What the Cotton Gin, Gen Z, and “Tiger Teams” can Teach us about Financial Innovation

We’re now more convinced than ever: innovation is exponential.

Let me explain.

It’s not often that we stop what we’re doing for two dedicated hours to absorb different perspectives from our peers. Though we often have the same challenges and journeys others do, we have very different ways of tackling them.

As a continuation of our Solstice Luminaries campaign — in which I sat down with some of the brightest minds in finance to discuss what keeps them up at night — we hosted an innovation summit called FWD NYC.

At our first FWD event in New York City, more than 70 executives got the opportunity to hear the unique perspectives of our speakers, including Julia Carreon, Managing Director of Digital and Fiduciary Operations at Wells Fargo; David Singh, Head of Digital Product Management at Marcus by Goldman Sachs; Robert Miles, Head of Technical Architecture and Development Modernization and Asset and Wealth Management at JPMorgan Chase; and others.

All the speakers had their unique views about what category-leading customer experiences mean for financial services, and yet the overarching theme was that innovation is a multiplying force.



It’s not enough to have a great idea or even one backed by a business plan. We all know how hard change can be — even when the writing is on the wall. But when an individual or team backs a new idea, prototype, approach, or feature with conviction, we have the power to create positive ripples that reverberate and build momentum.

From a shift in customer expectations to a connected financial experience without siloes, here are the four key takeaways from FWD NYC.


The future of connected financial experiences and how to challenge the status quo

Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin on March 14, 1794, and we held FWD NYC: Illuminate exactly 225 years later, to the day. The cotton gin was simultaneously simple and transformative. It took the hard, manual, intensive process of removing seeds from cotton and made it a zero learning curve experience by connecting existing technologies together into an intuitive experience. Financial services leaders today are in a similar place to that of Eli Whitney in 1794, with manual, hard-to-use accounts. However, your customers want simplicity in their customer journey, and they hate using siloed financial products.

So, knowing this, what do you do about it? Loving innovation is not enough. The willing brands are those who are married to innovation. Being married to innovation is not about a big-bang effort. Being married to innovation is linked to what you do every day. To support and enable your innovators, you must protect them with a dedicated innovation budget. Within that ring of protection, your innovators don’t need to make business cases for individual innovation efforts — they should be empowered to make decisions about what to prioritize. That will free them to remove the seeds from the cotton of your customers’ experiences.

For a closer look, watch my keynote below.



Defining “innovation”

Don’t allow the word “innovation” anywhere near Sunayna Tuteja’s “tiger team,” the group charged with building TD Ameritrade’s next generation of products and experiences. As the Head of Strategic Partnerships and Emerging Technologies, Tuteja made a bold statement: The word “innovation” often has a negative association with “fluffy things.” And her fellow panelist, Bijon Mehta, Managing Director at Box, agreed, saying many organizations create proofs-of-concept that lead nowhere, which makes people question the value of innovation.

The answer? Develop a clear path and vision to commercialize innovation as well as a handoff between innovation and the feature and product teams. If there is a lack of governance exchanged between the two, innovation will fail. “If you’re just going off in the speedboat,” Mehta said, “it’s going to take you a long time.” Sometimes, innovation teams aren’t even necessary. Even a monolith like Goldman Sachs doesn’t have an innovation lab — it simply weaves innovation throughout the organization. As Singh highlighted, it’s all about simplifying bureaucratic systems, empowering the teams, and not falling into a start-stop trap. There is a path to innovation — it just might not look the same for everyone.



Digitally transforming firms know the difference between speed and velocity

Speed is easy to measure. It’s simply how quickly you are moving. How much further are we in our plan? How much has gotten done? That’s speed. But there’s a big problem with just measuring speed: it doesn’t tell you if you’re moving in the right direction. That is why digitally transformed organizations have started focusing on velocity.

Velocity = Speed + Direction

Firms focused on culture have emphasized measuring what matters, focusing on customer satisfaction as a metric. But here’s the catch: it doesn’t matter how quickly these firms move if customers don’t like the direction in which they’re heading.

At the event, Miles and Raghvender Arni, Head of Platform Architecture at Pivotal, stressed that through agile and cloud-native development, organizations are now able to pivot more easily to make sure they’re moving quickly, but in the right direction. But getting there is a big culture change for the very process-oriented financial services industry.

The problem most firms are having is that culture can’t be built — it can only be cultivated. How do we achieve this? By empowering employees to create a space and plant some seeds. Although it seems like a small change, it’s actually radical. 

Carreon’s message was clear: most companies envision millennials frozen in time as finicky college-age people, when in reality they’ve grown up by now. The oldest millennials will start turning 40 over the next few years. While Millennials got smartphones in their 20s, Generation Zs, born after 1997, were 10 years old when the first iPhone launched and have exponentially higher digital expectations than do previous generations.

She said firms that are trying to simplify public conception of this generation into Millennials 2.0 are in for a shock: Gen Z is poised to become the most influential and demanding buyer yet. Gen Z’s expectations are being set by online games like Fortnite, a social, gender-equitable, free-to-play, pay-to-upgrade experience that has 250 million users and counting. Gen Z buyers are digital-centric, obsessed with social engagement, and allergic to friction. So any company that can’t answer with exceptional experiences in an omnichannel way ultimately won’t make it. Full stop.

To sum it up, time is running out. As customer experience expectations continue to shift, the opportunity to challenge the status quo starts now. It’s not about delivering more products — it’s about connecting those disparate offerings to delight and elevate the experience for your current and future customers.

So how can you initiate this change in your organization? Here’s an example: through the use of emerging technologies, as in the AI experience we debuted at FWD called BrAInwave. Check out the video below to see how face emotion detection can help customers have more focused conversations with their financial advisors.


Interested in diving deeper into these insights? Shoot me a note at jjohnson@solstice.com

How Fortnite and Gen Z foreshadow the great wealth transfer