As we all look to lead our credit unions to the future we are turning to the nebulous term “innovation”, but what does that really mean. I define it for my teams as making things better today than they were yesterday and as a result innovation can happen anywhere within our credit union. All too often, I hear from credit union leaders that they are struggling to get support for their innovation initiatives and this comes in many forms ranging from no executive or board support, siloed work, competing priorities and more. My credit union has worked through many of these hurdles over the years and by overcoming them we have been able to launch many new innovative products and services. In the past year, I had been noticing a resistance from our teams that were assigned to the innovation projects and was struggling to figure out how to move past it.
One day while reading “Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries” by Safi Bahcall, it hit me and was right there as the main concept of this book. In the book, Safi discusses the concept of “artists & soldiers” and it is the balance between these two groups that allow companies to have sustained greatness. In the very shortest of summaries of this concept, the “artists” are your employees who create the new products, services, & experiences and the “soldiers” are the employees that know the core of your business inside and out, honoring its traditions and driving the business forward steadily. The key here is the balance between these two groups, if you were to only ever focus on your core business model never creating or innovvating, and it may take 20-30 years, you will eventually fizzle out like Blockbuster and Blackberry. On the flip side if you are just focused on creating “loonshots”, crazy ideas that some can be very profitable like the iPhone or many more that go the way of the Zune. What is needed is a virtuous cycle where the core business model provides the funding for the loonshots and the loonshots provide the innovation that keep the core business alive for another 30 years.
You may now be wondering what insight did I actually have and how did it help me break out of our failures to launch. It is really quite simple – some employees just do not want to “do innovation”, they do not like living in the chaos. By thinking that everyone would want to be a part of the innovation program we were doing them and the credit union a disservice. Projects were running past deadlines simply because those assigned to work on them were not comfortable being the “artists”. So instead of the model where we would pull in resources based on who was available, a change was made in multiple departments to align dedicated resources to innovation projects. The people selected where those that had done well in the chaos or self identified to want to be a part of the experience. The “soldiers” feel most comfortable de-risking their work in order to deliver on the day-to-day operations of the organization in a consistent way, more generally these employees thrive in a rules based environment. In his book, Bahcall recommends separating these groups to help them thrive and then encourages leaders to love each of these groups equally as both parts of the business are essential to sustained success. When this concept was applied to our innovation program, our first complex pilot implementation took 88 days from kickoff to launch and more importantly launched on our agreed upon target date. This same project under the previous model would have taken several months to complete and likely would have needed multiple changes to the launch date. Innovation can be done by the “soldiers” but in a different way. Going back to the concept of innovation being making today better than yesterday, the “soldiers” can innovation by continuously improving their processes to be more efficient.
Innovation is essential for companies to grow, but that is not all there is to it. You must also be able to foster your core business model to sustain your growth and to feed the innovation process. It is important to make sure the artists have the space to be creative and take on “risk” in a safe way and for the soldiers it is essential to provide them the structure that allows them to thrive. As a leader it is your job to be able to bridge these two worlds and translate between the “artists” and “soldiers” and help them see each other as important pieces to the greater puzzle. Helping the organization find balance between these two groups will help you lead your credit union into the future with sustain success.
Submitted to CU Times by Ben Maxim, Chief Digital Strategy & Innovation Officer, Michigan State University FCU