5 Tips for Nurturing a Culture of Innovation

Large global businesses have historically been a place where bigger was better, and companies stuck to the tried and true. But as customer expectations have evolved, and as management tries to figure out how to supervise and engage millennials, innovation is now a must.

However, implementing an innovative culture at a company with tens of thousands of employees is easier said than done. Here are 5 lessons from our experience.

1. Adopt the tech philosophy—not just the tech style. The financial services industry is now largely a technology company, with all transactions and interactions mediated by technology. But transforming into a tech-led business isn’t just about adopting a Silicon Valley-style relaxed-office atmosphere. It means leaders have to adopt a mindset where technology is not simply an enabler of operations, but core to strategy, as well. Put simply, technology needs a seat at the table and a say in all major decisions, from product design to functionality. For Barclaycard, that means making it possible for ideas to come from anywhere in the company, often directly from the developers working on, say, our mobile banking app and putting these in the hands of real customers.

“You will face obstacles, and it’s tempting to say “why can’t we go back to the old method just this one time?” But you have to resist.”

2. Think small to attract talent. In today’s hiring market, talented developers want to be part of an operation that moves quickly. This can, understandably, lead to some skepticism about how this goal can be achieved at a major corporation with thousands of employees. The answer is to adopt an incubator-style approach, where you group talent in small teams, each with a mandate to attack a particular problem or opportunity. From there, it’s about opening up communication: teams can work with each other’s application program interfaces (APIs) and stay in touch with the broader technology community. Essentially, talent is grouped in small squads focused on one particular ‘customer feature’ and management steps back to let them each build their own business.

3. Make your scale an advantage. Large corporations come with many resources at a scale that isn’t offered at most startups, and I’m not referring to financial resources—I mean the data that is generated and the pure brainpower. At Barclaycard, we handle numerous transactions a day, across multiple customer accounts. That gives developers access to an incredible amount of insight and combined experience in multiple geographies around the world, giving our developers and engineers some of the insights they need to develop new tools, and the opportunity to experiment with small segments of that customer base. Internally, companies need to view the scale of their teams as another advantage—they can connect brainpower from different teams and geographies to bring in mentorship and fresh perspectives. When you have a large pool of talent, you are better able to drive the benefits that come from diversity, and this is really important to us.

4. Don’t look for a textbook. There are no easy answers on how to foster innovation at your company, no matter how many consultants tell you they have a simple formula. Each successful innovative company, from Google to Amazon to Netflix, did it their way. It’s tempting to try to follow on their footsteps—but it’s a mistake. You have to do your homework and learn from the best in class—and then apply those lessons in your own way. If you’re not sure you’re doing it right, ask yourself one question: are these innovations keeping the customer top of mind?

5. Stick with it—even when there seems to be an easier way. Building an innovative culture requires a massive transition from an established, profitable system. That kind of transition doesn’t happen overnight. You will face obstacles, and it’s tempting to say “why can’t we go back to the old method just this one time?” But you have to resist: the old way won’t provide scalable results. The process of overcoming each obstacle will generate insights that you can put to use, and put you one step closer to where you want to be. Even as you make mistakes, you’re learning, and the longer you stick with the process, the faster the evolution will be.

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