Breakthrough Innovation

March 12, 2009

Extreme Innovation

Filed under: Uncategorized — mosesma @ 5:54 pm

snowboardleadWhen you delve into snowboarding or base-jumping, or any other extreme sport, you’ll find many parallels to the art of innovation. In essence, innovation and extreme sports are pursuits that require energy, skill and courage (in spades), along with a healthy dose of skeptical belief .

When you compare extreme sports to the strategies and execution philosophies of successful companies, you find that success in either domain requires knowing the environment, the strength and limitations of your equipment, your level of skill, your risk appetite, your guide’s knowledge and management skills,  the team’s ability to function as one, what you can and can’t control, and finally,  listening  to your gut instinct. In that final analysis, you’ll find that both activities rely heavily on  feel and expecting the unexpected.

I caught up recently with Steve Ellis, EVP of Wholesale Internet Services at Wells Fargo & Co, who manages the bank’s wholesale  banking technology and just happens to be… and an avid heli-boarder! I wanted to discuss these parallels, and learn a bit about what it takes to make innovation occur on a regular basis  at a behemoth financial services company.  Steve and his team have a proven track record of being first-to-market with new financial service products.


Steve Ellis, EVP at Wells Fargo & Co

Steve is one of the most energetic guys I’ve ever met –  the kind of guy who  wants to live fully in the moment of every minute of every day, 365 days a year. When I asked him for the formula for Wells Fargo’s secret sauce for extreme innovation, he laughed and explained lucidly, “There’s no secret sauce… but there are three basic tenets that we operate from, when it comes to  developing new products and services. First, innovation takes belief, that there is ‘something’ in the idea that will add value for customers, even when a traditional ROI model would tell you  to  not pursue the idea. Second, innovation is more about hard work than thinking up an idea, it’s more about execution than inspiration.  And third, it is important to get active and rapid feedback during the process.

“So you’re right, innovating and snowboarding down a mountain of virgin powder deliver similar kinds of highs ; it’s  the thrill of the  being somewhere ‘new’. It’s about strategy and execution, and tapping into continual feedback loops. Once you hit the zone, once you feel you have ‘something’ – whether you’re snowboarding or innovating –  it is an incredible rush, to ride the breathtaking flow of peak performance and what I’d call instinctual execution.”

Steve’s team developed the Wells Fargo Commercial Electronic Office (aka the CEO)  in 2000 , which has won just about every award that a  commercial  banking site could win.  The initial small group was able to build from scratch a single sign on portal to a half dozen financial services in 6 months, that was immediately well-received by customers. Since that time in 2000, the group has delivered 34 new releases of the portal, continually feeding new ideas and customer feedback into the CEO experience.  The team has  also taken these learnings  to other endeavors, like an internal unified desktop for its employees, a holistic customer view  connecting 50+ systems of record,   and  re-engineering its “sneaker-ware” credit processes into a modernized electronic workflow.

Steve continues, “On the other hand, you have to pace yourself as you’re learning. It takes a while for people to get comfortable with new ways of doing things and it’s best to learn in incremental steps. Start with simple things, master them, and then build more complex structures off the original base leveraging user and other feedback as an integral part of the process. But always keep in mind, that like snowboarding, innovation is sometimes actually safer when you do it just a little faster than your comfort zone. You won’t fall off as much and you will learn something new.”

Steve does a jump

Steve does a jump

Steve continues, “When you snowboard down a mountain of virgin powder… this is the perfect opportunity to learn how to listen harder. On the snow, it’s about  the feel of the mountain and reacting to the texture of the snow. In business, it’s about listening  closely to the customer.  For example, at Wells Fargo, we perform ethnography studies at client sites. We send  a small group of  people to literally camp out at a customer site for several days to observe how employees do their jobs.  We look for ways to re-shape our services .”

“Real innovation is about getting past the hype of a new idea, to learn how to see how things really work. These principles for innovation are in fact are quite simple to follow.  Most are either innate, part of our natural make-up, or learned more at a subconscious level and are not acquired by going to business school or anything.  Once you have these basic principles down, they can become the prime bedrock for creating successful and lasting businesses.”


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