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Mar 20 2014
Applauding Alumni: Debby Hopkins
By: Holly Blust Category: Alumni

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Applauding Alumni:
Debby Hopkins, BAcct 1977

Debby Hopkins, Walsh alum (BAC, 1977), is the Chief Innovation Officer of Citi, a global bank operating across 160 countries. She is also Chairman of Venture Capital Initiatives and Managing Director/Head of CitiVentures. Fortune magazine has twice named her one of the most powerful women in American business, and for three years running she has been named to the Institutional Investors Top Tech 50 list. Walsh College recently had the opportunity to ask Ms. Hopkins some questions about the art and science of innovation. 

What is the biggest challenge that you now face?

As a corporation, we’re trying to turn our vertical, hierarchical organization on its side to create a horizontal organization. This is one of the biggest changes in business in 100 years. Whether it’s automotive or aerospace, pharmaceutical or services, we’re all struggling with the same issues. There are huge disruptors to the traditional business model. From the speed of change… which is simply staggering... to the sheer amount of data now available… to consumers directing, rather than ad agencies declaring, wants and needs, today’s businesses have to contend with formidable change. And that change is not about looking up… it’s about looking out.

Helping our teams see and feel that disruption... which is far greater, way faster and steeper than we’ve ever witnessed… is an incredible challenge in and of itself. All of these disruptions require new expertise and new ways of working. We have to step into the disruption, rather than let it wash over us.

Most companies utilize a process that includes problem finding, problem selecting, solution finding and solution selecting. Innovative companies interject a process that both frames and reframes the problem. Tell us about that.

Reframing the problem is probably one of the most important tools in an innovator’s toolkit. So often, when a team is really kneedeep in a challenge and really intent on finding the answer, helping them to reframe the question radically transforms the dialogue. We’ve witnessed this many times.

Every company needs to continually reframe its business to survive. Netflix has repeatedly reframed its business model, making the leap from the physical distribution of DVDs to digital virtual business. As technology evolved, Netflix reframed their business, adding on-demand, on-line services for multiple devices. When traditional entertainment companies realized the threat of Netflix and began to withhold licensing, Netflix began to produce original entertainment. That’s successful reframing. Netflix is a great analogy for Citi as well. We’re asking questions that will reframe our business: What is the role of a physical branch in serving our customers? Is there a different, more relevant way of making our customer’s  financial lives simpler? Other industries offer rich examples from which to draw. Our innovation team truly realizes that the business team knows our business far better than they ever will. But what they are bringing to the table is a new way of working… and a new way of thinking. The results  can be astounding.

Henry Clay once said “Statistics are no substitute for judgment.” How does that statement apply to Citi’s innovation efforts?

I love that quote. And it is so very, very important to remember for innovators. Of course, scorecards, metrics, accountability and transparency are critical and have their place in the process. But we operate in a space that departs from the traditions of detailed planning, quarterly business reviews and perfect execution.

We follow a stage-gated model that minimizes risk. We want a pipeline rich with concepts that get winnowed down to seed projects… a Minimally Viable Product (MVP). ROI measures early in this pipeline would kill any one of these ideas in a heartbeat. Those measures do become valuable when a project moves further down the funnel and begins to require serious investment. By then the hypotheses have been tested and the idea is ready for bigger, more traditional measures.

How do you engage a global workforce that’s 250,000+ strong in the effort to innovate?

In an organization this large, everyone has a different perspective. But what they have in common is the ability to walk in their customers’ shoes. The definition of “customer” can mean different things: for a function it may mean other Citi employees. For some, their customer may be a corporation, and for many, it means a consumer. We want to inspire all employees to realize they have the opportunity to see customer needs… and then tell us about that opportunity to make it better.

We launched Citi Ideas in 2009, soliciting ideas worldwide from our employees. We received thousands ofideas from 93 different companies. To manage the process, we used Spigit, an enterprise innovation management platform. It uses algorithms to link similar ideas. Then Spigit virtually connected the people behind those similar ideas to create virtual global teams that developed the ideas.

The “crowd” netted those to 10 and then the Global Innovation Council picked a winner. The winning team had never met one another and still brought forward a highly relevant business concept. We are currently exploring the means to turn it into an offering to our clients.

Debby Hopkins on the 5 Key Traits of Innovators
1. An insatiable curiosity and the ability to create a vision of what could be.
2. A willingness to fail in the attempt.
3. Both left- and right-brain skill sets.
4. Perseverance, courage and humility.
5. The ability to translate a vision into actionable products.

"Reframing the problem is probably one of the most important tools in an innovator’s toolkit. Every company needs to continually reframe its business to survive.”

Debby Hopkins, Walsh alum (BAcct ’77)


Please join Walsh College in applauding Debby Hopkins in her continued success by adding your comments below.

To nominate an alumnus to applaud, contact Duc Abrahamson, Alumni & Student Relations Manager at (248) 823-1298.


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