Human Resources

Harness the Power of 'Intrapreneurship'

Create a start-up mentality inside your CU.

July 16, 2014
KEYWORDS idea , innovation
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Let’s be frank: Finance isn’t all that fun.

Sure, at the heart of it all credit union employees are providing a valuable service to members by offering them a smart alternative to big banks and helping them take control of their financial futures.

At ground level, though, this often translate to a heavy load of rudimentary tasks, making it hard to generate a lot of excitement: “Today, let’s do some transfers!”

But when you add the power of innovation into that space, the dynamic changes. Think about the breakthrough of taking a photo of a check and remotely depositing it, or the first time you were able to log on to your mobile phone and transfer money or make a payment.

John Best
Adhere to the principle of MVP–Minimal Viable Product, says John Best, CEO of Best Innovation Group. Strip down your idea to its very essence and concentrate on quickly bringing it to fruition.

All of a sudden, what we do becomes exciting again. Innovation provides an opportunity to create solutions that will improve the member experience, while also energizing staff.

But how do we get there from here? How do you entice your team to brainstorm and execute new ideas when the existing culture is based on a foundation of operational excellence, not innovation? How do you create a start-up mentality inside your credit union?

The recipe has many ingredients, and the exact mix will vary based on your organization’s resources and goals. But three staples must exist in every batch: an environment that encourages idea-sharing, the abolishment of fear of failure, and the concept of MVP.

Share ideas

You want to formalize this process without constraining it. Don’t do that thing where you all sit around circular tables at some offsite location, split into groups under the watchful eye of a facilitator, whip together half-baked thoughts in 20 minutes, regurgitate them, then head back to the office and never think of it again.

Instead, demonstrate that this is a long-term commitment. Create teams at your credit union that involve staff members from all areas of operations—accountants and compliance specialists have bright ideas, too.

Give them an actual working budget to create prototypes or marketing materials. Assign each team a mentor from the credit union’s leadership so you get a real business proposal along with a good idea.

Ask them to develop an idea that addresses questions or suggestions members raise regularly, or that would improve organizational flow or cut costs. Give them time to create a detailed presentation and have them deliver the pitch to the leadership.

Offer the winners money—real money, not a $25 gift card to the local chain restaurant, or a day off—to make it worth their time to pursue their idea after hours and do the research necessary to draft a well-rounded concept.

Don’t be shy about these presentations. Perhaps invite the whole staff, and have the executives fight over which idea they want to adopt.

Encourage risk

Nothing impedes ingenuity like the very real possibility a manager will torpedo your avant garde idea in front of your co-workers—or that you’ll be forever scarred by associating with a concept that has merit but for whatever reason doesn’t deliver on expectations.

To encourage innovation, one of the main things we must get across to people is that it’s OK to fail—as long as you don’t pour good money after bad, or wind up as a public relations disaster on the 5 p.m. news.

Create innovation teams at your credit union that involve staff members from all areas of operations, says Mike Atkins, CEO of Open Technology Solutions.

As an industry, we’ve become intolerant of failure. Back in the days of pure brick-and-mortar, when things were less technical, fear didn’t seem as much an issue. But that has changed.

Some say it’s because credit unions are cash-strapped, and blame the Great Recession. No, it’s just the culture of the industry. We’ve trained ourselves that failure isn’t an option—that playing it safe is in the best interests of our members.

I think members want us to experiment a bit. They want to be part of a credit union that’s pushing the envelope, that’s always focused on improving, that never settles for the status quo.

And the people working for you certainly want to feel like they’re making in impact. Remember that the next generation of employees are digital natives who grew up embracing concepts like crowdsourcing, open collaboration, and creative destruction. They’re quick to throw something away and pick up the next new thing.

We need a way to motivate people to learn new concepts, give them the freedom to develop new ideas, and apply them to the credit union industry.

Implement MVP

You've seen this acronym before, but not in this usage. Sure, every idea needs a champion—a Most Valuable Player, if you will.

But more than that, a good idea needs protection from well-intentioned souls who will tack on bells and whistles of their liking, in the manner a congressional rep attaches amendments completely unrelated to the bill at hand.

Your idea needs to adhere to the principle of MVP—Minimal Viable Product. Strip down your idea to its very essence and concentrate on quickly bringing it to fruition.

Think of your idea as if it were an airplane wing. Every additional bolt or scrap of metal adds drag that could slow progress—or make you crash and burn.

Frankly, this requires a bit of ruthlessness. Someone must be the person who says directly, “No, we’re not doing that.”

If you want to be nice about it, say, “Great idea—would you please write that down because if this takes off, if we get traction, we’ll need a feature like that in Version 2.0.”

Many people will then respond, “Well, there might not ever be a Version 2.0, because you didn’t put my idea in.” To which I say, just because there’s a good bridge in a song, doesn’t mean it’s a hit. If a song’s a hit, it’ll make it on its own merits.

Likewise, if a product is a good idea, it’ll gain traction. No amount of accessorizing will change that.

JOHN BEST is president and CEO of Best Innovation Group. MIKE ATKINS is CEO of Open Technology Solutions.

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