By Sheryl S. Jackson

Innovation in the workplace can be defined in different ways, but Theodore Levitt, a German American economist and professor at Harvard University said, “Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.”

Before implementing programs and processes to inspire innovation to improve performance in a credit union, leaders need to be clear about what they mean by innovation, says Peter Myers, senior vice president of DDJ Myers, a leader in credit union development. Innovation is often associated with technology, but it can also be about changing processes that have been part of the organization for a long time, he explains. “Leaders have to be willing to change core processes — they can’t say that they want innovation and also say some things cannot ever be changed.”

There are a number of reasons credit union leaders are reluctant to change some processes, explains Myers. There may have been attempts to make changes that didn’t go well in the past, or some processes may have been put in place by the leaders — who don’t want their ideas and accomplishments changed, he says. “It is incumbent on the CEO to recognize these ‘land mines’ and be willing to embrace change of things that have been untouchable in the past,” he says.

Just asking for ideas and suggestions from team members may not produce the best results and can backfire later on, points out Myers. A commonly missed step is the creation of a structure to propose and nurture ideas, he explains.

“Underdeveloped ideas are easier to discount,” says Myers. When team members submit a proposed change to a process or product and provide examples and data, the proposed idea is a well-constructed thought versus a spitball idea, he says. Not only does this approach spur a more thorough evaluation of how the change affects the organization, but it also provides more substantive information to consider, debate and build upon among the leadership team.

At SkyPoint Federal Credit Union, team members came up with an idea to improve member service that led to enhancements for the institution’s mobile app. “We closed two of our three branches and provided some services by appointment in the remaining branch as well as operated the drive-through window at the open branch,” explains Jim Norris, CEO of Skypoint. “Moving all drive-through transactions to one branch resulted in long lines for members.”

Tellers and other branch personnel identified the most common transactions and suggested that some of them be automated through the app. “We added an item to our app’s menu that allowed members to request a check to be mailed to their home address, so they did not have to come to the branch to withdraw from a savings account,” says Norris. This has led to consideration of other functions that can be automated through the mobile app, such as requesting loan payoff letters, changing joint ownership on an account or even changing loan terms. “Not only did this one change improve convenience to members, but it also greatly reduced the drive-through line, so employees could handle phone calls, open new accounts, and help members in other ways.”

Leadership commitment and a corporate culture that supports innovation is also important to successful performance improvement through innovation, says Myers. Leadership teams that continually review what the organization does well, along with what is not done well, and identify opportunities to improve, demonstrate support of innovation, he says. Leaders who relentlessly pursue improvement — in growth, in member satisfaction scores, or in employee performance — inspire team members to do the same. “There is nothing wrong with taking time to celebrate accomplishments and recognizing efforts to reach a goal, but there should always be a focus on how to continue improving,” he says.

“Mission moments” are used to kick off every management or employee meeting at First Commonwealth Federal Credit Union. Sharing creative workarounds that were used to solve a problem or presenting examples of how employees have added value to member interactions inspire others to look for innovative ways to improve, says Donna LoStocco, CEO of First Commonwealth Federal Credit Union. “Our relationship with members can be very transactional so we challenge our employees to think about how they can educate, advise, or direct members to other resources,” she says. “We ask all employees to challenge the status quo and identify ways to improve our service to members and to each other.”

“Innovation is important to our culture and to who we are,” explains John Melcher, chief people officer at First Commonwealth. “It is one of our core corporate values, and we’ve built innovation into our job descriptions and annual performance reviews.” He points out that when employees join First Commonwealth, they are encouraged to share ideas based on their experience elsewhere if they observe ways to improve service to members.

Asking people with different perspectives to share ideas is not just limited to employees who have worked in other organizations. “We want people to get out of their silos and interact with people in different departments,” says LoStocco. This translates to organizational meetings with representatives across the organization as well as internal “customer” surveys in which one department asks another department how well they did when providing support. For example, the IT department might survey front-line employees at a branch to see if they were satisfied with a technology update, training, or support for a problem. “We’ve always surveyed members, but it is important to know how we can continue improving our support of each other,” she adds.

Employees are comfortable sharing ideas with others. In fact, one employee who had worked in several different departments identified a process improvement that would benefit multiple departments because she understood one department’s activities affected the others, says LoStocco.

Communication and transparency is critical to building a culture that promotes innovation, explains Tricia C. Szurgot, COO of First Commonwealth. A variety of meetings that began with breakfast with the CEO and expanded to include lunch with the COO and similar informal meetings with other C-suite executives, gives employees a chance to interact directly with leaders. “We also hold executive and management team meetings every Monday to ask for feedback from managers,” she says. “Leadership has to demonstrate that we are listening to ideas.”

SkyPoint also cultivates creativity and innovation in a variety of ways. “We are very digitally oriented, but we want to make sure the member- and employee-facing technology we use helps us achieve our goals,” says Norris. The organization has a digital roadmap that tracks technology projects and executive staff members update the projects weekly so that everyone can see what is happening and how implementation will affect all departments. “We constantly talk to branch staff to find out what is happening, what challenges exist, and how problems can be resolved.” The focus on innovation and creativity is so ingrained in SkyPoint’s culture that a section of every employee’s evaluation is entitled “Innovation and Creativity,” he adds.

The organization’s culture is important to support innovation from all departments and employees, says Norris. “I meet with new employees during their onboarding to talk to them about our open door policy and to encourage them to share ideas,” he says. “I realized that we had created the culture we wanted during the pandemic, when a branch manager who had been with us for only one month, spoke up during a Zoom meeting to offer ideas we should consider for our re-opening plan,” he says. “Employees are willing to propose ideas and step outside their comfort zone if they feel safe and know their ideas are welcomed.”