There's a lot of lip service being paid to innovation, but one innovation lab can boast of real-world results, including getting state laws changed, saving credit unions money and helped lure new CU members.

In fact, that's exactly why Filene Research Institute, parents of the i3 innovation program, likes to refer to itself not as a "think tank" but a "think and do tank."

In a concerted effort to generate leading-edge ideas to better serve the credit union market, students of Filene Research Institute's i3 innovation program here are sharing their experiences — from the rigorous application process to spearheading original concepts.

"I had a strong interest in innovation before I was accepted to i3. We'd started our own innovation lab, and I'd participated in product development, both for our credit union but also with our CUSO partners," said Lake Trust Credit Union's Senior Vice President of Brand, Strategy and Culture Danielle Brehmer. "I'd learned about human-centered design during that time, and I knew i3 was centered on that approach to creating value."

Andrew Downin, innovation director at Filene Research Institute, explained that since 2004, 195 "next-generation leaders" have graduated from the program, 30 of whom have gone on to become credit union CEOs.

Getting accepted to the program, however, is no easy task, said Salal Credit Union's Marketing & Product Development Manager Matt Vance. "It's an amazing experience to get this level of education, innovation and quick product development — to a proof of concept," said Vance who first applied in 2010, but was accepted in the Spring of 2012 after his second attempt.

"You don't walk away with a certificate or a degree, but you are able to say you were a part of Filene's prestigious i3 program," said Vance who finishes in December. "It's a hard program to get into with only about a 10% approval rating."

Every May, Filene's accepts applications for the 24-month course, which doesn't always transpire consecutively. Vance explained that applicants are required to submit two letters of recommendation. The application process also includes writing three essays and taking two personality tests, among other action items. "They utilize those scores to see where you sit on the scale from being entrepreneurial and creative to more process driven as well as how you work with groups."

Downin explained that this year applicants, who must work at a Filene member credit union, will take part in month-long tryouts where they will be charged with solving "real-world problems" in a condensed format. "This will help us better understand each applicant's skill set to help us build the strongest, most diverse i3 group possible," he said that accepted applicants will be notified in August.

The Filene Method

The i3 program is based on The Filene Method, the philosophy of human-centered design. Downin said that too often, credit unions develop new ideas based primarily on the needs of the credit union, such as technological limitations or financial goals.

"Human-centered design states that successful innovation must first consider the needs and problems that our end users — members, employees and communities — are facing," said Downin. "Insights are gathered that lead to a core problem statement; ideation provides a framework for harnessing creativity that leads to innovative solutions."

Innovative solutions developed in Filene's i3 program have changed state laws, improved member finances and saved credit unions countless dollars while attracting new members, noted Downin. Past projects include Prize-Linked Savings/Save to Win accounts, Debt in Focus (now SavvyMoney) and Savings Revolution.

"Various versions of the i3 concept Savings Revolution, which is best described as [NBC's hit show] ‘The Biggest Loser,' but for financial goals rather than weight loss, have been implemented at credit unions across the country," said Downin. "As is the case with most innovation efforts, successful concepts are rare but hold the promise of significant impact."

Producing Innovation

Brehmer, who graduated last fall, was on a six-month innovation cycle with Vance. She likened The Filene Method to shampooing hair. "But instead of wash, rinse, repeat, it's ideate, build, measure and learn. You can repeat this cycle over and over again, until you get the results you desire, or until you're ready to move on."

Among innovations Brehmer, Vance and their groupmates developed was SwitchNinja. "This is an automated switch kit. The process is often viewed as hard to do so we wanted to come up with a way to do it digitally and make it easier," said Vance.

SwitchNinja was Brehmer's favorite project, and she hopes it will be introduced to the market soon. "I worked with a team of amazing colleagues, Matt Vance and Doug Ebner (Lead Innovation Architect at First West Credit Union) and we created this online switching solution. It's in Filene's lab right now, and I believe it could be moving from beta to alpha soon. Very exciting!"

While groupmates mostly work virtually through curriculum webinars and weekly team conference calls, they do spend time together usually scheduled during Filene conference events.

"Five in-person meetings are held over the course of 24 months where teams get the chance to present the culmination of their work and experience unique i3 ‘brain food' events designed to broaden their horizons and expand their innovation capabilities," said Downin. "This year's brain food will include time at Harvard University to learn from many of the biggest thinkers and dreamers from academia and industry."

Vance and Brehmer noted that they have both developed lasting relationships with Filene employees as well as colleagues they met through the i3 program.

"I really lean on Filene now, more than ever, to help inform our thinking on some of the most pressing strategy issues. The research, programming, and opportunities they provide are of great value to me and our team here at Lake Trust," said Brehmer. "They've become an extension of our innovation strategy, with great minds out there sourcing on our behalf. That's incredibly valuable."

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