Scoring Ideas: at One Financial Services Firm

By Scott Kirsner |  November 25, 2013

Brown Brothers Harriman & Co., with roots that trace back to 1818, is the oldest and largest private bank in the U.S., with about 5,000 employees, 17 offices around the world, and more than $1 billion in annual revenue. In the 19th century, BBH was an early investor in Britain’s Cunard Line, and in the 20th, when President Woodrow Wilson went to Europe to sign the Treaty of Versailles, he carried with him a letter of credit from the firm.

But having an executive responsible for innovation is relatively new for the storied firm: Phil Swisher created the role in 2010, with the mandate to be “a firm-wide catalyst.” Swisher, left, says his work focuses on six primary dimensions:

  1. Building new products and services ourselves – early stage product development
  2. Funding the promising new business ideas of our colleagues across the globe
  3. Being a catalyst for collaboration and innovation across the firm
  4. Building a stronger culture of innovation
  5. Providing metrics and analysis related to innovation
  6. Engaging with entrepreneurs, investors, innovation leaders, clients, and others outside BBH who can accelerate and improve our work

Here are the questions Swisher’s team asks to create a “score” for ideas that bubble up within BBH:

Ideas need to land in those top two blue quartiles on the right to move forward. And there are other criteria that get applied once the score is calculated, in order to determine which ideas win funding:

When BBH decided to create an API (application programming interface) to allow partners to write software that connects to the firm’s client data system, Swisher says the idea scored 18 out of a possible 21 points, putting it into that top quartile. “The breakdown is, only other firms offered it at the time (2 points), no one is asking for it (3), near-term low financial impact (3), outcome is a combo of cost savings / productivity and revenue from a new market (average is 2 points), multiple business lines could own it (2), simpler value proposition (3), low reliance on high-cost technology or infrastructure (3).” He says that BBH has since “signed up with one of the API governance platform companies to make it easier, and we’ve been trying out a number of approaches.”

Swisher says that several other products will launch in the next three to six months, but they aren’t yet ones he can discuss in detail: “They’re all some flavor of data analytics, specifically providing empirical insights that directly impact the revenue or cost structure of our clients.”

(The two slides used here are courtesy of Phil Swisher.)