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The innovation game

Barclaycard's Nick Kerigan and Usman Sheikh dissect our pioneering spirit

Innovation. At Barclaycard, it's what makes us tick. To find out what an innovative culture is all about, we spoke to Nick Kerigan, MD, Future Payments; and Usman Sheikh, Director of Design and Experimentation; about how we conceive and create everything from new ways to pay, to the small ideas that make a big difference.

What's the case for innovation at Barclaycard?

Nick: At Barclaycard, our strategy is all about Engaging our colleagues, Delighting our customers, and Growing our business. Innovation sits around those as one of the key ways in which we will achieve that strategy. So, that means identifying the big trends, such as invisible payments, data, or omnichannel, and then working out how best to respond to them, either by changing the things we're already doing, or by doing entirely new things.

Is it just about new ways to pay?

Nick: Innovation covers everything from really big opportunities right through to the small stuff, which can still have a big impact. For example, we get quite a lot of calls from small business merchants trying to set up their new card payment machines. So we added a smart URL to the box, which merchants can scan to receive all the information they need to set up that terminal. It's not massive, but it makes a big difference to the client's experience. That idea actually came from some of our operations centre colleagues.

So it's not just you guys who are responsible for innovation?

Usman: Innovation isn't a thing that we do. It's a mindset. It's all about being more in-quisitive, challenging the status quo. So, who owns innovation? Nobody does. It's part of our culture. And what we're trying to do at the moment is to empower our colleagues even more, so that everyone has the tools and the support they need to go ahead and innovate.

Describe the journey of innovation for a colleague, from idea to reality. 

Nick: If somebody has an idea then we would encourage them to develop it with a small group of like-minded colleagues, and then to start testing it with others. If you're getting the right kind of feedback, next you'd build a prototype or demo that you can touch and feel, which is much more powerful than something on PowerPoint. Then you can start seeking broader support from stakeholders, proceeding towards something that you can take to market. But it's not a cookie-cutter approach. You can guide people through the journey, but you need to adapt according to the situation.

Usman: Another really important message is that when you're on that journey, every single stage is going to enhance your knowledge and your understanding. If you look at successful start-ups, you'll realise that the big products were in most cases their 70th, 80th, 100th attempt. I think Angry Birds was the 52nd game that Rovio produced.

Nick: It's like training in a gym; you're developing your innovation muscle. So even if you do 20 things and none of them go forward, you've still become much better at figuring out exactly how you innovate, so that maybe that 21st idea is the one that's huge.

What are the ideal conditions for innovation, and is it harder to innovate in a big company like Barclaycard than in a start-up?

Usman: In my view, there's no such thing as ideal conditions. But there are certain qualities that I think are quite important. Things like shared resilience, because whether you're a start-up or you're trying to build something within a large organisation, you are going to be constantly knocked back.

Nick: In a start-up versus a corporate, the challenges are somewhat different but so are the opportunities. If you're in a start-up you don't have the red tape of a corporation, so in one sense you're much freer. But in another sense you're much more constrained, because money and people are very limited. Whereas here at Barclays – a big corporate environment – we are well funded, we have lots of very talented people, we have a trusted brand, and we have tens of millions of customers. Equally, as in any well-established business, we have controls. They're there for a good reason - sometimes you can feel like you can't move as fast as you might like, but the intent is we get to a better customer outcome.

Out of everything you've seen at Barclaycard, what has been your favourite innovation?

Usman: It's coming out soon!

Nick: Ha ha, it's always the next one right?

Usman: Absolutely. And I think that you're probably asking the wrong people because for me, that sense of satisfaction probably stays for all of a couple of days whenever somefthing goes live, and as soon as the celebration dies down I'm like, "okay, what's next?"

What can we learn about innovation from other industries?

Nick: There are a couple of insights for me. One is that customer needs don't change very quickly, but technology means that we can create much better solutions much faster than ever before. So technology is not an end in itself; technology needs to be used. The other thing with that is if you're thinking about whether a consumer is going to want something that you're creating, typically convenience wins.

Usman: In the past, the way financial services were designed was always in comparison with other financial services, which basically meant that you were comparing something really bad with something even worse. But now people are comparing things with any other experience that they have. That's the reason why when we're experimenting or developing new products and services, we're not just looking at financial services. We're looking at actual consumer behaviours, and then we design and build propositions for those behaviours.

Where do you see innovation taking Barclaycard in the next 10 years?

Usman: I would say that we're already the leaders, so it's about maintaining that leadership. We're no longer just competing against the big five banks; we're also competing against a couple of people in their garage building stuff. So we have to be super quick.

Nick: Going back to what I said at the start: innovation is in the service of our strategy. So if in 10 years' time we've delivered on our strategy, then we're doing something right in innovation.

Usman: It's an iterative approach. One of the drawbacks of designing for the future is that we're working to a 'best guess'. A couple of months down the line, we might realise that something changed in the industry, so we need to react much more quickly and not as if we're turning a big ship.

Nick: And, if we've trained that innovation muscle then our best guess should be much better than it was, so that we're not making 180 – degree turns – we're just shifting lanes.