Sara Maki

Global fin-tech company

With a high focus on her team and a global ambassador network, Sara has managed to run numerous campaigns and impressive results in her role as Head of Innovation Initiatives at a global fin-tech company.

What led you into working with innovation?

My journey into innovation was not planned and happened by serendipity. I have a background in anthropology and international studies, and I later took an MBA. I have always been interested in creating positive social change, globally. I was working in a product line, but when an opening in innovation came up, I took a chance. The mandate was about change management; creating a culture of innovation and “build something that could have a big cross-organizational impact”, fast! This was very attractive to me, as I have a basic interest in human behaviour: what drives people and how do they change behaviours?

What does a typical day look like?

As with probably anyone working in innovation, there are a few similar days, but there are three major tasks that take up my time:

1. Guiding my team: which issues are we facing? How do we achieve our goal? How can I help them move forward?

2. Looking into the next business opportunities: what can we do with our program? Where can we apply our methodology and expertise to get valuable results?

3. Communication: aligning with different stakeholders to find new opportunities, with management to make sure they understand the value we are creating and with externals to spot trends and future needs. Communicating about the results of innovation is ongoing; to explain what we do and what we are delivering.

We must be able to pivot, create processes that are scalable and flexible, and communicate consistently but not excessively.

Which challenges in relation to innovation do you face at your company?

I am very focused on how to ensure that enough is done to develop the ideas so that value is actually created. It is only when the ideas meet the reality that their true value can be seen, so we must work diligently throughout the process. We must be able to pivot, create processes that are scalable and flexible, and communicate consistently but not excessively. This is a challenge for any big organization, and that was also the case for us.

Can you share a recent success story?

A major challenge when working with innovation is to ensure the backing and resources of others. As an innovation team, we cannot succeed by ourselves – we need the support of others to make the ideas become a reality. I have found that it is not enough to rely on voluntary support. It must be built into the structures of an organization, preferably supported by KPIs and budgets. We need people on the ground to support and promote our initiatives. People with a can-do attitude who are used to applying new tools and ways of working and who have a network within the organization. In my previous job, we had a program to train local ambassadors to become our megaphones, to provide feedback and input from local markets, and scout new trends and products. Their incentive was to increase their skill-levels and become better innovation leaders. This was a great success, and I am adopting this approach in my work with scaling the innovation initiatives, from the Innovation Lab to create local impact.

What is one thing about innovation that you think is important?

Innovation is all about collaboration and our role was especially to facilitate and empower others to imagine big and we would support the ideation to the execution process. I had a powerhouse team that took the program to new heights with their spirit and work ethic.

Also, I have found that innovation always starts with a basic human problem, and technology is only interesting when it can solve an actual problem. I have seen many ideas focusing on the technology first, but if you cannot link the technology to a customer use case, it will not succeed. The learning is to ask the customer as soon as possible in the process. By doing simple and cheap market research very early on, you can avoid big mistakes and heavy investments later on.

Further, innovation is a highly ambiguous and unpredictable discipline, which makes it hard to plan and make decisions. Instead, I try to slice our work into manageable steps or tasks and incorporate many decision points along the way to de-risk the idea and resource spend.

In this way, we can make it a structured and repeatable process where the focus is on the right things at the right points of time. This makes it easier to manage, decreases the chance of unpleasant surprises and increases the transparency of the process in general.

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