Bonnie and Clyde. Bert and Ernie. Peas and carrots. Tango and Cash. Salt and pepper. William and Kate. I mean Catherine. Peanut butter and jelly. Ross and Rachel. Jay-Z and Beyoncé. Derek Jeter and brunettes. A-Rod and blondes. Kanye West and himself.
Some things just seem to go together.
And so it goes with employee engagement and innovation. It’s rare to have one without the other.
Being significantly smarter than other financial institutions likely isn’t in the cards anymore. There aren’t oodles of financial institutions out there that are filled with stupid people. Rarely will an organization differentiate itself in today’s market by simply being leaps and bounds smarter. Because of technology, almost everyone has access to the same information, so as far as knowledge is concerned, it’s essentially a level playing field. Even technological advances aren’t a permanent competitive advantage. Sure, if you’re one of the few who get in on new technology or products earlier than everyone else–like Apple seems to–you’ll have an advantage for a while, but sooner or later others will catch up. Why do you think Apple has to keep coming up with shiny new gadgets?
Many organizations, when sensing that they’re not as innovative or progressive as they’d like to be, tend to focus on the operational side of the business. They’ll poke at various processes and procedures in search of that elusive innovation. And while I wouldn’t argue that we shouldn’t consider the operational side of the business, I argue that we sometimes skip a critical step in that we often don’t provide a culture that’s conducive to employee innovation.
I tell anyone who will listen to me, and even some that don’t, that a healthy culture and engaged employees are the biggest competitive advantage an organization can have. A healthy culture and employee engagement will outlive and outlast any one technological innovation or progressive product or service. The beauty of a healthy culture is that rather than being a short-lived advantage, it’s an ongoing advantage. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
But how exactly are employee engagement and innovation tied together? I’m so glad you asked. Perhaps it would help to think about it this way: healthy culture, in essence, is the multiplier of employees' innovation, work ethic, passion, creativity and so on. You can almost think of it as an accelerator of talent, a liberator of innovation. If an organization's culture isn't healthy, employees aren't going to be as passionate and engaged and are far less likely to invest themselves in any significant way toward helping propel the organization forward. When a credit union has a healthy culture, full of passionate and engaged employees, you’re almost guaranteed to have employees that are continually innovating because they’re so invested in and dedicated to making the organization better. So they think, create, try things, fail (yes, fail), try again, innovate and so on.
Innovation doesn’t take place in a vacuum. Innovation starts in the minds of people. Innovation happens when engaged employees decide to tackle problems. It’s sparked when credit unions decide that O.K. isn’t O.K. anymore, and they engage their employees in the assault on mediocrity. It’s important that we not somehow detach innovation from its human origins; it is a very human endeavor. And an organization’s culture provides the context within which those humans live and work every day. Consequently, an organization’s culture can either be a huge asset in the quest for innovation, or it can be the single largest obstacle preventing it from taking place.
So the challenge then is not simply to find ways to innovate. The challenge is to find ways to cultivate a culture where innovation can not only take place but be an ongoing process and experience. The challenge is to engage your employees in authentic ways that spark in them the desire to create, innovate and push your organization and our industry forward.
Matt Monge is the vice president of people and development at Fort Campbell Federal Credit Union and president of the Mojo Co.
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