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Innovation for Underdogs: How to Make the Leap from What If to Now What

Book Review: Chicago bank marketer applies the lessons of innovation guide to financial services marketing

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  • Written by  Jake Silker
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  • Comments:   DISQUS_COMMENTS
Innovation for Underdogs: How to Make the Leap from What If to Now What, By David Pensak, Ph.D, with Elizabeth Licorish., 224pp., Career Press Innovation for Underdogs: How to Make the Leap from What If to Now What, By David Pensak, Ph.D, with Elizabeth Licorish., 224pp., Career Press

With Innovation for Underdogs, Dr. Pensak explains how would-be innovators can harness their creativity, and gain the motivation to become successful problem-solvers. According to Pensak, the two essential ingredients for innovating are: first, a familiarity with a frustration, and second, curiosity.
Frequently, curiosity requires us to dig a little deeper and seek solutions outside of our comfort zones. Pensak recommends that, when confronted with a complex problem, we step back and broaden the horizon. The solution could be waiting just out of view.

I’ve found this, as I read the book, to be true. Just yesterday I walked eight blocks with my young daughter to catch the last few minutes of an art festival in our neighborhood.

I had every intention of buying my daughter a small gift. She knew this. The vendors were eager to make a sale. They were about to pack up. The more we bought, the less they would have to cart home.

Everyone seemed to know we had just arrived. Perhaps, they had grown used to the other faces over the past 6 hours. Or, perhaps they noticed that she was the only 3 year old without face-paint and handmade flower headband.

There was just one catch: I had forgotten my wallet.

Changing the horizon: An example

My daughter didn't understand why she couldn't touch everything in sight. I had promised her she could pick something, and now she couldn't shop? 

Every vendor was ready to haggle as my daughter found handmade bracelets and toys.

It is not a crime to browse and not buy. But, at least with my wallet in my pocket, I felt like a legitimately discerning customer. By the time I could retrieve it and return, the fair would be over. With no wallet, I had no business even pretending I might buy something. This is not something that concerns a three-year old. She still wanted to shop.

Pensak tells us that successful innovations stem from the same root: frustration.

Confronted with dissatisfaction or need for improvement, a curious and creative thinker will set out to find a solution. Children are innovative by nature. When David Pensak was growing up, he knew it was okay to ask questions. Innovation for Underdogs encourages parents to foster their children’s creativity by reminding the child that detecting problems and asking the right questions is just as important as finding the answers. Innovators need to think like children…to discover possibilities.

As I tried to explain things to my daughter, her natural curiosity got to the truth of the matter. It wasn't that I didn't have any money, the desire to make a purchase, or even that I had forgotten my wallet.

The most basic problem was that I had money, but not the means to access it.

Roots of innovation

As a child, David Pensak had some interesting neighbors, from Nobel Prize-winning physicists to the legendary Albert Einstein. It may come as no surprise he grew up to become a revolutionary thinker. Pensak would say that those influences were interesting, but not intrinsic to his ability to innovate. Nevertheless, Pensak is considered one of the fathers of the firewall and has had a major impact on internet security. With Raptor Systems, he is said to have built the first commercially successful firewall.

In Chapter 3, Innovative Lessons from Einstein, we learn it wasn't any direct lesson from these influential thinkers that made him a great innovator. Instead, they taught him to look for unique solutions by allowing his brain to do what it was designed to do. Pensak calls this process of discovery “Thinking about Thinking.”

The book is filled with anecdotes about innovation through his experiences with others, his work at DuPont, and his teachings as a university professor, as well as his experience as a parent. The mind power behind innovation is quite basic, extremely logical, and certainly inherent in every human being.

Parsing the innovation process

Pensak breaks down the concept of innovation to help us discover opportunities for improvement in many different aspects of life. No matter what the field of study, anyone can innovate: 

Product innovations—Make it faster, bigger, longer lasting, more effective, etc.

Process innovations
—Enhance speed or efficiency.

Service innovations—Enhance customer satisfaction.

Organizational innovations—Change how a company is structured or how it interacts with the world.

Business innovations—Change the way a product is offered, helping it capture more value.

Marketing innovations—Help a business attract more customers to what it sells.

Social innovations—Improve people's lives by changing how they interact with one another.
Starting up innovation

Pensak considers it important to be grounded in the problem before jumping ahead to look for solutions. Successful innovations are built upon the innovator’s ability to successfully use (and not use) available information.

For example, you probably have a pair of scissors in your desk drawer. A camping knife may have every tool and utensil known to man, but when you want to make quick work of a piece of paper you don't want to fumble around with a spoon and a corkscrew, you need a pair of scissors.

In the same way, you can’t please everyone, and a good innovator is aware of this.

There are other innovations that address this very situation today. A company called Sicap has developed technology which allows consumers to withdraw money out of an ATM using an SMS (simple message service) text message. They can then have the balance added to their monthly phone bill.

