"There are certain elements that make up a modern, forward-thinking bank culture, and it starts with people, people, people.” -Andrew Witherbee

Innovation takes openness and collaboration. For financial brands, this often means making a significant cultural change that welcomes challenging feedback and focuses on the most important part of the process: people.

Andrew Witherbee, CEO at Engage Partners Group, an innovator and thought leader in the financial engagement space joined James Robert Lay on the Banking on Digital Growth Podcast to discuss keeping people in financial brand innovation.

A Forward-Thinking Financial Culture

During his years in the financial industry, Andrew has found that certain elements are commonly found in a forward-thinking culture. Communication is a key element and top leadership must be able to clearly articulate the company’s innovative new ideas.

Andrew refers to research that shows only about 7% of employees fully understand their company’s business strategies. That means 93% of your employees probably can’t see “the big picture” because nobody has ever shared it with them.

What can you do to change that?

Feedback is another hallmark of a forward-thinking culture. Leaders who welcome feedback frequently open up about new ideas and directly ask their employees and coworkers, “What do you think of this?” They’re willing to accept that all of the feedback might not be positive, yet are still using the feedback process to move things forward and successfully launch new strategies.

When it comes to the technological side of innovation, it’s important not to get so bogged down in technology that we forget about the people. Technology shouldn't be the focus. As James Robert puts it, “Human transformation must precede digital transformation.”

The Dual Meaning of Value

Anyone in the professional world has probably heard plenty about the concept of value. Many companies, including financial brands, claim to offer their customers excellent value.

Andrew encourages financial brands to remember the other meaning of the word “value,” which is an organization’s core vision or strength. A brand should ask if its decisions, technology, and strategy are all aligned with its core values.

Is your company’s desire to innovate well-integrated into its overall values?

If not, this will be a stumbling block that could allow the company to fall back into old patterns. There’s always a risk of slipping back into doing things “our way” or “the way we’ve always done business.” It’s hard to make forward progress when you’re always looking backward.

In situations where a financial brand’s core values and desire to innovate are at odds, a good way to move past this barrier is by going back to the customer.

What does the customer want?

Don’t just assume what they want. Ask them, interview them, and see what kinds of emotions and needs surface when they discuss your brand.

Achieving Mini-Wins With Innovation

Whenever Andrew sees financial brands struggling to innovate, he sees companies in need of mini-wins. A mini-win is a small accomplishment that shows the company’s employees they’re on the right track. It feels good to get the win, so this motivates people to keep moving forward.

Mini-wins are baby steps that help people shake off complacency and gain confidence to continue fully engaging with the innovation process. Although these wins are called “mini” they actually take an enormous amount of collaboration and cooperation among departments and teams.

James Robert recommends putting “the who before the how” during periods of innovation, meaning keep people at the forefront of the process, not the technology. Tech and IT issues can be resolved much more efficiently when your people are comfortable with the process and working collaboratively to solve problems together.

Meaningful Change Takes Time

Andrew reminds anyone engaged in innovation that it’s not something that happens overnight. You can’t set a firm period of 30 to 60 days and expect meaningful change to occur in that short timeframe.

Make a short-term plan, plus bolster it with a 1 to 3-year plan that supports ongoing change and innovation. In addition, have an even longer-term plan in the background to stabilize the process. As time goes by, continue to have deep conversations with customers, employees, and all stakeholders to discuss why and how the company is continuing in this innovative direction.

Incremental innovation leads to exponential innovation over time. Andrew has seen financial brands take 8 years to finally accomplish some of their most innovative goals. A big victory like this is the result of countless baby steps and mini-wins that kept the whole team focused on the horizon of success.