Presented by Wells Fargo

As the manager of Wells Fargo’s digital innovation lab, I’m privy to a debate that surfaces around the value of labs at large corporations. Do innovation labs really make a difference?

A few years ago there was plenty of fanfare around the opening of these shiny spaces at large financial institutions. The question asked, over and over again, was how an old-school industry like banking could reinvent itself. Can a lab alone help financial institutions overcome a dominant regulatory environment and traditional business strategies to achieve a more nimble and creative identity?

Today, I’m proud to say that at Wells Fargo, we’ve seen the kind of innovation that originates from a lab, and benefits our customers. Throughout our work, we’ve learned to incorporate a few key elements that have become the cornerstones of how we achieve outcomes.

Startup structure

One of the basic keys to getting an innovation lab right is to learn from startup structures. Effective companies create imaginary walls around the lab that separate its goals from those of the organization. An innovation-focused team isn’t about immediate revenue creation any more than a consumer startup is during the early days. What really matters when launching something new is a relentless focus on new value to the customer.

What new service, experience, or product will someone receive that is meaningful to their lives? Once you answer that question, then you can figure out the business model and how to scale and make it sustainable.

Some corporate labs fail at this juncture because they’re so focused on ingenuity and creativity that the lab becomes irrelevant. Conversely, others fear irrelevance and focus on such incremental innovations that they become an extension of the regular production environment. They miss out on the freedom to test and create wildly novel solutions for customers.

Embed your technical talent

Big companies have massive IT units run as separate divisions, and large structures form product and marketing teams. But, innovation labs that function within that model are missing the point. At Wells Fargo, we’re like any startup where a lean team of 15 business strategists, developers, and engineers sit together, working on a solution that we’ll have ready in days, not weeks or months.

At a startup, you’re able to turn to your head of product (who happens to be writing code) and say, “What do you think about changing the interaction like so?” And she can push the change live before you’ve walked away. That’s how we operate. We thrive as a lab because we know our priorities, we have the capabilities and freedoms we need, and we can quickly make decisions and bring them to life.

Understanding the real constraints of our industry

In banking we operate in a landscape of strict regulatory oversight. We’ve had to be very thoughtful on this front.

Our strong partnerships with compliance, legal, and security divisions are invaluable. While we operate with a startup structure, we can’t forget who our stakeholders are. We can’t risk compromising secure data or exposing customer information just for the sake of speed to market, yet we still have to act fast.

That happens by tightly determining what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it. As just one example of how we make that work, we don’t always need real data to test a concept. Sometimes we create protected sandboxes that mirror the actual environment but don’t require the regulations or security process — allowing us to test technology more rapidly.

Remembering the point

I don’t know a single one of my friends who eagerly anticipates Saturday afternoon so that she can update her budget spreadsheet, but I’ve heard rumors that such creatures exist. For most people, banking isn’t a fun hobby. But it helps people live fuller lives and achieve their dreams. I get up each morning excited to do my job and lead innovation in banking, because I think we’re making personal financial engagement more compelling and because I think we’re finding ways to make it more invisible and easy for the average person. We’re not innovating for the sake of innovation, but with a purpose and a deliberate focus on bringing value to customers.

Shari Van Cleave manages Wells Fargo’s Digital Labs, where a team of technology leaders pilot the future of consumer banking. Previously, Shari helped launch the Venture Capital and Innovation Lab of Prudential Financial. She also has experience leading innovation in global development and actively consults humanitarian organizations. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in international political economy from the University of Washington and an MBA from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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