December 18, 2018
Leah Middlebrook, FIS | Vice President Business Development, International Payments
Who could deny the importance of innovation? Given its importance to the future of all organizations, an increasing number of companies are creating innovation labs that look to generate new ideas and opportunities. Labs are a great way to encourage and incubate new thinking and ideas – often free from the normal constraints imposed on other business units such as a focus on near-term profitability and ROI. However, to be successful, an innovation lab cannot be viewed as simply showcases. It is where real work is done with the goal to innovate faster, smarter and cheaper.
The foundation principle of innovation is to simply create business value. But the value could take many forms. It could be incremental improvements to existing products, breakthroughs with entirely new products and services, new interface channels, cost reductions, efficiency improvements, new business models, and new collaborative ventures.
While creating business value with pioneering ideas that could generate revenue, innovation labs must maintain their independence from the day-to-day noise of the wider company. However, despite labs being isolated from revenue pressures, some innovation labs have seen surprisingly quick returns with small, niche products or services going from whiteboard to production in a few months. Of course, larger and more interlaced innovations may take longer to mature and are aimed at the more mid-term horizon.
The types of innovation from fintech labs can vary. Some are technology related while others focus on changing the way we operate and conduct business. Over recent years, many vendors have seized upon blockchain and distributed ledger to revolutionize data transfer and storage. The advent of open APIs (application programming interfaces) in banking has seen payments use cases taken to the next level. The world of mobile and wearable computing has seen innovative payment solutions that improve the customer experience and change the way payments are made. The re-emergence of QR code-based payments has spawned many viable new services. Looking wider, many initiatives in developing nations with large rural populations have seen the birth of digital villages where creative solutions bring more people into the mainstream digital economy, despite the absence of a reliable electricity supply and Wi-Fi/data connectivity. And a solution that works in one locale will increasingly be applicable elsewhere growing the economies of scale.
While blue-sky thinking should not initially be constrained by revenue or profit forecasts, at some time in the process a decision needs to be made if there is a viable path to a saleable product or solution. If not, then sink the idea, fast. Research the market: Is there any potential; can it become something of value relatively quickly; will the return justify the investment in a reasonable timeframe?
If the idea has possibilities, then productize. The innovation labs have no part in this process, they have created a cool solution, proven the concept and justified the business potential. Once the new idea is determined to be viable it is handed off to the traditional business units to make it a reality; operations need to ensure it is replicable, scalable, available in the cloud, maintainable, etc., while the sales and marketing determine price, business model, positioning, launch strategy, etc.
An innovation lab is not necessarily a new idea but a different approach to research and development departments that have been a mainstay of all industries for over a century. R&D was often focused on theoretical research that yielded patents, but not always products or profits in the mid-term. While some companies do remain secretive about their R&D initiatives, most companies have begun taking a new, open approach to innovation.
Innovation labs work best within a community that includes other stakeholders. By bringing multiple vendors together to share ideas and to foster an atmosphere of collaborative creativity and cross-pollination. In the fintech world, many banks have sponsored this approach by hosting established fintechs along with some niche startups to explore wider business potential.
If done correctly, innovation labs reinforce the brand and establish the firm as thought leaders that bring exciting things to the client base. Companies are no longer struggling to keep up with the industry around them, they are leading the charge. The successful innovation labs are ones that are the tied to a strategic imperative. Develop programs that leverage the innovations within your company’s broader ecosystem. And, don’t underestimate just how powerful the right four or five people in the same room can be.
FIS | Vice President Business Development, International Payments
Leah Middlebrook is VP of Business Development for International Payments responsible for global market strategy with a focus on identifying future payments trends, FIS’ Payments Innovation Labs in Brazil, India and Thailand, partnership development and strategic opportunities across FIS’ global footprint. She joined FIS in 2003 and has over 25 years in the financial services and payments industry. In 2017, Leah was part of the award-winning CAO team receiving Gold for Women in Business Awards Management Team of the Year and Women in Payments USA Team of the Year. Leah leads the FIS Women in Payments Leadership Mentor Program team.