Why Wells Fargo Says Diversity of Thought is Essential to Innovation

September 17, 2014

About five years ago, Mike Duke faced the sophomore slump.

The Chief Innovation Architect and Executive Co-Chair of The Innovators Club at Wells Fargo had recently joined the company from Wachovia, as part of the largest bank merger in U.S. history. An IT executive with experience running product innovation teams, Duke scored an early win by bringing together a group that successfully met a Wells Fargo senior leader’s challenge: to enable him to send money to his daughter straight from his phone. The team came up with many ideas for new features and functions for mobile banking technology as part of that exercise.

Then, crickets. Duke’s next two groups couldn’t get projects off the ground.

“It turned out that the different innovation styles that had been in the room that first time were important,” Duke recalls. “Diversity of thought is critical. If you have the same minds in the room, you’ll get the same ideas.”

And better get some “goats.” That’s what Duke dubs “shaper”-type personalities, team members that offer crucial reality-check questioning of blue-sky ideas from the “visionaries” or “seers” that tend to be the most vocal people in the beginning of an innovation process. Also essential are “builders,” to execute that kicked-around plan, as well as “pilots” to navigate and steer the project.

Duke ended up collecting these concepts into a 2011 book called “Innovation Goats on Your Lemonade Stand: Building Innovative Teams that Deliver.” The innovation personality quiz he created for that book is now often handed out at Wells Fargo project kickoffs and used as “framing” language by innovation team members. “People will say on a conference call, ‘I’m going to play shaper here,'” Duke says.

Tapping the Power of a Grassroots Innovators Club

In his current role, Duke is responsible for the continued growth of Wells Fargo’s innovative culture and educational programs focused on “Diversity of Thought.” He advises technology and line-of-business teams across the company on the alignment of results-driven innovation styles.

A key hub for these activities is the Wells Fargo Innovators Club, an employee-driven community that has been around in various forms for about ten years. After arriving from Wachovia, Duke immediately saw the Club as a “powerful asset.”

“Since the merger, we’ve adopted a three-pronged approach to innovation – people, or diversity of thought; tools, or the right tools at the right time; and process, but not a single process,” he says.

Duke describes The Innovators Club as “a decentralized process with actionable exercises.” At any given time, there are a dozen or so enterprise-level innovation challenges promoted on the Club’s information portal. Yet there are also many other projects in various stages of development that are also posted on the site, which arise from constantly-forming Club innovation teams. Several ideation tools are available on the site to aid in brainstorming, project organization, and encouraging “diversity of thought” inclusiveness in pursuing and refining all initiatives. “We are constantly kicking ideas back to the shapers and builders to get their input,” Duke says.

Wells Fargo also conducts an annual iWeek (see flyer below), which includes a series of town halls in which senior leaders talk about innovation and address questions on that topic that employees have submitted throughout the year. Teams also have the opportunity to present their innovation successes through the online “virtual showcase” that’s also a part of iWeek celebrations.

Giving more prominence to innovation at Wells Fargo has led to several achievements in recent years, says Duke, including the creation of a centralized patent group that has improved and expanded upon what had been a more “sporadic” application process in the past. “There’s simply more awareness of innovation as a strategy, as a tactic,” he says. Employee engagement in the Innovators Club also continues to ramp up. When Duke arrived from Wachovia, the Club had around 900 members; it has now jumped to approximately 5,000 members. One business unit recently formed its own spin-off Innovators Club forum specifically focused on further raising awareness of innovation personality styles.

That particularly pleases Duke, who seeks to foster “diversity of thought” even when he’s not in the room. “A large part of my job,” he says about his Club chair duties, “is getting out of people’s way.”

More from Duke: “It’s never too late to innovate