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Wielding the baton: How CIOs can best orchestrate FinTech innovation

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“How did you do that?” “What do you need to be successful?”

Since leaving UBS I have been hearing these questions often from people interested in my experiences orchestrating FinTech innovation. Typically the questioner is someone facing challenges similar to the ones I have faced in my career as a Chief Information officer (CIO): not just innovation, but innovation in a complex, global organization, with multiple business lines and geographies.

My answer always runs along the same lines. As a CIO you must first keep in mind that business is in the driver’s seat: innovation is not a tech play, it’s a business model, product and service one. But in today’s tech-driven environment, the CIO generally has the conductor’s baton in his or her hand. That means it’s up to you to orchestrate the change. You need to do so from front-to-back, covering all aspects from generating ideas to going to market.

Having done this several times, I’ve thought a lot about the process. For me, the following stages are essential:

Illustration: Jon D. Harper – Strategy and Innovation Process Improvements


  • Find key trends: You need to know what is coming down the pike in tech, and how it may be used in the context of your organization.
  • Understand business priorities: You must thoroughly understand where the business is today and, more crucially, where it would like to be in three to five years.
  • Decide on the tech you would like to test like a VC fund: Now you can match what you know about technological developments with what you know about the business. Look for developments with the best potential in your context, be it new technologies, methodologies, software, approaches, whatever seems like it might fit and drive the business forward. Based on this, you can decide on a long list of ideas to be tested.
  • Validate your hypotheses: This is the key part: Get some funding and put a small team together, preferably outside normal business lines, and test the ideas in a sandboxed laboratory environment. Do it quickly but thoroughly, in a non-bureaucratic way, but always with the business and customers in mind.
  • Move validated ideas to the normal investment portfolio: A lot of your initial hypotheses may prove wrong. That’s fine. The ones that make it through the process are likely to be gems. If the expected benefits are indeed confirmed, then move those ideas to your normal investment portfolio, where they can be developed using your regular processes.

There are some other things to keep in mind. You will have to coordinate a number of support services. You need to manage your ecosystem, for instance, from startups and universities through to the regulator. The research, business case and use case selection processes need to be managed as well . You also need to manage and be active on the communications side. And finally, you need to ensure that once new capabilities are available, line managers can easily find out what they are and integrate them into their portfolios.

In other words, you will need a complete framework for your innovation efforts. And whether you work in a centralized way or take a more distributed, federalized approach, you will need teams to manage the overall process.

This process has worked well for me in the past. It’s one of the reasons I was lucky enough to be named among the Financial News’s FinTech Top 40 for the last two years and City AM FinTech Powerlist. While this is a satisfying confirmation of the work, there is really nothing here that anyone else couldn’t do. Just stick to the method, and the results will come.

Follow me on Twitter @obussmann.

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