Brett King

Innovating the Bank that’s too Big to Change

In Customer Experience, Strategy on September 26, 2010 at 09:43

Getting a head start on customer centricity

As I tour the globe talking to banks and other financial institutions, the issue of how to make the migration to a truly customer centric organization is often agonized over. While many are keen to see that goal materialize, there are just as many who feel organizational inertia and long entrenched silos are just too significant a hurdle to circumvent.

Innovation in the customer space is often a challenge too. How do you really create an innovative organization when your traditional roots are all about, well…tradition. The big ships of industry, banks definitely included, are like massive supertankers. Ships that turn slowly and once they have a head up of speed are very difficult to slow or turn when set on a course. In a world where channel complexity, technology adoption and consumer behaviors are pushing the envelop of just about every service organization to adapt at warp-speed, how do we create speedboat type instincts when the organization is lumbering along supertanker style?

Big Banks are like SuperTankers - they don't change direction easily

The Google Time Initiative

Google gives it’s engineers 20% of their time to work on the project of their choice. The Google time initiative is consistently cited as one of the reasons why employees rank Google as one of the best companies to work for as voted by Forbes, FastCompany, etc. It’s also a great generator of innovations as adhoc collaborations are born out of necessity, common interest or just the pure exploration of a better user experience. Some of those initiatives like Android end up becoming a stable of Google’s core range, while others like Google Wave burn bright for a time, create great learnings, but go on to become something entirely different from what started.

Getting a bank to give their employees 20% of their time to work on a project or initiative of their choosing, might be too much of an ask for those ships of industry, but it is a way to drop a speedboat in the water and see how it performs. If the idea works, it can then be incorporated back into the overall business as part of a longer-term shift.

The VC Approach

If you’ve ever engaged in discussions with Venture Capital firms about a business plan, you’ll appreciate how brutal the process is in dismissing badly thought out ideas or poor business cases. If we ran a lot of the existing bank processes, products and business units through a VC selection process these days, many simply would not survive. But because they are embedded ‘traditions’ they get retained. Good examples of this today are paper statements sent by snail mail, or offering a checking account to new customers by default. If we were a brand new start-up bank, it’s unlikely these would be the preferred approach in a business plan today.

Using the VC approach, however, can select the most likely candidates for success in the innovation sandbox. VCs often use the formula of reviewing 100 business plans, selecting perhaps 5-10 for further review and selecting perhaps 2 or 3 for some scale of investment. This is a solid approach to pitching new ideas for seed capital internally to see if individual innovation initiatives have merit versus other competitive ideas or bids. It also means that work isn’t done on the basis of simply cool technology, but real revenue or cost savings thinking.

The IDEO Approach

I’ve always admired the IDEO design team for their deep dive methodology. I think that the deep dive remains probably the most creative management and design process that there is today. By dividing teams into separate groups to brainstorm innovative approaches, you get not a single idea, but many competing ideas to flesh out. The advantages to this process can best be summed up by a great quote from their design team:

Enlightened trial and error succeeds over the planning of the lone genius…
IDEO Design

Once a month, or once a quarter, try getting your channel team together and brainstorming a new customer journey or experience. Then use the VC approach after you’ve prototyped the idea to come up with something better for the customer. The deep dive process will take you to new heights of innovation much quicker than the planning of the lone banker. Especially if that banker has had 30 years of banking experience – trying to get him to think innovatively is like trying to turn that huge supertanker.

The Customer Centric Initiative

So putting all of these best practice approaches to innovation together, I propose a new initiative for your bank today to get started on the path to customer satisfaction, deeper relationships, and more profitability.

Give everyone in your product and channel team, 20% of their time over the next 2-3 months to spend on improving customer journeys and experience. Underpin this by creating a multi-channel deep dive session once a quarter where all of the channel teams, supported by product representatives, look at new ways of engaging the customer. Prototype the customer journey on paper. Sketch up new web, mobile, or ATM screen flows to show how the interaction could be simplified and improved, or even come up with completely new ideas based on behavioral analytics.

Let’s get this customer centric initiative on the road. It takes a long time to break silos, so let’s not even try to tackle that until we can get the team thinking about customers. The Customer Centric Initiative is a way of doing that without breaking the bank…

  1. Changing the course of the supertanker by 1° can mean the difference between ending up in Hawaii…or Thailand. It’s a good idea to know where you want to eventually arrive before changing course. A lot of invocations for innovation sound like everything needs to be turned around 180°.

  2. Jeffrey,

    Good point – but the real issue I’m grappling with is how do you get the supertanker to be customer-centric when embedded silos and metrics are so dominantly internally focused. That still appears like at least a 90° change in course in my book 🙂


  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Peter Vander Auwera and Peter Vander Auwera, Cloud VC. Cloud VC said: #Cloud #VC Innovating the Bank that's too Big to Change « BANK 2.0 – Author's …: If we ran a lot of the exis… #TCN […]

  4. @BrettKing, you proposed the following initiative: “Give everyone in your product and channel team, 20% of their time over the next 2-3 months to spend on improving customer journeys and experience.”

    I like it. It is a great idea for ALL companies. However, many companies may not allow there employees to do this or may not even have a Human Resources process to allow this. That is ok. Anybody who believes in this should try to get this approved at their department level. If that fails, just do it, but not on company time.

    If you have to do it on your own time, get a group together and have lunch together and work the innovation process. After work coffee works too. The bottom line is, do what it takes to improve the process. If the idea is good, management will appreciate your efforts.

    The pizza idea works. I once worked at a company that could not afford to give its employees the time to innovate during the work day. However, they bought us pizza weekly to innovate a B2B process that was proposed to them.

    Let’s get started.


  5. Hi Brett,

    Another possibility for banks would be to engage more aggressively in talent/technology acquisition. If we look at Google, it’s an important part of the way they can stay innovative (

    There are a lot of interesting startups in financial services right now, that will maybe/maybe not be viable as standalone companies but have products/technologies/people that would be key for bank to be more innovative.

    On the other end, this is only doable if you have the necessary culture to be able to integrate these companies/people without killing their values at the same time.

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