As a buzzword, innovation is being bandied about so much that it’s quickly losing its shine, writes Jörg Fischer, Head of Group Technology and Operations at the Standard Bank Group. “You’re nothing if you’re not innovative,” businesses are often warned. “Without innovation, you’ll simply be left behind.” “It’s innovation that will give your business its competitive edge in an ever-changing world.”

Of course, there’s truth to these claims, particularly in the era of Covid, when the companies and industries that have survived are largely distinguished from those that have sunk by their ability to adapt and evolve. But this blunt, blind faith in innovation neglects some important subtleties about its true value.

Putting people first

Viewing innovation as a panacea fails to give due credit to the very human problems that necessitate it in the first place. It’s not innovation for innovation’s sake that contributes to business success and helps to drives meaningful, long-term change. Instead, it’s innovation for humanity’s sake. If real people and real problems are at the heart of innovative leaps, that’s where innovation creates a watershed.

For almost a decade, Standard Bank has been running hackathons to inspire its teams to reach new creative heights, and to nurture a culture of continuous innovation in the company. While the hackathons are neither discipline nor country-specific – with employees and contractors from across Standard Bank’s international footprint invited to attend – there is one critical criteria that needs to be met. Attendees must develop technical solutions to real-life client problems.

While blue-sky thinking is encouraged, this premise helps to ground teams. We’re saying to them: “You have a vast canvas on which play and create, but we want you to put our clients front and centre.” By examining specific client pain points, we ensure that the hackathons become microcosms of our business, and help us to deliver on our ambition to be both truly digital and truly human.

Working incrementally

These hackathons don’t ever result in solutions that are immediately ready to be implemented. Even teams that get to the point of developing a prototype within the designated 48-hour period have to test and retest their ideas in different environments, and meet a variety of regulatory requirements before they can be rolled out.

But the hackathons permit both new and existing sparks to be fanned into life, and there’s value in creating space for this incremental ideation.

In a recently published paper about the teachings evolution offers innovation, the Harvard Business Review discusses Moderna’s development of the mRNA vaccine. Rather than an overnight revelation, the vaccine was the result of 10 years’ work. “There was no precise ‘aha’ moment when the mRNA breakthrough happened,” the review says. “The Moderna mRNA platform was built on a constellation of technologies, methods, techniques, and know-how that evolved over time.”

It also depended, inevitably, on considerable research that had been done in a multitude of other fields over years and years prior.

Collaborating internally and externally

Similarly, the innovations Standard Bank introduces neither occur overnight nor are developed in isolation. We understand that, in addition to being client-centric, innovation also has to be born out of community. And that means working laterally across departments and disciplines, building on each other’s ideas and research, and developing solutions slowly, sometimes over long periods of time.

We also acknowledge that there are organisations that have expertise in fields other than our own, and that collaborating with them is critical to innovation, too. Leveraging the skills, products and services of our partners in a way that is seamless and simple helps us to perform better for our clients. While this may not be innovation in the truest sense, it is innovation at its most practical and its most impactful. And that’s what matters.

Standard Bank is constantly working towards Ambition 2025, its aim of becoming a client-centric, digitally enabled platform business that can compete and win in a competitive world that prioritises innovation and reinvention. Our own internal innovations along the way, however, aren’t always immediately obvious. Often, they’re discreet, elegant solutions that, incrementally and effectively, are helping to redefine the future of our business.

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