Innovation Spotlight: USAA’s Zachary Gipson, Mastercard’s Garry Lyons

Innovation is a word we hear a lot in fintech.

It’s a bit easier to measure innovation in startups — as that’s really the primary focus of one — than in incumbent or traditional banks, but one way to quantify the level of focus and attention banks are giving to innovation is to see if they have an internal team devoted to it.

It does seem as though more and more financial institutions are developing innovation teams and labs; according to data from the State of Banking Innovation Q3 2016 survey conducted by Bank Innovation, nearly 70% (69.2%) of respondents said their bank or financial institution had a dedicated innovation team, a huge leap forward from the 44% who answered yes back in 2014.

A focus on ‘innovation’ can mean quite a lot of things—for example, Mastercard’s chief innovation officer Garry Lyons is, among other things, responsible for the organization’s payments initiative, but to Lyons innovation is more about solving a problem, not creating tech simply to do so (although some of the technology displayed in Mastercard’s New York Tech Hub is pretty cool).

“We generally try to play with a purpose,” says Lyons of the way Mastercard approaches innovation in fintech. “Yes we do experiment, we embrace technology, but innovation is not just about creating new products and solutions, it’s about finding a better way.”

Data shows that bankers still don’t consider themselves to be particularly innovative—according to the State of Banking Innovation Q3 2016 survey, the highest percentage of bankers (about 31% of respondents) continue to rank themselves at a three on an innovation scale from one to five, one being the lowest level possible.

Bankers also still cited ‘corporate bureaucracy’ as the main reason behind stalls in company innovation; the 37% of respondents who chose that answer this year is not overly far from the 44% who chose it in 2014.

According to USAA’s chief innovation officer (or CNO, as we are calling it) Zachary Gipson, that makes the way a company—especially a traditional bank like USAA—approaches innovation even more critical.

Gipson told Bank Innovation:

USAA has a competitive advantage in this space because of the culture of innovation we have fostered. Our unofficial motto is “everyone is an innovator.” Having a Chief Innovation Officer helps us apply the right focus and attention on where we innovate. Having a centralized team also enables us to leverage innovative work from across our businesses – the tools we apply to solving problems in the insurance business can help us learn and move faster when we apply them to banking. Having run businesses, the challenge is always balancing time and attention on “today”, with the need to challenge and disrupt yourself for the “future”.

One way to cultivate this “culture of innovation” inside the bank has been the company’s “Employee Innovation Program,” of which over 90% of the bank’s employees have participated in—Mastercard has something similar, a program inspired by Adobe’s Kickbox solution called IdeaBox.

With IdeaBox, employees can propose an idea or solution and receive a box with $1,000 and company support to build out the idea. If that goes well, the employees receive another box; and if that goes well, the team can pitch to the CEO and form the idea into a full-fledged product.

“We want to continue to use technology as a differentiator,” says Lyons. “There’s no point in implementing state-of-the-art technology if the way you’re implementing it isn’t state-of-the-art.”

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