Financial Innovation Labs Can Solve COVID-19 Challenges

If your bank or credit union has a financial lab or an innovation officer on the payroll, the coronavirus challenge is one where their 'out of the box' thinking could help. Ask them to turn their own digital and other tech resources and those of their contacts to solving your pandemic-related tasks.

It’s possible that for all of the benefits brought to banking by innovation labs up until now, their most important contributions may come during the coronavirus outbreak.

Innovation labs and smaller innovation functions, or even single innovation officers, are ready, willing and able to pitch in and help your company during the COVID-19 crisis. Innovation teams are, by their very definition, problem solvers. With their strong digital talents, they have much to offer during times that demand “out of the box” thinking. While labs are often at the margins of many top manager’s thoughts, they are an essential resource that should now, more than ever, be brought front and center.

COVID-19 is bringing digital transformation front and center to all companies, and banks and credit unions, in particular, have been hard hit with the full or partial closure of their branches. COVID-19 is stress-testing all financial institutions’ digital capabilities and uncovering weak links in every institution that will force further digitization.

The effect is so pervasive that there is a meme in the innovation community that COVID-19 is more responsible for digital transformation than anyone in the C-suite.

Innovation labs, by their very nature, are part of your digital strategy. If you haven’t tasked them with solving some of your thornier problems arising from COVID-19, you’re missing out on a great resource. In this “all hands on deck,” environment innovation labs have a lot to offer.

Three Ways to Get Help from Your Innovation Function

Let’s look at three concrete ways your lab or otherwise organized innovation could help:

1. Toss the strangest problems to these innovators.

Delegate a problem to your innovation team, even if it’s out of the norm for them or downright bizarre. A strong example of this, though from outside banking, comes from Under Armour’s innovation team, which was asked to find a better way to make surgical masks.

Not their regular job. However, their innovation team, UA Lighthouse, came up with a new mask design that uses a single piece of fabric to make them easier and faster to produce. They are now actually producing 100,000 masks per week at the lab facilities. Impressive!

While your financial institution may not be producing medical masks, there is no doubt that there are new problems to be solved as entire teams change their workflow to accommodate remote working.

The more bizarre the problem, the better. You pay your innovators to think “out of the box,” so don’t feel that the problems you send them have to be constrained to the digital world. For example, facilities management is one of the myriad departments being stress-tested right now that might need assistance. Your innovation lab might have ideas that can help or know precisely where to find them.

2. Bring technology forward.

All innovation labs are working on digital projects with tiered deployment horizons from near to long term. If there is a technology that is well understood and scheduled for near or mid-term deployment, perhaps these timelines can be advanced, particularly if these technologies can help solve new problems.

While there are always risks to advancing the implementation of new tech, this is no time to wait for perfection if the technology can solve a pressing problem in its current state.

You can find a great example of this with brand-new COVID-19 related chatbots launched within the past few weeks. They can be purchased pre-programmed with COVID-19 answers for your clients or staff. Many financial institutions already have chatbot technology deployed under the direction of their innovation labs, so bringing forward the purchase of a new COVID-19 chatbot, or quickly changing the existing chatbot’s conversation, makes sense.

This is an example of how your lab can help “fast-track” technology for rollout that has a real impact.

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3. Innovative technology for people stressed by COVID-19.

I mentioned that COVID-19 is a stress-test for all companies. It’s held under grueling conditions, and the most stressed element may not be your computers, but your staff.

Don’t be surprised if your prior attempts to test things like work from home or branch closures didn’t reveal weaknesses in your systems that directly impact your employee’s or client’s quality of life and ability to function. But don’t be flummoxed either. Fix these gaps with the help of your innovation function and technology from the open market.

In my book Innovation Lab Excellence, I wrote:

“Your innovation lab should be the greatest implementers of technology in your company. Your lab should strive to break internal records for how fast they can evaluate, apply, configure, purchase, and adopt new tech.”

So get your innovation team to help find and fix the problems that directly impact the well-being of people in your company or those who use your services. Buying and implementing technology that can at least temporarily focus on making their lives better builds trust.

A great example of this comes from Harvard Innovation Labs, which focused on its role in the community. The lab has been building solutions to solve predictable problems like making a better COVID-19 blood test, but it also works on more unpredictable humanitarian issues.

For example, Harvard Labs is working on June Motherhood’s online childbirth education class for expectant mothers who can no longer go to class and on “SupportYourSpot” that allows people to support local Boston restaurants. Great examples of a lab using stop-gap fixes to solve the problems of real people brought by COVID-19.

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Undoubtedly, your employees or clients have issues that are entirely outside of your bank’s emergency planning but that present real problems. Have your lab find them and at least try to make them a bit better.

Your Innovation Lab has a role to play in helping your company weather the COVID-19 storm. While it may not seem evident to senior management, some of their best “out of the box” thinkers are within arm’s length and anxious to help. Every financial institution has a lot of work to do, and it’s an excellent time to expand the scope of what you think your innovation lab can do. Your lab might just surprise you.

Richard Turrin is the author of Innovation Lab Excellence: Digital Transformation From Within, reviewed by The Financial Brand here.

Has your financial institution lab come up with something to share that will help the industry combat COVID-19’s impact? Please email Steve Cocheo at The Financial Brand, scocheo@thefinancialbrand.com

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