Looking for Inspiration? Look to USAA

Quickly:

  • Next week, my team hosts 350+ leaders from across the United States at Bank Director’s annual Bank Audit & Risk Committees Conference at the JW Marriott Chicago.
  • In advance of welcoming people to this popular event, it strikes me that the business of banking remains difficult despite improving economic conditions; indeed, the drive to digitize a bank’s operations continues to pose significant challenges to most.
  • Digital is, in my estimation, a CEO topic that requires a healthy dose of creativity and ambition.  As such, I’m sharing the following article on innovation — authored by John Maxwell and featured in Bank Director magazine’s current “Great Ideas” digital issue.  It focuses on how USAA taps the creative side of its employees to pre-position itself for the next new products, tools and technologies to benefit its diverse customer base.

USAA - ASD

“USAA was the first major financial institution to allow customers to deposit physical checks by taking a picture of them on their smartphones, rolling out the service in August 2009. It wasn’t until months later that Bank of America Corp., the nation’s second biggest bank by assets, said it would test the same functionality, by which point upward of 40,000 USAA members had already used the software to deposit more than 100,000 checks. And it wasn’t until the following year that JPMorgan Chase & Co., the nation’s biggest bank by assets, followed suit.

This was neither the first nor the last time that USAA, a niche player in the financial services industry serving current and former members of the military and their families, had beaten larger rivals to the punch in introducing a big, transformative idea. In 2015, the $78 billion asset company became the first major U.S. financial institution to roll out facial and voice recognition technology that allows members to log in to its mobile app without entering a password.

What is it about USAA that explains how it’s regularly at the forefront of big ideas? Is it serendipity, or is there something more at play? And if it’s the latter, are there aspects of USAA’s approach that can be replicated by other banks that want to accelerate their own internal innovation engines?

One explanation for USAA’s success is that the company has always had to think creatively about distribution because of its dispersed member base. With members stationed at military installations around the world, some in active combat zones, simply building more branches has never been a viable distribution strategy. It has a single bank branch at its headquarters in San Antonio, and it wasn’t until 2009 that it began opening a small collection of financial centers near domestic military bases—there are 17 of these centers currently. This is why USAA so readily embraced mobile banking, which enables its members to access their accounts irrespective of location.

Yet, chalking up USAA’s accomplishments in the sphere of innovation to the idea that “necessity is the mother of all invention” doesn’t do the story justice. More than any other major company in the financial services space, USAA has made it a priority to harness each of its 30,000 employees in order to stay on the cutting edge. It began doing so in earnest in 2010 by launching a so-called ideas platform on the company’s intranet. Anyone from the CEO to frontline personnel to security guards can post and vote on ideas that have been entered on the platform. Between 10,000 and 11,000 ideas were submitted in each of the last two years. Ideas that get at least 1,000 favorable employee votes are escalated to USAA’s in-house innovation team overseen by Zack Gipson, USAA’s chief innovation officer.  Last year, 1,206 employee ideas were implemented, while 189 of them have come to fruition thus far in 2017.

USAA also hosts events and challenges for employees that are designed to elicit ideas for new or improved products and services. There are 28 such activities planned this year, taking the form of multi-week coding and design challenges as well as single-day hackathons where teams are tasked with solving a specific problem, says Lea Sims, assistant vice president of employee and member innovation. At an event in 2015, USAA happened upon the idea for voice-guided remote deposit capture, which uses voice commands to guide visually impaired members through the process of depositing checks on a mobile device. The service went live in July of 2016.

On top of these specific initiatives, USAA uses incentives and a consistent messaging campaign to encourage employees to brainstorm and share innovative ideas. Rewards are handed out to winners of challenges, as well as to any employee behind an idea that gets 1,000 votes on the ideas platform—an additional reward is meted out if the idea is implemented, explains Sims. These rewards come in the form of company scrip, which can be redeemed for actual products. A total of 94 percent of USAA employees have participated one way or another in its various innovation channels, with three quarters of a million votes submitted on its internal ideas platform in 2016 alone. “We put a premium on innovation,” says Sims. “It starts in new employee orientation as soon as you walk in the door to be part of our culture.”

USAA has taken steps to crowdsource ideas from its 12 million members, or customers, as well. In February it introduced USAA Labs, where members can sign up to share innovative ideas and participate in pilot programs of experimental products. “The goal of our membership channel is, quite frankly, to replicate the success of our employee channel,” says Sims. Thus far, over 770 members have signed onto the program, which is still in its early stages but could become a major part of USAA’s innovation channel in the future.

Last but not least, sitting atop USAA’s employee and member-based innovation channels is a team of 150 employees who focus solely on bringing new ideas to life. This is its strategic innovation group, which executes on crowdsourced ideas but spends most of its time brainstorming and implementing large, disruptive concepts such as remote deposit capture and biometric logins. It’s this final component of USAA’s strategy that adheres most closely to the institutional structure articulated by Harvard professor Clayton Christensen, a leading expert on the process of innovation. In his seminal book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, Christensen makes the case that established firms should vest the responsibility to bring ideas to life in organizationally independent groups. This is especially important when it comes to disruptive ideas that threaten to cannibalize other products and services sold by the firm, not unlike the way that remote deposit capture reduces the need for physical branches.

In short, the reason USAA has consistently been at the forefront of innovation in the financial services industry has next to nothing to do with serendipity. It traces instead to the company’s strategy of engaging all of its stakeholders in the idea generation process, harnessing the creative power of 30,000 employees, 12 million members and a select team of internal innovators who focus on nothing but bringing new ideas to life. It’s this structural approach to innovation, and the focus on employee engagement in particular, that offers a valuable model for other banks to follow. Indeed, out of the many big ideas USAA has introduced over the years, its strategy of crowdsourcing innovation may very well be the biggest.”

*John J. Maxfield is a writer and frequent contributor to Bank Director.  To read more of this month’s issue (for free), click here.  In full disclosure, I’m a loyal USAA member — as is my entire family — tracing back to my father’s days at the Naval Academy.  I can attest to the “awesomeness” of the bank’s various mobile offerings — like facial recognition, remote check deposit, the integration of Coinbase (that lets me see the balance of my bitcoin and ethereum balances alongside my checking and savings accounts), etc.

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