Innovation and Authenticity

Posted By Laird Nossuli on Sep 16, 2014

Innovation could definitely be granted buzzword status. With the proliferation of technology that's accessible to everyone, it's easy to see real examples of innovation in our daily lives. Yet, innovation does not stop with technology, even though that is the most obvious example of it. We can (and should) be bringing some of the critical ingredients of innovation—like openness, understanding of culture, and a true commitment to finding a better way—to how we communicate with each other and live our lives. Obama offered a very general definition of innovation as, "the creation of something that improves the way we live our lives." I like that. It doesn’t have to only be about technology or products. It can be about people, too.

With that in mind, I want to talk about what I feel is one of the biggest saboteurs of innovation: presumption. Here's my case in point.

The Situation

Mortgage MarketSmart on a Times Square JumbotronI was invited to participate in Bank Director's FinTech Day at NASDAQ—which was a networking and educational event celebrating the role of technology and innovation in the financial sector. The agenda included some time for networking, a discussion with Declan Denehan (Managing Director of Strategic Growth Initiatives at BNY Mellon) about introducing and enabling innovation in an organization, and participation in the closing-bell ceremonies at NASDAQ.

What I Presumed

Truth be told, I was apprehensive (but excited) to attend. I envisioned a room full of banking executives and representatives of large technology companies serving the banking industry, working the room with handshakes and business cards, wearing their most able networking hats. Such a scene can sometimes be terrifying to me, since I am still struggling with how to "network." Now, add that lack of networking experience to the fact that we are a small, family-founded company out of Des Moines, Iowa, that is completely unknown to most of the big players in banking technology and you have the perfect tableau for a scene showing me sitting uncomfortably at a corner table in the room, only wishing I was savvy and confident enough to march over to the other attendees, introduce myself, and complete the business-card-swap ritual.

I was expecting the discussion on innovation to be relatively light on content (as the banking industry at times is seen as anti-innovation) and probably not entirely relevant to the issues and challenges we are facing today in our iEmergent and Mortgage MarketSmart outreach.

Finally, I was expecting that the closing-bell ceremony would be short and stilted, and the other attendees would be underwhelmed by the entire opportunity. I expected that the purpose of the event was truly just to walk away with a handful of business cards of people that, someday, I might call. Or might call me.

Not exactly.

Before I go into what I actually experienced at NASDAQ, I need to rewind and share two experiences that happened one day earlier, as I explored the city.

Experience #1: The Music Man

After a very pleasant walk through Central Park, I was approached by a young man (possibly in his late teens) who was trying to give away CDs of his music. I had seen him interact with other passers-by, who completely ignored him, dismissed him, or, quite frankly, were downright mean to him and his two twenty-something cousins who were helping him distribute his tunes. He handed me the CD and my first inclination was to hand it back to him, say no thanks, and be on my way. Instead, I stopped and asked him about what kind of music it was.

"Dance" he replied.
"Dance? Like what kind of dance? Electronica?"
He laughed. "No, you know, like hip hop."
"Oh. Is it any good?"
He laughed again. "Yeah. Yeah, it is. I'll even sign it for you."
So he took out a marker and asked me who it was for.
"Make it out to my son, Julien. He's 5."
"How about King Julien?"
It was my turn to laugh. "Even better," I said. "You better make it big someday."

He would've given it to me for free, but—of course—a "donation" was appreciated. So I gave him $10, thanked him, and started to walk away with the CD. He stopped me, stuck out his hand and looked me right in the eye and said, "Thank you. I really appreciate it. It's really good."

I kept walking, and one of his cousins ran up behind me and said, "Hey, you know, thanks. He was starting to get really down since no one'll even stop to hear him out. Keeps him inspired to have someone stop. He works really hard." And then, the cousin gave me a hug. And it was authentic.

Experience #2: Is That Nick Cannon?

Scene change: Times Square. Once again, I'm walking and I get stopped by a guy selling tickets to a comedy club. I'd hoped to sneak by with no eye contact, but I didn't because this guy looked so much like Nick Cannon that I had to look twice to make sure it wasn't Nick Cannon.

