"Rethinking the way you do things is about identifying problems and coming up with solutions, and that can be done at all levels of an organization.” -Jody Guetter

Financial thinkers tend to avoid risk and preserve value at almost all costs. This risk-averse behavior is baked into the culture of the financial world, where traditional financial institutions shy away from creative and innovative thinking.

Does it have to be this way? No way! Creative ideas are setting some financial brands apart from their competitors as they introduce innovations that capture the hearts and minds of eager customers.

This is the topic of a discussion between James Robert Lay, host of the Banking on Digital Growth Podcast and Jody Guetter, the Executive VP of Market Innovation for Nymbus Labs.

Creativity as a Cultural Concern

As someone who thinks innovatively for a living, Jody has spent plenty of time pondering the issue of creativity in the financial world. While working with hundreds of financial and consumer brands, Jody has noticed a common thread with it comes to creativity: culture.

Whether or not a financial brand exhibits creative thinking seems to go hand-in-hand with how its culture functions. While a brand can make huge progress in terms of technology, data, research, marketing, and many other aspects of doing business, cultural issues can completely hamper its ability to innovate.

Jody works to educate, inform, and encourage people who work in the financial world to embrace innovation. It’s extremely difficult to accomplish unless the entire company is open to a mindset and cultural shift. Culture change is the catalyst for company-wide innovation.

Based on James Robert and Jody’s experiences, the typical company can launch a new strategic plan to embrace digital transformation and maintain momentum for about 12 to 18 months. Then the program often begins to struggle. Everyone seems to give up on the idea of achieving profound organizational change.

Why does this occur? James Robert suggests that the 12 to 18-month mark is usually when true friction arises. Interpersonal tension is impossible to ignore and people become frustrated with trying to accomplish new things day in and day out.

Jody says this often happens because people misunderstand the meaning of innovation. They don’t understand that it requires a genuine transformation and actually rethinking and reshaping how you do things. Innovation isn’t just a buzzword or a fad that will pass.

The Emotional Aspect of Innovation

Authentic innovation involves dealing with the human element of transformation, including addressing difficult feelings and emotions. This means asking people to change their habits and adjust their perceptions.

It’s an exceptionally difficult request to make in the financial world, where people tend to place a high value on the traditional ways of doing things. To put it simply, it feels “icky.” Financial employees don’t usually want to come to work and talk about their emotions!

Jody suggests that making such a significant shift must come with the complete support of the very top of the organization, extending down to the bottom. The financial brand’s top executives must openly show their praise for the transformative process and make it clear that this is the exciting new direction the company is heading.

Financial execs who struggle with this idea might benefit from reading books like “Humanocracy” or “Open Strategy.” In these books, the authors provide effective tips for facilitating open dialogue and implementing other creative-thinking techniques that ease the growing pains of transformative change.

Jody points out that to embrace major changes, people need something known as psychological safety. They must be able to find a mental safety net amidst the chaos that’s shaking up their lives. This, in turn, allows them to be vulnerable, share ideas, and dream big enough to accomplish great things

When someone finally feels this level of comfort, they can relax into their natural level of creativity. You might be surprised to see what kinds of creative ideas burst forth from financial professionals who are finally unleashed to share their ideas. Jody likes to tell them, “Put your biggest, baddest idea out on the wall and let’s make it happen.”

View this as a redefinition of the traditional “banker’s brain,” which is considered smart, analytical, and trustworthy, but perhaps not very creative. In actuality, a banker’s brain is very creative. Bankers’ brains are constantly adapting to numerous factors like new numbers, risks, rewards, legal requirements, and so much more. If we can redirect this into innovative thinking, the sky’s the limit.

Reevaluating Your Financial Brand's Appetite for Risk

In the financial world, it’s common to hear someone dismiss an idea because it’s just too risky. Many financial employees have probably heard this kind of objection almost daily. We can’t give someone that interest rate because it would be too risky. We must enforce this arcane rule because otherwise, it would be too risky. And on and on.

Unfortunately, this leads to what Jody calls “150% compliance.” Financial institutions are so obsessed with being 100% compliant that they can veer into over-compliance and prevent their organization from exercising any kind of everyday creativity or innovative exploration.

Instead of 150% compliance, shoot for 100% compliance. Stay within legal and ethical boundaries, of course, but don’t be so restricted that you completely rule out new ways of doing things.

For example, a financial brand can explore using new fintech and banking technology that solves some of the company’s biggest problems. You can develop partnerships that allow you to take 10 huge steps forward because someone else already did all the legwork.

This allows an organization to take a peek into what it’s like to start operating more nimbly and creatively. From there, nurture early successes and continue to break down other roadblocks that suddenly don’t seem so tough anymore.

Cross-Pollinating Company Conversations

Most traditional financial brands would probably admit that they operate in silos within the organization. It’s not necessarily intentional but arises as a byproduct of the many financial structures that serve as checks and balances.

While these silos serve their purpose, they also stand in the way of creative thinking and innovative change. To break down the silos, your financial brand must be very intentional about sparking cross-departmental conversations that make forward progress toward your biggest goals. Jody calls this “cross-pollinating” within the organization.

Host events that create new opportunities for dialogue and help people feel comfortable speaking with colleagues they may never have met before. Be transparent about the fact that you want to go beyond the meet-and-greet into deeply collaborative conversations that foster business transformations.

Inviting people into the conversation can have a huge impact on the culture of the organization. As James Robert says, this psychological effect goes back to the elementary schoolyard where simply participating in an activity together builds camaraderie.

Being invited to the table for a groundbreaking discussion is thrilling and disarming, and it tends to encourage people to be more expressive and creative. In the professional world, it’s also a break from your ordinary job and allows you to stop thinking about everyday problems so you can start thinking more innovatively.

For financial executives who are looking to foster this kind of creative collaboration, Jody offers the following tips:

  • Don’t get stuck in your “cave of complacency.” Exit your office, walk through the building, connect with remote coworkers online, and start new interactions.
  • Exercise your creative muscle by finding fresh ways to compliment other people’s efforts and creative thinking.
  • Never assume you’re the smartest person in the room. Instead, assume others are smarter than you and see what you can learn from them.
  • Learn a completely new skill, like cooking, and share it with others in your personal and professional life.
  • Open new parts of your brain by reading new books, subscribing to new newsletters, and listening to new podcasts on a variety of topics.

James Robert agrees with these tips and offers another of his own: “Play the long game.” Rather than focusing on short-term gains and short-term rewards, assume your company will be around for a long time and have the courage to make innovative decisions that support a long and successful future.