I was catching up with some ex-colleagues for dinner the other night. It was our scheduled bi-monthly (more like quarterly now) get together. After the usual exchange of friendly pleasantries about the weather, family and any upcoming Christmas holidays, the conversation quickly turned to the mediocrity of the UK banking industry and the almost comical fascination with ‘innovation’. Innovation we pondered, and the search for it, has become a major obsession for UK banks. This fascination with innovation is also the main thing holding them back…
The main misconception that most UK banks have is that innovation can be defined, diagrammed and documented on paper. Innovation is a set of tasks, which begins with research, expands in ideation and results in a strategy or proposition document. It is done by ‘blue sky’ thinkers and requires freedom and creativity of thought. Due to this, most banks are happy to spend months and months (and hundreds of thousands of pounds) on the search for a compelling new set of features or products. At the end of this cycle they hope to have defined an ‘innovative’ concept.
Most banks surmise that they can win the war with competitors by being better at defining these ideas during this ‘innovation’ lifecycle. They believe that with the right money, resource and talent that they can find a nugget that their competitors can’t. This obsession with the definition phase, and the definition alone, can lead to some fantastic roadmaps. The issue is, if you don’t deliver it, it means nothing. If you were to walk into the head office of most banks in the world and see their strategy, the standard deviation in ideas and strategy between each bank would be next to nothing. Almost all would have the same strategy. This means that at the strategy level alone, you can’t win through differentiation.
One of the main reasons strategy is less important, is that with the dissemination of information across the World Wide Web there is rarely a new idea or thought that hasn't been conceived elsewhere. Whilst you may have a slightly new take on something, or a competitive advantage you can leverage, your idea is hardly likely to be new. It’s also fair to say that as we become more technologically advance that being truly innovative becomes more difficult. It’s logical. As the bar rises, the increments of improvement reduce. Think about the iPhone versus when it was launched and where it is today. With strategy becoming so ‘by the by’ you can only win by executing more efficiently and effectively that your competitors.
These days, the strategy and ideas is the easy part. You can buy them off the shelf ready-made. Copy your competitor (ask Samsung about this). Speak to Forrester if you want. You can hire an expert on the spot. You can even read my blog (maybe someone else's would be better) if you want a good idea. Execution is the hard bit and by virtue execution is what makes something innovative. Getting something out there is what gives you a competitive advantage. A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush as they say.
So how do you go about moving from a focus on innovation to execution? Well for a start, place the same importance on delivery as strategy. Sure strategy is fun, sure it involves some blue sky thinking, sure it's more ‘easy going’, but strategy alone leads to nothing. Execution is gritty, tiring, difficult, evolving, it's not pretty. That’s what makes it so hard to achieve. In many organisations delivery roles are even looked down upon. Being 'delivery focused' can be considered a negative. Doer’s do because they are not smart enough to think. Well don't think this. Delivery is the lifeblood of innovation. People who deliver should be the first candidate for recognition and promotion. I would personally take a doer over a talker anytime.
This post is should not be considered a personal attack on strategists, of which I sometimes like to consider myself, it just attempts to provide a sense of appreciation around execution in the role of innovation. To realise that delivering change is harder than thinking about what the change should be. At the end of the day, don't think that developing a good strategy is innovative. Think of consistently getting your roadmap delivered on time and on budget (or ahead if so be it) as innovative. If you can deliver this, I guarantee you will be considered the most innovative company ever.