Tactics to Spark Innovative Thinking from a Disney Exec

Disney’s former head of innovation and creativity has some easy steps to help people break away from conventional thinking and prompt fresh ideas in the workplace.

Bank and credit union executives often claim that it’s difficult to be innovative because they are in a heavily regulated industry, straitjacketed by rules.

Duncan Wardle agrees — sort of.

But Wardle, formerly head of innovation and creativity at Disney, says it is being stuck in habitual thinking that really lies at the root of a lack of innovation. Following rules, as is mandatory in the banking industry, tends to foster habitual thinking.

But it is possible to break free.

Wardle refers to that mental challenge as the “river of thinking.” It’s the product of one’s own experience and expertise and it can hold back fresh ideas.

“You’ve been tasked with getting out of that river faster and faster because of the level of change that’s coming,” says Wardle, who was a keynote speaker at The Financial Brand Forum 2022 in Las Vegas.

Wardle, now professor of innovation at Yale University, suggests several exercises to encourage fresh solutions.

Ask a ‘Naïve Expert’

If your financial institution really wants to get creative with its product lineup and its approach to consumer banking in general, don’t just put bankers on the case. Shake things up. Engage a “naïve expert.”

This is Wardle’s label for someone who is good at something else that doesn’t know diddly about how banking “should” be done.

In a highly interactive presentation, one of the exercises he gave Forum attendees was the challenge to draw a house in less than a minute. Most people thought conventionally, producing a simple house with two windows and a door.

Wardle, who has used this exercise many times, says one of the most ingenious executions he’d seen was by a woman who was an expert in Chinese cookery. She drew a rounded house, resembling a bamboo steamer, complete with dumplings on the roof.

Tapping into outsider creativity already has proven helpful to banks and credit unions.

Some financial institutions have tried something like this with a process called “co-creation.” Instead of simply bringing in groups of consumers to react to a new idea or new product that the staff has developed, the institution asks them to take part in actually devising the concept. This is much more complicated than running a couple of focus groups, but institutions that have used this approach say the results are better.

Diversity, from the board down, can shake up entrenched thinking too.

“Diversity is innovation. If somebody doesn’t look like you, they don’t think like you. And if they don’t think like you, they can help you think differently.”

— Duncan Wardle, innovation expert

Read More: Innovate Like Amazon: How One Bank Delivers Banking to People’s Doors

Product Names and Job Titles Aren’t Just Labels. They Set the Tone

Breaking free of traditional labels, which confine thinking, will help banks and credit unions be more successful in coming up with new ideas, according to Wardle.

To illustrate his point, he wrote the phrases “Car Wash” and “Auto Spa” on a his iconic paperboard.

Under car wash, he put associated words like “rags,” “soap,” and such. Yawn. Under auto spa, he put “massage chairs” and “cocktails.” Hmmm.

What’s in a name? Wardle noted that decades ago Walt Disney declared that visitors to his company’s parks would be “guests,” not “customers.” Likewise, Disney called park employees “cast members.”

Banking institutions can benefit from reconsidering the wording they use as well, Wardle suggests.

He spoke of visiting a company and chatting with a woman at the front desk while waiting. After he was ushered in, he told the executive he was visiting how friendly the receptionist was.

“We don’t have a receptionist,” the executive replied, then asked Wardle to describe the person.

“Ah,” said the executive. “That’s Sarah. She’s our Director of First Impressions.”

Wardle also touched on a pet peeve: corporate titles that set a bad tone. He said he keeps hearing titles like, “EVP of Human Capital Management.” He finds the sentiment behind such titles “abhorrent.”

People, said Wardle, “are not capital.”

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Innovative Thinking Demands Time Plus Fresh Input

Many executives that Wardle speaks to complain they can’t change their organizations because they are so busy, they don’t have time to think. Wardle says this is wrong-headed.

The adage is, “There’s no time like the present,” but Wardle suggests transposing the phrase to “There’s no present like the time.”

Taking time to think is essential, Wardle insists. He urged banks and credit unions to give their employees time to think, pointing out that, at Google, 20% of employee time is devoted to thinking.

However, simply having time to sit down to think, by itself, doesn’t bring great results, because people end up just sorting through their pre-existing thoughts and knowledge.

“No new stimulus in, no fresh ideas out.”

— Duncan Wardle, innovation expert

He gave several examples of companies that take steps to give people fresh stimulus to yield more innovative thinking:

  • Pixar mixes up the seating of its departments so people from different parts of the company meet and talk. The idea is to start conversations that never would have happened if everyone sat in silos.
  • Hasbro gives people money to buy objects that are not toys. Whatever they buy goes on their desktop. The goal is for that non-toy to spark an idea for a toy or game.
  • Apple, in the days of Steve Jobs, held unscheduled meetings between people who usually never crossed paths. Jobs’ belief was that conversations never meant to happen often sparked new ideas.

Innovation can start small and simple. Wardle said a way to get things started in your bank or credit union is to set a time, bring coffee and donuts, and have everybody bring a story about something they saw, read or did on the job or in their personal life. The idea is to break up the usual routine and stir atypical conversations

Wardle’s final shot: “The opposite of bravery isn’t cowardice, it’s conformity.”

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