Innovation in financial services: similarities and differences

  • Wouter van Brevoort
  • 05-07-2022
  • 6 min

Recently I’ve switched jobs and employers. I went from an Innovation job at ABN AMRO to an Innovation job at Rabobank. The first few weeks are about absorbing as much information as possible. Who is who, what happens where, learning the new organization-specific corporate jargon, etc. Several weeks into the job, I'd like to share some thoughts and experiences on innovation in financial services. In this blog, I'll focus on similarities and differences I've seen when comparing working in the innovation department of both financial services organizations.

Disclaimer: I’m not taking the slightly different role for myself into account. I went from being responsible for new concepts to helping others with theirs. This doesn’t affect the organizational and departmental approach towards innovation though, so it is irrelevant in this context.

Similarities

The innovation process itself has a lot of similarities within both organizations. It’s a structured approach that is designed to test the Desirability (what do clients want?), Feasibility (can we create that for them?) and Viability (should we create that for them?) of new concepts and ideas.

Notice how the difference between feasibility and viability lies in the words ‘can’ and ‘should’. The feasibility question focuses on more technical and operational aspects. The viability question is much more a question about whether the bank is a logical party to provide this solution and whether it generates sufficient revenue.

The process starts with a phase of exploration and discovery. What follows is a staged process where the focus consecutively lies on (customer) problems, possible solutions for that problem, positioning the solution in the market, and scaling. Every phase works toward an assessment where a sort of internal Venture Capital Board (think Shark Tank) judges the concept, its potential, and the team’s plan to unlock that potential. If successfully passed the assessment for a certain stage, the door opens to the next stage. More time, funds, and expertise (FTE) is granted to the team to enable them to prepare for the next assessment. The goal of this process is to come to new and different business concepts and to stay relevant to your clients as an organization.

Another similarity is the vibe and energy amongst the colleagues within the innovation department. It’s this no-nonsense, high-energy, can-do mentality that attracts me so much to working in this environment. And yep, there are a lot of buzzwords in that sentence, but all of you who know me will catch my drift.

Differences

There are also apparent differences. For example how and where the innovation process is structured and implemented in the organization. Both have their pros and cons. The impact of a certain approach on how an organization innovates changes significantly. I’ll provide a brief insight into both approaches. I’m not aiming for a ‘who does it better’ discussion, therefore I’ll talk about approaches 1 and 2 rather than naming the organization.

1)     A centralized Innovation department that focuses on themes such as digital assets or digital platforms.

Colleagues within the innovation department initially own a new concept and are responsible for taking that concept through the phases described above. At the final phases of the process, ownership is handed over to the respective business line.

Pros

  • Experienced people working dedicatedly on a concept increases speed in early phases.
  • Visor in the discovery phase extends business line boundaries.

Cons

  • Eventually, ownership will transfer to a business team or department. Late handover can cause problems.
  • Without intensive stakeholder management, the risk of multiple people working on similar problems/solutions throughout the bank increases dramatically.

2)     A centralized Innovation department that functions as an agency for the organization.

Teams within the different business lines are responsible for innovation within their line of work. Colleagues from the innovation department can be ‘hired’ to help out with the process and all relevant work involved. Responsibility remains at the business line.

Pros

  • Concept adoption into product/service offering by a business team happens from the beginning.
  • Making innovation a business responsibility can boost the innovative mindset of the organization.

Cons

  • Time and focus within commercially driven business teams are limited and can conflict with the ‘messy’ innovation process.

Factor for success

Taking into account the earlier mentioned goal of innovating as a big corporate “to come to new and different business concepts, to stay relevant to your clients as an organization” I think that the most important factor for success is to make sure that the basic prerequisites are in place. What does that mean? To me, it means the following:

A clear vision and goals

When exploring new territories there needs to be a clear line of thinking for people and teams to follow. The process of coming to new business concepts can be chaotic and messy. At those times having a clear vision of where the team/department/organization wants to be at in X time helps immensely with staying on track and keeping the spirit up.

Dedication

I’ve mentioned a few times earlier, that the process of (corporate) innovation is at times chaotic, messy, and unclear. It takes time to grind down to the core of something. It takes even more time, and energy, to keep going after you have had to change your idea for the third, fourth or fifth time based on newly gathered information. It is not something to do on the side. It requires time, energy, and focus to be successful.

Boldness

Boldness is a key characteristic on multiple levels. As a team, you’ll need to make bold choices. Imagine working on a specific concept that you’re enthusiastic about, day after day for 6 months. After that time you find out that the operating costs of your concept will be too high with respect to revenues and added client value. Based on facts and figures the concept needs to be stopped. This is called ‘killing your darlings’.

On organizational level boldness means putting your money where your mouth is. Taking calculated risks. Whether this is through setting up small-scale pilots with other companies to test a partnership or enabling a specific team to further investigate a still uncertain, but potentially high rewarding concept. Without taking such risks, the rewards will also stay away.

The extent to which these prerequisites are taken care of will have a major impact on the success of the journey of innovation in financial services. Of any large organization’s innovation journey for that matter. No matter which approach is taken.

About the author

Wouter van Brevoort
Innovation Coach

As an Innovation Coach, Wouter helps innovation teams throughout the bank with their journey towards creating relevant new business concepts. His aim in collaborations is to create an environment of trust and openness first, as trust and openness are vital to success in his opinion. He’s also a big fan of terrible jokes.

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