I woke up one day and started heading into work, just like any other day. But as I was walking to the subway and thinking about my day ahead, I suddenly had this jarring revelation – I was stuck in a rut. Up until that moment, I hadn’t even realized it. But now, it hit me like a flash, and it was so blindingly obvious – I was completely stuck in a rut at work.
Let me explain. I was an executive at a large bank – but one that is well known for its analytic heritage and culture of innovation. For years, I had taken great pride in the fact that I didn’t work for a traditional bank. We were different: we were entrepreneurial. We were leading-edge. We moved faster. We were innovative.
I had worked there for so long that it was like I had grown up just knowing these things to be true. After all, it was the story I had been telling myself – and others – for many years. It was how I recruited great talent to come work for me. It was how I inspired them to go beyond what they thought was possible. But now, on this cold, autumn morning, here I was frozen in the middle of the sidewalk, blurting out to no one in particular, “when was the last time I did something innovative?”
It had happened so gradually that I hadn’t even noticed. As I reflected in that moment on my last couple years at work, I was shocked at how little I had really accomplished. And yet, I was busier than ever. There was so much corporate governance work to do. We were constantly modernizing our technology stack, which required coordinating with hundreds of teams across the globe. There were the countless meetings to discuss and debate our ever-shifting priorities. There was cost pressures, fire drills, and the ever-increasing backlog of emails in my inbox. With all of this going on, who on earth would ever have time to innovate?
Just thinking about all of these things would normally cause my heart to start racing. But this day was different. This day, I had an epiphany. Standing in the middle of that sidewalk, I quickly made some texts and canceled all my meetings for that day. And then I raced home, an idea starting to form in my head. And when I got home, I picked up the phone – and I called up an old friend.
The Eisenhower principle
Everyone knows that innovation is not only important, but absolutely necessary to achieving sustainable success for your business. And in the pace of the digital world, this is truer than ever – companies today must innovate or die. Then why are we too busy to innovate today?
Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States, famously said, “what’s important is seldom urgent, and what’s urgent is seldom important.” We all have a million to-do’s that need to get done this week. But our biggest goals – those that span beyond our current planning horizon but could be game-changing – always fall within the ‘important/not urgent’ quadrant of the Eisenhower Matrix. You want to work on them, but you just don’t feel you can – not today, at least, with all that stuff on your plate, and all of it urgent.
Try to avoid this trap at all costs – if you treat it like a sucker’s choice, you will never get to the important stuff. What makes you think tomorrow will be better than today? Do you know anyone who gets less busy as they progress in their career? I don’t. Thinking you’re just going through a rough patch or a hump, and your calendar is going to get better next month, next quarter? Trust me, it’s not going to happen. So how do you break out of this cycle?
The secret is planning – you need to schedule for innovation. Sure, great companies like Google have a culture of innovation that permeates throughout the day-to-day, but they are also very deliberate about their approach to innovation, such as their ‘20% time’ policy. Why not book a demo day? Plan for a hackathon? Block everyone’s calendar on Friday for innovation? Schedule a strategy offsite? The point is you need a forcing mechanism, because it won’t happen organically – the gravitational pull of the ‘urgent, not important’ is just too strong.
That was what was going through my head as I stood in the middle of that sidewalk. I wanted to break the cycle. I wanted to start today.
But I needed a forcing mechanism.
“I came home with a brand-new plan.” Steve Earle, Copperhead Road
A new plan
Way back in the late 90’s, in what seems like a lifetime ago, I worked for a tech start-up in Waterloo. My boss was the owner and one of the co-founders of Communitech. Now, of course, Communitech is one of the largest tech innovation hubs in the world. But at that time, they were still holding their meetings in the basement of our tiny office.
I hadn’t been back to Communitech in years. But here I was, calling up Steve – a very talented data scientist that had worked for me before and now lived in Waterloo. We hadn’t spoken in a while, and I asked him if he’d meet me at Communitech for a coffee. It was a long shot, but I had a pitch for him. He agreed, and so I got in my car for the hour-and-a-half trek on the 401 from Toronto to Waterloo, not knowing that what I was embarking on was the start of an amazing journey.
This is four years ago, but I remember that meeting vividly. After exchanging pleasantries, I made my pitch:
“Will you come back and build an Innovation Lab for me?”
Thankfully, he said yes.
Design for innovation
The primary goal of the Lab was to build data-driven products that customers would love. We also had 3 hypotheses that we hoped to prove with our experiment; could we use the Lab to:
- Make faster progress on testing advanced analytic tools and techniques by creating a space “off the grid”, away from the meeting culture of head office;
- Build a talent pipeline by hiring talented engineering co-ops from U of Waterloo to work in the Lab and providing them a great work experience;
- Become more digitally fluent as a company through immersion in the Kitchener-Waterloo (KW) fintech scene
This was pretty novel at the time, but by now most large financial institutions have formed similar innovation labs to accelerate their digital journey. Many of these have failed to build traction yet, and the reason is not a lack of engineering talent – it’s a function of organizational design. The Lab needs a certain degree of independence if it’s to fulfill its goal of incubating new ideas, but it also needs a strong connection to the mothership. Most companies I talk to speak about their Lab in terms of “us” versus “them”. “They’re all hype, no one knows what they’re working on” is a common sentiment I hear. That is why I obsessed about visiting Steve at the Lab often and always discussing the system itself – how connected did they feel, what support they needed, how were they engaging with the business to select their product pipeline. This is a key point that can’t be overstated – there’s no point in investing in innovation if the system is designed for good ideas to die on the vine.
Our Lab was a very lean shop – less than a handful of full-time associates and four to six co-op students each term – that managed to build some really cool products. Here are just a few:
- A machine learning algorithm for classifying all customer feedback (survey, social, app store) that massively outperformed our vendor product
- A powerful fraud detection model built using Neo4j Graph DB technology that uncovered multiple fraud rings
- A calendar tool for the mobile app that used AI to predict recurring expenses and allow customers to better manage their budget
I asked the product owner, Jonathan, how much more productive he was in the Lab environment than head office, away from the constant meetings. His response, without batting an eye: “infinitely.”
The Lab was just a piece of a broader innovation strategy, but one that proved to be a very successful experiment – and it all started that day four years ago. I am so proud of what Steve and the team have built there and glad to see that innovation pipeline continues to thrive after I’ve left.
What is your version of an “innovation lab”? What is that big goal or dream that you’ve been putting off – why not get started today? If you need some extra inspiration, check out Peter Dinklage’s motivational commencement speech at Bennington College.
I made a big leap myself a few months ago when I left the corporate world to fulfill my dream of building my own business. And while it was a scary thought at first, I have never looked back. I always used to joke with Steve that he had my dream job, running the Lab – and now I have that job with Payson Solutions. But whatever your goal is, start innovating towards it today.