativity, you need limitations.
When I was a filmmaker many, many moons ago, I had two good friends who were also writers. We were looking for a project to do together, and agreed that we’d put on an evening of one-act plays. The idea was that we'd each write a one-act play in isolation from each other, and four weeks later we'd each mail copies of our script to the other two, and stage all three together.
I was excited by the plan, but soon the realization that I had to actually write a one-act play dawned on me. Where would I start? I was paralyzed by the endless options, and couldn’t begin. My two colleagues, it turns out, were stuck too. Endless options were constricting, not freeing. So we added a limitation: in each of our plays, at some point some character would be killed with a fork. This one simple limitation unleashed a flood of ideas. A month later, when we mailed our scripts to each other, we were all delighted that we'd each written a remarkably different play in which someone was, indeed, killed with a fork. It was, in my humble opinion, a terrific set of one-act plays.
Within that one limitation we found great creativity and innovation.
For our little impromptu theatre company, Killed With A Fork became our mission, and all our strategies flowed from that. Our casting, our decisions, our promotions, our rehearsals were all guided by our desire to reach a singular mission and focus. Within that one limitation we found great creativity and innovation. It became our distinguishing characteristic that helped us differentiate our production from a sea of independent theatre productions in Vancouver. I mean, aren't you intrigued by a play in which you know at some point someone’s gonna get killed with a fork (and in one of the plays, a pitchfork, no less)? And if you weren’t intrigued, your choice was easy: don’t come.
Credit unions have an immense Killed With A Fork opportunity, and, I fear, a real aptitude for squandering that opportunity. Our shared legacy and history, the cooperative principles, an approach to banking that is values-based, our culture of helping people improve their wellbeing and financial position all work in our favour to be a fantastic alternative within the world of financial services. We can be a disrupter ourselves, if we’re brave enough, rather than constantly worrying about being disrupted.
By returning to our core principles and modernizing them for our members today and the needs in our communities, and getting disciplined about where we will focus and where we will not, suddenly this sea of sales pitches for every new shiny bell and whistle becomes easy to navigate. Some absolutely make sense, some are intriguing and others aren't even worth returning the call (does anyone even return sales people's calls anymore?). The technologies that move your organization toward its core strategies and best execute your business model will be hard to resist, and the rest are just noise.
"We must stop doing things because WE need deposits, or WE need more members, or to increase OUR operating efficiency, and instead start doing things because our members require it, or the community needs it."
Ahead lies the immensely difficult work of carving out a real mission that guides and focuses us, and unleashes our employees' creativity and innovation. We must stop doing things because WE need deposits, or WE need more members, or to increase OUR operating efficiency, and instead start doing things because our members require it, or the community needs it. We need to stop worrying about making our average member age younger and instead focus on strengthening our mission, and, with that firmly in mind, inquire how we can best address the unmet needs of young people in a way others aren't. If we take that leap, we will start innovating. Credit unions need to be Killed With A Fork, to find the limitations from which real creativity can flow.
Now, when I hear those loud voices warning us about the forces of disruption and the technology onslaught, I don't agree. We can't fight all those battles simultaneously without first defining what winning the battle even looks like. Once we choose our limitation and get creative about where we want to focus (and where we don’t), the aligned choices become much easier to distinguish from the distractions. Credit unions can be a thriving ecosystem, all taking our shared values in very different directions, innovating in different spaces, coming up with new models, inspiring each other, and keeping each other on our toes. Without having a proper focus, we will lose this game. And we should lose that game, if we waste this amazing opportunity to modernize our business model to serve new generations of members.
William Azaroff lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. He is Director, Business & Community Development at Vancity, Canada’s largest credit union. William works on a team overseeing Vancity's entire granting slate to develop members' communities, improve financial literacy, develop new businesses creating positive impact and, ultimately, to grow the Vancity brand and business.