44D - Paper Airplanes

When Aspiration Brings Telos to Life

Companies become resilient , purposeful enterprises through discovering and living out a telos. From the many years of research on how organizations really work appear three vectors that will bring telos to life: Aspiration, Choice and Embodiment. The first vector is Aspiration, or even more simply, Desire.

Ever since the struggle through 2008 and 2009, things had been a bit rough for Battleford Bank. Though the risk committee of the Board had kept their sub-prime exposures to a minimum, none of the banks in the Midwest had escaped the unprecedented limits on liquidity and the trials of the slow recovery. Shajay Matthias had been more than a little unsure about accepting a role at the bank with a mandate for product innovation. The whole world knew that “product innovation” was the very domain that had gotten the banks in trouble – when good sense was trumped by a creative new way to make money.

Still, never one to shirk a challenge, Shajay was quite pleased with the response to his recent invitation for new ideas, and had been surprised by how well the crowd-sourcing platform that he’d introduced a few months ago had tapped into the imagination of a great number of Battleford Bank’s employees. As he reviewed the portfolio of ideas, one in particular caught his eye. It immediately left him feeling both intrigued and anxious.

Brinley Bennett had joined the bank just three years before, fresh off her MBA but after a few years working as a group home manager for kids with tough backgrounds. Energetic and pragmatic, it seemed that, despite her youth, she had already seen a lot in life. Shajay had been struck by this at their first meeting, as well as with Brinley’s strangely calm demeanor and self-assurance for someone still yet to leave her twenties behind. Brinley had ended up in marketing at Battleford, and after successfully creating a welcome package for new immigrant customers that had been very well-received, she had launched an idea to create a new credit card offering for the “unbanked” into the bank’s new internal innovation platform.

Shajay knew well enough that the bank’s credit card portfolio was struggling and looking for new customers, but he also knew that the business leader preferred the premium cards and their higher income customers. In that target segment, the competition was intense.

But who among their competitor banks would want to serve people with hardly any money?

Brinley’s proposal noted that this was part of what made the idea worth exploring, along with the fact that this group of potential customers was growing faster than any other. The response of Brinley’s colleagues was also a relevant data point – more people had endorsed Brinley’s proposal than the next seven ideas combined. He would have to handle that kind of enthusiasm carefully.

When Shajay had gone looking for a social media platform to help gather innovation ideas from across the bank, he had picked one that was simple and included a couple of unique features. He believed that new thinking comes from people building on one another’s ideas. So he found a social media platform to help gather ideas and allowed people to not just “like” someone else’s idea, but volunteer to develop the idea further. As he reviewed Brinley’s proposal, Shajay began to realize just how creatively she had used the platform to tap into a raw nerve of aspiration, even longing, across a wide swath of employees.

It had been three years since the CEO of Battleford Bank had approved the new brand communications and declared her intention that the promise “We’re your neighborhood bank” should become true. At the time, Shajay remembered some murmurs of skepticism at whether she really meant it, and he remained quite skeptical himself. However, it appeared that Brinley had taken the CEO at her word, and suggested in her proposal that such a declared intention was both why she had come to work at Battleford and that she intended to make sure it lived up to its own claim.

Brinley had taken the words of the statement quite literally: “we” meant her and her colleagues, and “your neighborhood” included everyone in the 47 communities, cities and towns where Battleford had branches.

The proposal centered on a plan to introduce a new form of credit card for those who did not meet traditional credit standards. Each customer was to be treated not as a “segment” but as an individual. Brinley had quite obviously come up with a creative idea that tapped into a strong desire among Battleford’s employees to fix a growing problem in their community – and no other idea had garnered anywhere near as much interest. Judging by her colleagues’ overwhelming response, she had also unearthed a shared aspiration that accurately reflected the purpose the organization had stated but was still figuring out how to live up to.

As Shajay reviewed Brinley’s proposal in more detail, he realized just how many other employees had added new insight or suggested improvements to her original idea. It had gotten better and stronger, but it had also activated something Shajay had rarely seen in the often cynical, transactional world of banking – employees were volunteering to help, even on their own time. While the business case in the proposal was only adequate, there was enough merit in it to explore. Already, he too had found a few ways to modify it without compromising the idea, and in particular, stay true to the reason it seemed to have such wide appeal.

“In order to live out purpose, we have to tap this kind of aspiration,” he thought, “and if we did, it might even change business for the better.”

Yet, it was hardly the blockbuster innovation that would add a nice spike to his year-end bonus. With that realization, he returned wistfully to another proposal that he had reviewed the day before. In it, a trader outlined an idea sure to generate more revenue for the bank, but had found little support amongst employees and even sparked a few angry tirades mentioning things like, “inconsistency with our values”. He then wondered, challenging assumptions in the way that had helped him land his role in product innovation in the first place, how his employer might innovatively structure its bonus criteria based on something other than the departmental fiscal target.

Shajay knew he would have to review Brinley’s proposal with his EVP, and while it would deliver little upside to the economic value of the portfolio in the short term, he was still intrigued, and wondered what other value it might help create.

Shajay could sense that Brinley had tapped into the vein of aspiration that the bank needed to find. “If we had a few more people like her around here,” Shajay thought, “it might change the course of our business for the better…”

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