A challenge has emerged recently in my strategic planning work that has caused me to ask the question in the headline. It seems to be occurring across credit unions of all sizes, and it is serious enough that it can threaten their very existence.

businessman looking at business concept

Image from DollarPhotoClub.com

Here’s how it happens.

Someone comes up with an idea that has merit–something innovative that may increase efficiency, reduce costs, improve service or just make people’s leaves easier. Leadership believes it is worth pursuing, so they form a team, create a project, and the process takes over.

The objective is sound–to make sure they are allocating resources effectively, maintaining appropriate controls, and staying abreast of what’s happening within the business. But this reliance on what can become overly cumbersome processes that are applied to even the smallest opportunity can be a serious mistake.

My point: Not every action or idea merits a project and resource allocation plan! Many don’t even require a team, decision tree, or a project plan. They merely require action from an individual or two who focus on getting something done that will create a positive impact.

The real issue is that the aforementioned ‘project approach’ can literally drive innovation out of the organization.

When people realize that any idea big or small is going to create more work for them (and others), they become reluctant to share their ideas. Ultimately, this leads to people withdrawing and giving up because they don’t believe change is actually possible anymore, because the well -intentioned systems are now in the way.

The reality is that innovation is about both big and small changes. If every little action has to be planned, debated, and discussed, nothing ever happens. And if opportunities to take small actions are stifled, then opportunities to take more significant actions will disappear.

So what can you do?

1. Increase the level of authority employees have to make things happen without asking for permission or involving anyone else. Leverage the talent in the organization and encourage people to act to improve the things they can improve. When Bill Gore built W.L. Gore and Associates, Inc. he implemented two questions that employees should ask if they had a new idea they wanted to pursue: If it works, will it be worthwhile? If it doesn’t work, can the company survive? If the answer to those two questions was yes, then the project could be undertaken. What question(s) would create that level of empowerment and ownership in your credit union?

2. Get serious about breaking down barriers and obstacles to innovation. Find ways to make it easier for people to take small actions that will accumulate to produce significant impacts. For example, Best Buy uses a system called Twelpforce that empowers employees to see Best Buy-related problems that customers have aired on Twitter and respond to them. More than 2,500 Best Buy employees have signed up for this system, including customer service staff, in-store sales associates and Geek Squad, the people who make has calls for technical service. Instead of losing ground to complaints on social media, it has empowered its employees to rescue the brand.

3. Create an idea bank and facilitate the ideation process every day. Develop a place where ideas are gathered, shared, and enhanced. Set up a few whiteboards where people can debate options and explore ways to do things differently. Schedule regular meetings to discuss the ideas in the bank with a focus on refining them, enhancing them, and, most importantly, acting upon them.  Better yet, cover a few walls with white board laminate or paint, invest in a few colored pens, and encourage people to invest time in developing and sharing ideas for improving things. Celebrate the process and encourage participation, change the conversation from why things don’t work to how you can make them work, and make it easy to put the ideas that emerge into action.

Action Advice: Create an environment for sharing ideas within your credit union with no strings attached. Empower your employees to research and give them the tools to do so so that they can develop the potential of their ideas. Find ways to make innovation part of every day, not something that is done only as part of a project or process that feels burdensome and limiting.