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How can we create an innovation culture in a zero-risk company?

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Presenting to a group of banking people the other day, the constant question was about risk, return, regulation and compliance. It actually became quite irritating until one person said: “how can we create an innovation transformation culture in a zero-risk company?”

It then hit me: these guys cannot do this. It’s too hard.

I’ve had this question many times in my years of doing transformational work, as the work is about culture and not about technology or compliance or, even, innovation and risk. It’s about mindset, which I come back to often. Mindset and leadership.

This is where The Corporate Stockholm Syndrome steps in, as people are assimilated into the culture of the organisation they work for. The assimilation trains them not to ask questions, but to do the job. After years of doing the job, they have no questions to ask as it has been trained out of them and, if they do ask the awkward questions, they fear being fired.

The Corporate Stockholm Syndrome trains executives from graduate intake to executive veteran to conform and just do the job. Take no risks. Just do what the board, executive team and shareholders ask. Take no risks.

It becomes a zero-risk company.

The question then is how to break through that barrier and encourage a fail fast growth company. Failures are good. You learn from them. But how can you transition from a zero-risk culture to a fail-fast one?

Well, the answer lies in fail-fast without risk, isn’t it?

It is something that start-ups do all the time. Fail fast, fail often or, as one company puts it (and I prefer this phraseology), test the boundaries with rapid iteration.

Either way, it may work in early growth companies, but how would it work in a big bank or insurance firm?

Some would say the sandbox approach, where you allow folks to play with ideas without any impact on the core business. If the ideas work, then the company will see how to incorporate them.

Others would say that they should look at the innovators, the neobanks and the challengers, and copy their good ideas fast. That works for many traditional institutions.

I would say that the critical thing is to break through that barrier of the zero-risk financial institution and the cultural wall of don’t take risks, don’t ask questions and don’t challenge the management or you will lose your job.

Every financial institution should instead be encouraging every employee to ask questions, challenge the management and, if it seems interesting, test the boundaries with rapid iteration.

No one should lose their job for asking questions and challenging the traditional norms. They should be rewarded for doing so instead.

I guess, having written this, it is why I’m no good as corporate player. One guy – a CIO with a big bank – once called me the troublemaker (checkout the website and so yes, I am, because that’s what I do. Ask the questions, challenge the norms, stand up to the management. Can’t you do that too? If not, are you happy being the corporate servant handcuffed by their Stockholm Syndrome constraints?

After all, if you ask the question: “how can we create an innovation transformation culture in a zero-risk company?” The answer is you can’t, unless you are allowed to.

Chris Skinner Author Avatar

Chris M Skinner

Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog,, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal's Financial News. To learn more click here...

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