Innovating by creating a movement: How Credit Suisse prepares for its technology future

Innovation is hard, but it’s particularly hard in finance where existing revenue streams are large and have a long history of being that way.

So how’s a technology leader supposed to sell innovation if change is disruptive and can cannibalize existing business models? What are the tools at the disposal of digital executives to get the budgets and resources they need for successful projects?

Anne Johnson is head of data at Credit Suisse’s international wealth management division. A techie at heart, Johnson also has a management consulting background at Bain. Her responsibilities include translating technical requirements of the IT division and fusing them with the business priorities of upper management in the business.

She spoke to attendees at the Tradestreaming Money Conference held in November in New York City.

Create a storyline

Selling innovation at Credit Suisse

Pitching a technology idea within a large financial institution isn’t much different than going out and trying to raise external capital for a startup idea. It requires a tight storyline to persuade those sitting on the opposite side of the table to believe in a shared vision and pony up money and resources to make it happen. So, start with the script.

Johnson advises being very clear about the reasons behind why a project should get funded. Is it because the technology is cool? Is it fear — fear that the competition is coming to eat your lunch? Or is it something more threatening? Is the business going to become unsustainable in the coming decade?

“Google doesn’t have a bank, yet, but it’s very successful building engagement,” Johnson said. “Will they come after my clients one day? Is my client going to get into a self driving car and request it to go see a new financial advisor?”

Computers are the greatest tools of our time with limitless potential, but senior management must see the connection between a large technology project and lowering costs and improving revenues before they allocate investment towards projects. Make sure the bottom line is part of the storyline.

After the pitch addresses the why of a project, determine the what. This is what’s going to get built and when — the meat of the plan. Johnson layers her project plans, combining a long term vision that gets her colleagues excited about her plan with short-term milestones that ensure her team starts delivering from the start.

“You can have a multiyear vision on blockchain but you need to deliver something tomorrow that reduces costs and increases revenues,” she explained. “I don’t want years to pass before I deliver something.”

Lastly, a storyline has to include how a tech leader plans to execute her plan. Johnson says that frequently senior management will respond positively to a pitch but ask the question ‘but can you build this’? This shows that the upper echelon doesn’t trust its IT group. So, the how part of the storyline must include building trust at all levels of the organization.

Getting buy-in

After a tight pitch is developed, it needs approval. You could get lucky meeting the CEO in the elevator, pitch him, and he agrees to fund everything, bypassing the entire approval process. That’s unlikely to happen. More likely, though, is that digital leaders will have to spend time selling their projects internally. But senior managers have the tendency to focus on the short term and push off making bigger, longer cycle decisions like technology projects.

To get over this hurdle and get support for projects, Johnson recommends building what she calls a movement. She cites her own experience owning data responsibilities across the organization. The challenge was that others also owned pieces of data and she needed them to play ball. So, she created a movement by launching what she called the data community at Credit Suisse, getting people to buy-in to the greater plan.

“Now I can nominate people to be the machine learning lead of the community,” she said. “This is how you herd people. On innovative projects, you can isolate yourself away from the company or get the whole company to move with you.”

Building momentum

Once a plan is fixed, and the funding and resources allocated, the project team needs to start delivering. “Once you get all resources, you need to deliver,” Johnson said. There needs to be a cadence and pace to consistent delivery, so that momentum builds in the execution phase of the project.

Creating a short delivery cycle tied to milestones has an added benefit: it opens communication channels internally. When delivery and communication starts happening on a regular basis, it develops a momentum that builds upon itself.

“It’s not easy, but large financial firms can be innovative,” she said.

The challenges of digital transformation: A view from the front lines

For the largest financial institutions, competing in digital isn’t about technical know-how. These firms aren’t slow to roll out digital products because they lack development chops. Their challenges are more existential and they keep bumping into themselves. Senior business-line managers withhold support for projects that will transform, and frequently cannibalize, their divisions and their revenues. How do you get buy-in across the organization?

CSFB's Anne Johnson
Anne Johnson

It’s a major challenge and one that Anne Johnson is tasked with at CSFB. As the head of data, her mandate spans the organization, helping to translate technical requirements into business cases for the management team. Tradestreaming caught up with Anne to discuss the challenges in running company-scale digital projects and what she’s learned along the way.

What are the biggest challenges in your role?

There are three big challenges:

  1. Lack of trust that IT can deliver
  2. Finding room in the budget when we are swamped in technical debt of past IT builds
  3. Getting buy-in from sponsors to not only see the vision but have the wherewithal to rethink and change end-to-end processes

Heads of digital projects need to compress BAU and make the case to spend that in innovation.  They need to get senior people to buy-in that innovation won’t mimic current business models and doesn’t require a joint venture to deliver it. Concentrate on quick milestones with high-value items to prove that you can deliver.

Can you do digital transformation piecemeal? Can you have transformation without full buy-in?

Yes, top-level people do need to understand it isn’t going to happen all at once.  Actually, it will probably evolve into something even better if you realize you can’t build the perfect spec with all the capabilities from day 1.

It is usually best to insulate innovation from the rest of the company.  It is very difficult to launch something when you are potentially cannibalizing existing business.

How does your experience as a consultant help or hinder?

Management consulting taught me how to benchmark to competitors and bring in industry trends to find the answers I need and build my business case.

It also taught me how to communicate effectively with senior stakeholders, but also my peers and my teams.  Achieving big things means I need to influence, build consensus, and drive change.

It has helped because I pull from the front. Don’t ever forget to keep asking yourself, “How am I changing the bottom line?”

Hear more from Anne Johnson at Tradestreaming Money 2016 in New York City this November 14.