Bosses at banks, broker-dealers and traditional asset managers are constantly asking employees for big ideas and they’re always shocked when the financial services industry’s next revolution doesn’t emerge from the latest brainstorming session. Through a decade of working with organisations like Fidelity, Citibank and UBS, my firm has found that taming a wild idea, not improving a mediocre one, is what actually leads to innovation.
The first part of a brainstorm merely recycles existing ideas; the middle portion yields incremental ideas; and the final block of time is when the breakthroughs happen. Anyone who’s participated in one of these meetings can attest that brainstorms usually stall before the third stage. We’re too focused on judging other people’s ideas—and pre-judging our own. Inevitably, the uncomfortable silence wins out and we call it a day.
Here are some tips for how to earn the respect of your superiors and peers by coming up with great ideas to position yourself for a promotion.
Don’t be afraid to be controversial
To improve your odds of coming up with a groundbreaking idea ask yourself, “What ideas would get me fired?” This simple perspective shift gives your brain permission to stretch its thinking and unlock the door to truly imaginative concepts.
When I open a session with the “get you fired” question, employees look surprised. Then they ask for clarification. I challenge the room to think about the types of ideas that would give their CEO a panic attack, ideas that clients or investors would love but would never expect you to actually do. I’m talking about ideas that are outrageous in theory but transformative in action.
When I’m working with a company in a regulated industry like finance, I remind them to think within legal parameters, but otherwise, no boundaries are given.
The whiteboard is initially filled with silly, predictable items like “drug trafficking” and “calling in sick every Monday". But after these are mentioned, the next wave of thinking is far more creative than anything prompted by “give me a big idea".
For example, “start a business that competes with my current employer” is an idea that could certainly get you fired. But in the context of this exercise, it can start a valuable conversation about crisis aversion. A competing venture would likely exploit your company’s biggest weakness, opening up a discussion about what can be done now to transform the firm’s flaws into strengths.
Ideas to help you to get promoted
Among the thousands of ideas that have come out of my “get you fired” sessions, the nine below illustrate the kind of disruptive thinking that leads to innovation…and potentially a promotion for financial services professionals who aren't afraid to speak their mind.
- Cut the fees on Investment Product X in half. (For example: “We must be willing to re-think our fee structures in an era of ETFs and index-tracking mutual funds.”)
- Give away Service Y for free. (For example: “In an effort to cement relationships with companies exploring an IPO, merger or acquisition, provide our first consultation with them for free.”)
- The one acquisition that would most impact our business is X but we haven’t considered it because of Y.
- Outsource portion X of our product/service offerings or infrastructure. (For example: "Let's solicit quotes from third-party services providers to gauge where there might be cost-efficiencies across our information technology platforms and operations.")
- Offer a product or service at five times the cost by doing Y.
- Change the one thing customers or investors hate most about Product/Service X. (For example: "We know clients feel uncomfortable when there are new people working with them, so we will do our best to avoid moving employees around and ensure stability for teams with pending deals or projects that are still in process.")
- Stop taking Y for granted in our industry.
- Since business model X will most likely render us irrelevant, we should do Y to avoid this scenario. (For example: "With the increasing commoditization of financial advice and asset allocation with the rising popularity of automated investment services such as robo-advisers, we need to increase the budget for our IT infrastructure, web platforms and digital initiatives to make sure we are keeping pace with competitors and innovating.")
- Our lack of X is always our excuse for failure, even though the real problem is Y.
Employees who offer these kinds of ideas often get noticed and promoted—not fired. By tapping into a new, provocative mindset, you can challenge conventions about your firm’s business, processes and the financial industry itself. Slowly but steadily, the routine ideas your brain has been trained to produce will be replaced by true disruptors.
Lisa Bodell is a keynote speaker and the CEO of futurethink, a global innovation firm. She is the author of “Kill the Company: End the Status Quo, Start an Innovation Revolution.”
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