CHICAGO — Both the need to innovate and the possible pitfalls of doing so were on the minds of executives attending CO-OP Financial Services THINK 2013 conference last week.
More than 550 credit union industry executives from 329 credit unions, CUSOs and other firms attended the meeting at the Swissotel April 29 through May 2.
Scott Belsky is CEO of Behance, a consulting firm which helps companies foster creative ideas and then see them through to become innovations, kicked off the day’s innovation speakers.
Belsky said one important facet of innovation is for leaders of companies seeking to innovate to know when to speak and when to keep quiet–and that often remaining quiet is better.
Belsky used Jack Welch, former General Electric CEO, to illustrate the lesson. Welch was known not as much for asking his staff what they thought about a given problem but instead giving his opinion about a solution, Belsky explained. What that meant, Belsky observed, is that the staff either parroted back what Welch had said or appeared to agree with his ideas whether or not they actually did.
“If he had not done that, he would have heard some whacky ideas from the newcomers, some ideas from other perspectives from others, and he might have heard someone who already had the idea he had as well,” Belsky said.
Belsky’s talk focused on what organizations and individuals can do to keep the good ideas they might have from being swallowed up by day-to-day pressures and concerns. Ideas ranged from further tweaking ideas that already work well to identifying the different roles colleagues play in fostering or failing to foster ideas.
The challenge an organization has, Belsky explained in a question and answer session, is to both address the things that genuinely need to be urgent, pare down the things that don’t and then focus on the long term important.
“The ATMs have to run,” he pointed out. “So that is necessarily urgent. But are there things that are not so urgent that can be discarded so that you can work on longer term ideas that are very important?” he asked.
If Belsky sought to help credit unions figure out how they could foster innovation, a leading marketing executive sought to explain to credit unions why they should do so.
While at Home Depot, John Costello helped develop the national ad campaign for the home supply store that included the tagline, “You can do it. We can help.” Now as chief global marketing and innovation officer at Dunkin Donuts, Costello helped develop the “America runs on Dunkin” campaign.
“Ask yourself the questions you hope that no one else ever asks you,” Costello told the executives, “and be brutally honest in your answers.” Costello pointed to brands like Cadillac, Chrysler and Dominoes pizza that, he contended, had turned the spotlight on their own operations that had lost track of their connections with customers in order to win back a place in the market.
“Think of how hard that must have been,” he asked, “to both recognize that your product is not good and to admit that as part of a national campaign.” Costello noted Dominoes national campaign that recognized the product’s failings and invited consumers to try again. But doing that is an essential part of developing a making a better product and introducing it to consumers, he said.
Two afternoon speakers, David Robertson and Nicole Clemens, described ways that unregulated or managed innovation or inauthentic innovation can be hazardous to an organization.
David Robertson is professor of practice at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and author of a forthcoming book, “Brick by Brick: How Lego Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy Industry.”
Robertson detailed how the company steadily grew from 1932 until early in the 21st century when it almost went bankrupt under the weight of what amounted to undisciplined innovation.
Essentially, Lego had adopted many of the attitudes and innovative practices that academics and consultants said companies should use but had done so in such an unrestrained way that innovation had almost caused the death of the company.
“What Lego learned is that all innovation is not necessarily profitable innovation,” Robertson said. Out of the 11 products the company had launched since it began to self-consciously drive innovation, only three of those had been profitable, he said, and of those, two were profitable only in some years.
Nicole Clemens, senior vice president of series development at cable television network FX, spoke to the meeting about an organization’s need to keep hold of its core identity even as it innovates.
Clemens and her development team oversaw the creation of leading FX series such as “Sons of Anarchy,” “Archer,” “The Americans,” “Nip Tuck” and “The Shield.”
She recounted for the meeting how FX’s production process differs from network television, which focuses on taking in lots of ideas and scripts and then winnowing them down to produce just a few that are often a product of consensus. FX, by contrast, develops ideas and work with an idea over time with a goal of developing a dramatic series that tells a character-driven story over a number of years but which has a definite story arc.
Clemens said the FX’s commitment to innovation comes in its resolution not to rule out any story idea without at least hearing it and to take familiar story lines in television, the police story, the medical story and the legal story and turn them on their side so that they are unlike any others in their genre have ever been. “The Shield” told a police story unlike any other ever on television, likewise “Nip and Tuck” did the same for medical stories, she pointed out.
“We take established genres and subvert them,” Clemens told the audience.
But at the same time, FX demanded that the stories keep their authenticity, grit and originality, even when that has meant that they depart radically from their original ideas, such as by making a character which had only been planned as a guest or one-time character into a co-lead after the pilot showed how important the character was to the storyline.
In a question and answer period, Clemens suggested that credit unions could carefully target their innovation to maintain their core business but try to expand and grow in new areas.