This article was originally published in June, 2017.

Corporate Innovator Profile
Name: Kevin Lewis
Title: VP, Client Innovation
Company: First Data
Total Corporate Innovation Experience: 15 years
LinkedIn: Kevin Lewis

Perhaps no industry has been disrupted by innovation more than the financial services industry. Ironically, one of the original payments disruptors, First Data, now finds itself the target of disruption. We recently spoke with Kevin Lewis, First Data’s vice president of client innovation, on how the company works to continuously disrupt itself, how it prioritizes innovation and what constitutes the ideal team member.

How does one of the largest Fintech companies in the world define corporate innovation?

First Data employs more than 24,000 people at offices around the world, so I’d be embellishing if I said there was a singular definition of corporate innovation across the organization. However, the Innovation Lab’s mission is to continuously disrupt First Data before someone else does. As one of the biggest players in the payments industry, we can have a huge target on our backs from competitors and startups, alike. Within the Lab, we model our innovation mindset after Intuit founder Scott Cook, who frequently wrote about the need to find problems customers cannot yet imagine, and then solve the problems in ways that make it impossible to go back to the way things were.

So then, how does one structure a business unit with a charter to continuously disrupt the company before someone else does?

First Data’s Innovation Lab has four major outputs, including:

  1. Innovation Leadership advising on problems, challenges and opportunities for innovation.
  2. Product Innovation seeking to solve problems and developing innovative products using Design Thinking methodology.
  3. Client Innovation focuses on innovating along with clients and partners.
  4. Employee Innovation teaching design thinking to everyone in the company regardless of title and job function.

What are the challenges involved with innovating for customers that span from small businesses to the enterprise?

It is true in that we serve all types of companies – from small donut shops and artisans to the big box retailers, and on the bank side from one-branch banks to mega financial services companies. For smaller companies and merchants, one aspect of innovation must reflect a ‘do-it-for-me mentality.’ Smaller organizations simply don’t have the money and resources to do a lot on their own, so they look to us to provide holistic solutions that provide services and solutions that require minimal time and oversight.

In contrast, larger organizations tend to work with us in search of ways to address a need that hopefully can use an existing feature or piece of functionality as a foundation for a new product or service that we think will be representative of the future of commerce.

Fintech is an industry that requires foresight to stay competitive. How does First Data plan for innovation that might be several years away from hitting the market?

Keeping up with every current and potential fintech disruption is definitely more of an art than a science. We do keep a close ear to the ground in the startup scene, and we have our own accelerator with Silicon Valley Bank – Commerce.Innovated. Ultimately, though, we are in the “problem” business. That is, what problems do we see and how best can we solve them for ourselves and our customers. There are a lot of startups doing very interesting work, but not solving very interesting problems. We shy away from such startups because without a real problem being solved, those types of technologies won’t scale en masse for a billion-dollar company like First Data.

What are some of the current technology initiatives at First Data?

One thing we don’t do is get bogged down in pursuit of certain types of tech. There are lots of companies – startups and enterprises – drooling for drooling’s sake over tech like machine learning, AI and block chain. But in our opinion, if you prescribe yourself to a technology to solve a problem, then you might not actually end up solving the problem in the best and most desirable way. For us, we look at problems holistically first through the eyes of users and then determine how best to solve it that satisfies their needs. Then we can look to various technologies as a way to solve the problem – in combination or stand-alone. If its machine learning, great! If it’s something more simplistic, so be it.

There are a lot of jobs in corporate innovation today. What are the ideal employee skillsets that you look for and what characteristics do you think make the ideal team members?

Corporate innovation is certainly a team sport. While lots of organizations would agree that collaboration is important, the level of collaboration that we deploy is on another level. We build our teams through a diversity lens, seeking people at all stages of their careers and a mixture of folks with payments experience and those without. This diversity is necessary to avoid groupthink mentality and to bring new and different perspectives to bear. We also look for prospective corporate innovation team members to have both a passion and patience. That’s why we have had mixed success recruiting people from the startup world.

So, for us, the ideal team members aren’t those who thrive in the corporate environment or those who thrive in the startup world; rather, it’s someone with the capacity to thrive in an environment that takes bits and pieces from both. To help assimilate our innovation teams, we are intentionally embedded in our corporate HQ. This enables us to stay connected to the rest of our business, and most importantly, enables frequent face-to-face communications.


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