By Ken Olan
The potential for innovation through improved employee collaboration and engagement, in my estimation, is one of the single most important opportunities we have as an industry. Yet from the conversations I’ve had with bankers across the globe, we seem to struggle to make it happen with any pace. And pace is exactly what we need in a world where remaining relevant as an industry becomes more challenging by the day.
But are we making this critical change vector more difficult than it really is? Perhaps we are.
In fact it’s always amazed me that some lower forms of life appear to display certain adaptive qualities that seem to rival or surpass those of human beings. We see this in individual animals as well as in their group behavior.
Consider the common ant. When I was a kid I remember peering inside one of those glass-paneled ant farms and watching the little critters execute spectacular feats of engineering. Through an evolutionarily, continuous improvement process they created ever-sturdier tunnel systems, subterranean chambers and escape routes to the surface. Even more amazing was that they apparently did their work as a cohesive group, acting in unison, to achieve their objective.
Honeys bees have similar characteristics. They collectively build intricate honeycombs with tremendous structural strength. I don’t know how many millions of years it took them to figure out that the hexagon matrix was the ideal form in which to build one, but that structural innovation has helped ensure the survival of the species for eons.
If you think about it, ants and bees in many ways represent the consummate workforce. Each and every individual is involved in contributing at their full potential.
But how do these lowly creatures ensure their survival through continuous improvement without a leader dictating their activities every step of the way? I mean, someone needs to be the boss, right? Not really.
There is no “foreman ant” or “chief bee” that creates and directs all of the good ideas, if you will. On the contrary, each individual is allowed to contribute in an organic way. Individual contribution to improvement is systemic and is relied on, so to speak, by the group.
Each individual insect is fully empowered to get the job done. And if over the millennia, one individual finds a better way to do something, the others don’t argue about its practicality or merits. Instead they take the improvement and run with it.
Insects have no egos, no job insecurities, and they aren’t interested in power plays. They just drive and adopt improvements that benefit the collective group, regardless of where the “idea” comes from.
Now consider chimpanzees. Chimps enjoy eating insects, many of which nest in the trunks of trees. At some point in time, a random chimpanzee discovered that he or she could insert a stick into the insect burrow in the tree and more easily extract the tasty morsels. It was an innovative adaptation that increased productivity and contributed to the health of the collective chimp group (albeit not so much to the insects).
When animals uncover these kinds of improvements, we call it adaptation.
Now, consider this: Innovation is a necessary form of adaptation for companies, because it specifically helps ensure our survival. It enables us to remain relevant in the face of a changing world.
Who in most banks is responsible for innovation (if there is anyone, that is)? Most likely it’s those in management positions. That’s because there’s a hierarchy issue that implicitly says that the greater your title, the more worthy of consideration your ideas must be.
And while seniority certainly offers advantages that impact the direction of the organization, the top people aren’t always the most creative or the most in touch with what potential opportunities might be.
The good news is this dynamic is changing.
In the past it was traditionally thought that Power Equals Knowledge. In other words, if you had a position of power you were assumed to have the necessary knowledge.
Not so much any more.
In today’s world that notion has been flipped on its head. Now it’s recognized that Knowledge Equals Power. It’s the collective knowledge of all employees that contains the most brainpower to create innovation. Position power can only support it.
I’ve discovered that some of the best ideas for innovation come from grass-roots employees who deeply understand the day-to-day workings of the organization and who truly recognize things that can be improved upon.
Unfortunately these same employees often remain quiet, because nobody asks for their ideas or because they think they won’t be listened to or taken seriously. Ergo they remain silent and let the sub-optimal continue. Their tacit knowledge and creativity continue to be underutilized until someone with influence actively engages them to be part of the conversation.
Times are changing indeed, and our industry must do more to tap into the entire knowledge base that comes to work every day.
We need to utilize all possible brainpower at our disposal in order to create continuous improvement; improvement that simply cannot come without a wider range of perspectives contributing.
If we as an industry want greater creativity and innovation, we simply must harness the collective intelligence we already have full access to within our work force. We must engage all employees more and use their creativity and accumulated knowledge to contribute to the greater good. Otherwise we are underutilizing some of the most potent natural resources in the enterprise.
Creating an Environment of Creativity
We wouldn’t go a day without turning the lights on in the office, so why would we block the very light of ideation waiting to be turned on in the company?
So how can we unleash the creativity within the organization and tap into that power for innovation?
1. Make a Top-Down Commitment
To unleash the creativity of an organization, we must decide to do it, and that decision must come from the highest levels. We must make it clear that we want (even expect) all employees to contribute to the creative process, and encourage it.
2. Build Structural Support
Once we’ve decided to actively encourage employees to contribute to improvement, we need a system of some sort to enable it so that it becomes part of the organizational DNA.
Creating an informal, simplistic system like a suggestion box is one way to get started, or it can be a more advanced cloud-based system like the engagement and innovation platform we’ve developed at First Victoria. In any case, great ideas will only surface if we create a structured mechanism to draw them out.
If we don’t back some sort of system to encourage ideation and collaboration, we risk not fully exploiting the knowledge of the full workforce to create improvement.
3. Reward Creativity
As we actively encourage our employees to utilize their creative problem solving skills to find better ways of doing things we should also be clear that they will be rewarded for doing do.
I’ve found that encouraging enthusiastic employee involvement in such a way that individuals feel engaged in and rewarded for succeeding (a.k.a., gamification) really gets the creative juices flowing and supercharges the desired intellectual contributions.
4. Encourage Better Questions
If we want better ideas from our workforce we must teach employees how to think more creatively; how to use their knowledge to uncover what is possible. As an industry we don’t do a very good job of that, because we are driven by rules, regulations and hierarchy which can stifle creativity.
Instead I suggest we enable our employees to be more creative by helping them ask better questions – by insisting they ask them. Better questions lead to better answers, and every answer is preceded by a question.
Why is asking better questions so important?
The human mind has a natural tendency to want to answer whatever is asked of it. It simply has to. Want proof? What color are your shoes?
I’ll bet you either asked your brain to think about it or you looked at your shoes to find the answer. When asked a question, we can’t help ourselves but want to seek an answer, and that human trait offers unlimited potential for innovation.
At First Victoria we shortened our account opening time because I asked our operations people one simple question; “How can we reduce our account opening time by ten minutes?” That question drove a project that took on a life of its own, and the result was exactly what I’d asked for.
So ask your people, at all levels, better questions, and you’ll get better answers. Ask them for their help in innovating, and you’ll engage them by sending the message that what they think is important. The effect will be more engaged employees who will work their hearts out to find answers for you. Then reward them in some way when they do, and you’ll get more of the same.
Your company can innovate to whatever degree you support the process. You just need to set up a system to engage the creativity of your employees, with the elements I just mentioned, and you’ll be well on your way to generating new forms of value your customers will appreciate and your employees will buy into – because they helped create them!
Ken Olan is Senior Executive Vice President of Retail Banking and CMO at First Victoria Bank and is a leading thinker in the subjects of innovation, engagement and leveraging collective intelligence. His new book, Questioning Innovation, is scheduled for release in early 2014. If you’d like to learn more, you may contact Ken at firstname.lastname@example.org.