Androscoggin Bank's David Pease and Sally Wilson: "You don't just wake up and suddenly you're an innovative company."


Even an old conservative organization needs to work in new ways. Androscoggin Bank is in year three of its Innovation Initiative. 


Their most exciting discovery is that the Innovation Initiative not only produces better business results, it is also a huge employee opportunity. David enthused, "We’ve both been blown away by how engaged employees have become. A major motivator for people is interesting work." Androscoggin Bank is 145 years old. Innovation is important to such a venerable institution because they need to deliver better service faster to serve client needs. Innovation is mission critical. The Innovation Initiative invites employees to invest their energy in process improvement, rooted in clients needs and wants. They are excited to express ideas. David realizes, "In order to attract and retain top talent, innovation has to be there. We want to attract millennials, and innovation is what they want. We believe this gives us head and shoulders advantage over other organizations that don’t innovate."

Innovation is an impetus for organizational change. In a 145 year old bank, there is a culture of conservatism. Sally asserts:
We are introducing to employees the idea that we’re going to get messy, going to make mistakes, going to fail at some things. We were concerned at how will this conservative organization adapt to this learning environment, to this experimentation? That is a big challenge. We are conservative, and bound by rules and regulations. The great challenge is to experiment. It does get messy, but it’s fun to get messy. It incorporates fun at work. Creativity is a diving board into innovation, even though innovation is a systematic science. Creativity is important. People can be thinking new things, piloting, and that ‘s not the norm here. Innovation is about learning. What do clients want and how can we make it happen?

Generating ideas and having structure balance with each other. They use structure to generate innovation, and are pleased to find a partner in Doug Hall and his Innovation Engineering model. He’s brought this approach to a lot of companies. They find that this model is perfect for them, for creativity and a framework to fail fast, fail cheap.  Sally explains, "We know now what the real problems are before we jump to solutions, before we commercialize. We’ve gotten better at decision making by using this discipline." Employees submit ideas methodically, via an online portal on the internet. The ideas are analyzed cross-functionally, chosen and tested carefully.

They have established an Innovation Team over the past three years. Sally leads the team, David is the sponsor, and there is a Board member who serves as advisor. They have supported the initiative thoroughly in this systematic way. Employees actively submit ideas, and by working through this process, people make the right decisions. Innovation must be at the strategic level, front and center of the strategic plan. They also solicit support from all of management and employees. David acknowledges, "All of us have other work to do; this is a small piece of our jobs. But everyone is excited to know they’re making a difference, that they have a voice. We now have a discipline." 

Sally emphasizes the importance of using resources available, "We want to leverage internal resources. We also look externally to mine what other companies are doing across all industries, not just banking." David posits:
We’ll never create brand new technology like Apple does, but we can partner with Apple to create exactly what our clients want. There are many technologies we can use, this process helps us identify best practices for doing so. You have to look and educate yourself on what’s going on in the whole business world. How can we partner and repackage to serve clients?
They have already had tangible results in three years.
  • In the first year, they created the infrastructure, created the team, divided the work up, and brought the whole organization to a common level of understanding. They worked the model into their on-boarding. They established how to make recommendations for ideas, how the ideas would be vetted, how the model would work. They did generate some ideas, and implemented a few.
  • In the second year, they started seeing great ideas: over 100 in six months. The process helped them manage how to handle all of these ideas. The model guides them to look at ideas in stages, versus running all the way with one idea and finding out later on that it won’t work. This is a business initiative. They've created strategy and work plans, measurements of impact on clients and employee engagement. 
  • In this third year, they've worked on keeping it alive, telling the stories. David declares, "You don’t just wake up and suddenly you’re an innovative company. You have to work it every day. Little buds of innovation appear. People work together, collaborate, integrate diverse points of view. We have to keep telling these stories." Sally adds, "Our job is about storytelling, reading and listening to what happens in the workplace, taking slight risks that get vetted. We work across business lines, and collaborate with entities externally."
There have been ripple effects, things not intentionally built in. Collaboration was not an original cornerstone, but has developed because of working cross functionally and listening to what the idea is, before moving into implementation and commercialization. They have become disciplined at listening, working together and asking really good questions, especially in the problem solving phase. Other initiatives at Androscoggin have been impacted by the Innovation Initiative. All initiatives are now seen as interdependent and integrated bank wide. David affirms, "We don’t even talk any more about initiatives being stand- alone. We don’t even want us to say 'this is an innovative idea.' It’s just the way we work. The way we work should be focused on business, clients, employees and results."


Employee involvement is bank wide. The Innovation Team crosses functions and levels. Sally describes, "We educate new employees through orientation. Bank-wide education took place in the first year and is ongoing. Each Innovation Team member is assigned a business line to promote, guide, educate and offer to help work with the model. They are change agents for the whole organization." David continues, "We hand picked the Innovation Team. We looked for definite points of view, willingness to share, to listen to other points of view and also the courage to disagree. We looked for diversity of views."


Collaboration, discipline and accountability are key components. They do not want flavor of the month. They hold themselves and the organization accountable to make innovation the true differentiator. They want a slow and steady culture shift.


David illustrates: 
We’re thinking about future technology and how to use it. For example, all banks are offering mobile banking, but innovation is not about the technology, it’s about more clients using it. 10% usage is the norm, we’re shooting for 20%. Now more clients are not only using mobile banking, more of them are suggesting new wants.

Interviewing Sally and David, I easily sense the synergy in their organization. David concludes, "You can see that we’re passionate."

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