He caught my eye and actually said, "Hey, you can't look away now that you've made eye contact and you know it." He laughed an easy laugh and, of course, I did too. So we started talking about who was in the show that night and where it was. Naturally, he introduced himself, asked me who I was, where I was from, and why I was in NYC (apparently it is obvious that I am not a New Yorker). Our conversation lasted about 10 minutes, and I enjoyed every minute of it. He was one of those naturally warm, intelligent, funny, and likeable conversationalists.

And, of course, I bought the ticket to the show.

What I Actually Experienced

Back to FinTech day.

For some reason or another, my mindset changed as I walked to the NASDAQ MarketSite. Instead of wondering how I was going to navigate the perceived discomfort that I would feel as I interacted with the allegedly unapproachable FinTech kings and queens of networking, I decided to be open to the opportunity. To stop worrying about what I was supposed to say or do or take away from the experience. To be authentic—just like the budding hip hop star and the Nick Cannon-look-alike did when I met them on the street.

Letting go of expectation allowed me to be open to something new. So when the staff of Bank Director greeted me warmly, asked interesting questions about what we do, and listened to what I had to say, my presumptions and my own insecurities didn’t get in the way. When the other attendees introduced themselves and inquired about what I did, I stopped worrying about the fundamentals of networking and just talked, person-to-person, human-to-human. Not just about our products and clients, but about other topics as varied as our families to our definitions of what it means to be innovative.

The discussion about innovation between Declan Denehan and Bank Director's President Al Dominick was fascinating. It certainly wasn't a typical, canned discussion on the importance of innovation, but a very insightful account of the common challenges and rewards that accompany anyone—from big companies or small—who is trying to encourage others to think outside the box in the financial industry. Al and Declan also addressed the differences and similarities between growing innovation in an organization internally versus bringing in innovation to an organization externally. Although there were certainly some significant differences, there were far more common themes:

  • Support from leadership and upper management is critical
  • Understanding of an organization's culture is key
  • The benefits, values, and/or rewards for an innovation need to be quantified and clear
  • Innovation can be incremental (new procedures for doing something) or transformative (completely new approach or technology)
  • Innovation is not always easy to grow

Laird Nossuli, Mortgage MarketSmartFinally, the closing bell ceremony. I have never really paid much attention to the stock market, but when we were all counting down to the closing bell, the stock info was scrolling by on the giant screens inside the NASDAQ studio, and there was a lot of clapping and laughing, I got goosebumps. Perhaps it was because I was having a good time, and was enjoying watching everyone—including myself—get excited when we realized that our photos were being scrolled on the giant jumbotron screen in Times Square.

Perhaps it was the fact that we had been discussing innovation and it hit me that the NASDAQ itself is an example of what innovation can do when it's grown and cultivated. Perhaps it was the feeling of camaraderie with a group of strangers, all who were participating because they believed in the unique ideas, products, and companies they represented.

Or, maybe the goosebumps arose because the experience re-energized me. I felt a renewed sense of pride in the innovative idea behind our forecasts and Mortgage MarketSmart. I felt connected—not just to the bankers and the tech gurus who were in the room with me—but to the millions of other people who were walking around New York that day, including the two guys I met on the street.

Innovation is everywhere—not just in the tools or technology we use, the scientific labs of academia, or the perfunctory garage of the nutty professor. It is resident in our own minds and our day-to-day interactions with the world and everyone in it. Whether we choose to engage it is up to us.

I think our society has a fixation with innovation to the point that it often lacks authenticity. In the business world, we are constantly selling or being sold—whether it's an innovative product, a new management structure, or simply a change in process. We start to force innovation at the wrong time and enact it where it's not needed. The anxiety and pressure that results from this disconnect ignite the fears of failure and not fitting into a mold that keep our minds closed to new experiences, new things, and new ways of looking at the world.

So like the hip hop music man and not-Nick-Cannon, I’ll continue to focus on the authenticity behind Mortgage MarketSmart’s innovation. After all, Mortgage MarketSmart was borne out of the unrelenting mission to change—dare I say innovate—how the industry understands, interprets, and uses data.

Our story is authentic and I’m going to keep telling it.

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