The day I found myself sans wallet, I would have gladly paid a surcharge to both my phone company and my financial institution in this particular moment.

Maybe it wasn't me that needed a new way to access my money. Maybe the vendors just needed a new way to accept payments.

Bump Technologies allows users of two smartphones to exchange information just by bumping them together. PayPal is using this to feature to enable their customers to send and receive payments. Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter, unveiled Square last December as a way to let people quickly and easily accept credit card payments from their mobile phone. A tiny card reader is plugged into the headphone jack of the phone. It takes finger signatures on the touchscreen, generates email or SMS receipts, calculates sales tax, and comes with an online accounting dashboard to keep track of sales.

DeviceFidelity makes a contactless payment system contained on a microSD card which, when paired with Visa's own payWave system later this year, will let you use just about any microSD card slot-equipped cellphone to make pay contactless payments at between 50,000 to 60,000 merchants in the US.

Have you heard of these technologies? Has your bank considered trying them? Possibly not.

Confidence precedes product adoption

Pensak points out that it takes a very long time to build up customer confidence and only a little time to lose it with a bad innovation. Let me cite an example from a recent personal experience.

I received a new grill as a gift. Unfortunately, when it was time for assembly, I found that a support bracket was missing.

The instruction sheet asked me to not return the grill to the store, but to call the manufacturer, who would promptly ship me the missing part. I called the number of the manufacturer, but a recording told me to call back during business hours.

On Monday, I called back and heard “To speak to someone about grills, press 1.” This apparently meant only that if I hoped to speak with someone I should press 1. Because, after seven more key-presses, answering everything from my model number to my time zone, I heard another message advising me that their call queue returns messages in the order they are received.

During an early meeting the next day, I missed their call to my cell phone.

I was told to call back and thanked for choosing their grill. This call-back feature may have been intended as a service innovation. Sitting on hold is certainly frustrating and this probably seemed like a solution to this common problem. Perhaps, they thought I wouldn't want to sit on hold for a few minutes.

But, it was much more frustrating hearing the same person's voice leave me the same uninterested message three times a day.

In fact, this frustration led me to my own innovative solution. Enrolling my own number in the queue certainly wasn't working, so I enlisted my friends, family, and co-workers to enroll in the queue. It was an open challenge to anyone: Who would be first to retrieve this missing part or even talk to a representative in person? 

Three weeks and many many phone calls later, I finally caught the call and received the part another week later.

Avoiding “over-innovation”

Pensak reminds readers not to over-innovate. What innovations could be considered “over-innovated”? Software companies have a tendency to over-innovate—think of Windows Vista. Just because an innovation works doesn’t mean it works.

For example, had I forgotten my wallet back in 2006, I could have walked to the local grocery store and withdrawn cash by scanning my fingertip. Pay by Touch used Chicago as their test market for their biometric payment system.

Why isn't this innovation available everywhere by now? 

Among other problems, Pay by Touch found it was hard to get customers to enroll at the checkout lane. People hesitate to give up their fingerprints and Social Security numbers. When an innovation won’t be accepted, it might as well not work at all.

Listen, but be careful about acting

Pensak’s book got me thinking about pending innovations in banking.

Take personal financial management software. The makers of this software have been offering innovative solutions to customers and are now offering white-label solutions to banks. Many of these offer dashboards of financial-fitness measures, such as debt-to-income ratios, credit limits, and credit scores.

While these firms have seen moderate adoption rates, there are many customers that look to their financial institution for this type of advice. This is an opportunity for service innovation for banks. Some banks are hesitant to implement this, since they aren't sure if it is something their customers would want. Indeed, many customers say they are afraid to see their full financial picture. They say they would really rather not be greeted by their debt-to-income ratio each time they log in.

Does this mean this innovation won't work? 

This is where the innovator needs to take a calculated risk. Henry Ford famously said, “If I had listened to my customers I would have invented a faster horse.”

How not to quash innovation

Examining Innovation in the Workplace: Why the Underdog Isn’t a Workhorse (Chapter 10) alone makes this book worth reading for anyone with an interest in incentive-planning.

New technology allows for new product innovations. New ideas allow for new service innovations.

Unfortunately, many frontline employees are paid to do a job instead of being paid to do a job well. These employees are in position to identify customers’ needs or frustrations, but, there is little incentive to innovate above expectation.

Creating incentives for employees starts with identifying their needs. And, as we know…that’s the first step toward innovation. Nobody is more in need, dissatisfied, or frustrated than the underdog. For those on the bottom rung of the ladder, it is certainly a way to get a leg up on the ladder. After all, everyone can innovate!

If you'd like to review books for our online book column, or have recently read a book that you found helpful that we haven't already reviewed, please e-mail [email protected]

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