Fidelity VP: Pick the Right Innovation Tools for Your Trip

By Scott Kirsner |  May 19, 2014

Fidelity Investments vice president Rick Smyers likens running a successful innovation program to planning a mountaineering expedition: you don’t want to leave base camp without a plan of attack, the right people, and the proper equipment.

Smyers runs the Center for Accelerated Innovation at Fidelity, the Boston-based financial services giant that manages nearly $2 trillion in assets. And he says his group serves as a kind of guide that can help business units get to the summit faster.

“We’re a central corporate function,” Smyers said in a talk at last week’s Front End of Innovation conference. “The business units have most of the power, but we don’t go into the business units and say, ‘Do it our way — we know best.’ Innovators don’t like being told how to do things. They like to invent their own way. But we can offer up examples of how other people are doing it, and what’s working with other groups.”

At Fidelity, Smyers said, the focus these days is primarily on service and experience innovation, not necessarily new business models. “A lot of business units have their own pots of money earmarked just for innovation, that won’t get crowded out by the core [business operations,]” Smyers said. “Other business units have people, a dedicated team.” Even letting a certain set of people carve out five hours a week to develop new ideas can be productive, he said. But “if you don’t have time, money, or people in place, not a lot is going to happen.”

Smyers began his by emphasizing the importance of understanding the innovation program’s direction. What is the strategic framework? What resources will be invested in it?

What tools and techniques will the innovation group use, or test?

Who should be on the innovation team, and how will they be hired and incentivized?

Smyers also offered examples of when to use — and when not to use — three different innovation techniques: Design thinking, idea management, and lean startup.

He said Fidelity is just in the midst of exploring the lean startup approach. “What customers do is not necessarily what they say they will do, especially with scenarios like dieting or saving for retirement,” Smyers said. “So that can be a good use for the lean startup methodology. You can show them something and see how they use it.” As an example, he discussed an app Fidelity built for the new Pebble smart watch (which we’ve covered previously). 

Smyers closed with three pieces of advice for others just launching a corporate innovation function:

  1.  Be methodical about innovation.
  2.  Build a well-defined toolkit.
  3.  Know when to use each tool.