(actual) Creativity and innovation in the finance industry 02 June 2021

Firms always talk about developing a more innovative culture. But how do you actually do that? Duncan Wardle, the former Head of Innovation at Disney, has some ideas.
The importance of an innovative culture is often emphasized in these pages and throughout the financial services industry. But what does that actually mean?  I wanted to strip away all the platitudes surrounding the buzzword. So, I sought out an expert, a practitioner. Who better than someone who was quite literally Head of Innovation for 30 years at Disney, one of the most innovative companies to ever exist. That’s exactly who I found: Duncan Wardle.
I scheduled a Zoom with Duncan (his expertise would clearly be better in person but these are the times we live in) and as I typically do, prepared my list of six questions. I introduced myself and explained how I thought his insight could be useful for our global banking and insurance membership. Duncan stopped me and said “Mind if I just go?” With this type of expert, it’s typically best to just cede the floor. So that’s what I did.
Clear time for innovation in the work day
Duncan has spoken in front of thousands of people, and he often poses the question: “What time of the day do most ideas come to you?” People give all types of responses: in the shower, just before bed, while out for a leisurely stroll. One answer he never hears? At work. Hang on a minute. If we are supposedly working at innovative institutions that are theoretically paying us to come up with new ideas, then why aren’t any of these groundbreaking ideas coming to us during our working hours? Clearly something is amiss.
In his time at Disney, they surveyed 5,000 people across all the Disney brands, asking them what the barriers were to innovating inside a large, corporate environment. The number 1 answer? 68% of people said “I don’t have time to think.” Work days inevitably fill up with meetings, Zoom calls, and drafting emails. None of those activities are conducive to ideating. In fact, they are inimical to the creative process.   

How can banks and insurance companies – notoriously rigid and hierarchical – foster a more innovative culture? Get out from behind the desk and go for a walk. Instead of responding with “No, because…”, work hard to respond in meetings with “Yes, and…”. Clear time, even if it’s just one morning a quarter, for ideating. A time where all ideas – even the wacky and unrealistic ones – are met with a “Yes, and…”. This will result in more expansive ideas and an inclusionary decision-making process. “Nurturing is a remarkably powerful innovative behavior,” according to Duncan. 

Get out of your river of thinking

A river of thinking is your own expertise and experience. The more senior you become in an organization, the deeper and faster and wider your river becomes. You know more about your specific area, but you are deeper in it and struggle to see, let alone swim in, other rivers. Innovation is asking someone to get out of their river and be different and brave, but that becomes increasingly difficult the more senior you become. 

The first step to getting out of your river of thinking is by asking “What if?” Everyone loves to complain about regulatory constraints in their industry. Duncan has spoken in front of and met with groups from virtually every industry. They always feel like their industry is the most heavily regulated of them all. Banks? You can't imagine the number of regulations they have to comply with. Insurers? You bet. People feel trapped – either in their river of thinking, due to regulations, or both - and are not asking the right questions to get unstuck. 
Walt Disney was originally constrained by the strict rules and environment of a movie theater. You have to sit down, be quiet, and can only watch one movie at a time. These rules curbed his incessant imagination. Instead of trying to simply improve the experience inside that restrictive environment, he asked, “What if I take my movies out of the theater and make them three dimensional?” Asking that question led to DisneyWorld and one of the most iconic brands of our time. The more provocative and absurd your “What if” question is, the further out of your river of thinking you’ll get, opening up unprecedented opportunities.  

Spend a day in a customer’s living room

“When was the last time the CEO of a bank spent a day in the living room of their consumers?” I’m not the CEO of a bank nor do I spend a lot of time with bank CEOs, but I am confident the answer to this probing question from Duncan is “not recently.” This distance means banks continue to be product-centric and not consumer-centric. So many banks talk a good game when it comes to customer-centricity, but in order to become truly customer-centric, you must spend time with a customer to understand how they are living and using your products. Only then can you claim that the customer is at the center of your efforts. 
Reframe the question to unlock long term value
Another benefit of a knowing your customers on a deeper level is understanding where their pain points really are. Duncan was at the heart of one of the biggest innovations at Disney theme parks: the MagicBand. But the wristband was not the result of Disney executives getting together in a boardroom to identify a new revenue stream. The innovation was instead the result of a fundamental reframing of a question. Instead of asking “How can we boost profits?” Duncan asked “How can we eliminate a major pain point for guests?” Using radio-frequency id (RFID) technology, they created the MagicBand that streamlined the entire park experience for guests. They can access their hotels, check in to FastPass+ entrances, and order food, all with the band. It also led to incredible new data collection on guest behavior. They now understand, in finely grained detail, how guests are spending their time (and money) at the parks, and can adjust accordingly. 

That incredible innovation at the park wasn’t the result of just trying to make more money. As Duncan said, if they wanted to do that, they would have just raised ticket and hotel prices. Asking the wrong questions will have long-term effects on company success. “If companies continue to ask themselves how they will make more money, Generation Z will see them gone. This is a generation that cares about purpose more than profit. Not only will they not buy your products and services if they don’t believe in what you stand for, they won’t want to work for you,” said Duncan. 

Duncan is no longer with Disney. He founded his own consulting firm, works with top companies, and gives speeches around the globe. His mission is to empower companies and their employees to create and innovate. Leaders frequently invoke the need to create and maintain a more innovative culture but too often leave their employees short on ways to execute. Duncan is giving them the tools they need. “I created a toolkit that makes innovation easy for people, creativity tangible, and the process enjoyable. What my toolkit does is enable people to create and innovate on their own, when leaders aren’t around,” he said. Having been shown the toolkit firsthand, I can confidently say - as companies are navigating their way through a period of incredible change in our current moment - leaders ought to be giving Duncan a call.    

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