Applicationist – the ability to make sense of external inspiration. (Episode 37)

Interview with Pamela Attebery, Head of Innovation, Middle East, North Africa and Turkey (MENAT), at HSBC.


If you want your employees to be innovative you need to get them to do three things.

a) Get them excited about wanting to do things differently

b) Get them to want to find new inspiration outside the world that they know

c) Get them to understand how the new solutions they encounter can be used on the company’s internal challenges.

Or another way of saying it:

Get them to:

Look Up (from what they are doing)

Look Outside (of what they know)

Look Inside (for how it could be used)

Companies spend a lot of money and resources on a) and b) – but it could be argued that c) is the most important aspect. So why don’t we spend more time on helping people become better at understanding how new solutions can be used internally? And what would happen if we did?

That is what I recently discussed with Pamela Attebery, Head of Innovation, Middle East, North Africa and Turkey (MENAT), at HSBC. She told me about how her department spends a lot of time and effort to get people excited about looking outside their current job and really encourage people to look at what is happening in other industries and/or regions of the world.

She told me how they bring in external speakers, offer courses in design thinking, lead digital transformation, design innovation processes etc. to get their employees to become better at “Looking up” and “Looking outside”. But they also make sure that the ideas get brought inside in a way that makes them useful.

And it is this last part – of the people who have figured out how all these external ideas and influences can be used internally – that Pamela decided to call “Applicationists”. And she herself is an applicationist extraordinaire.

Pamela told me about how she would research quantum computing and its impact on banking by studying how quantum computing is being used outside of banking. For example, what are the applications being used to improve airplane design, route traffic faster or predict the weather. None of these are about banking, but her job is to see “How could we apply these ideas to banking?”

Or how she would study how blockchain is being used in totally different industries to study the use cases there to then figure out how it can be used in banking. Pamela told me about how she had studied how improvements in food tech had impacted the supply chain for farmers, thanks to emerging technology. Now, farming supply chain procedures have nothing to do with banking, but Pamela and her colleagues would look at the steps involved in global trade finance, where it could take as long as 30 days (!) to complete a transaction, because of all the manual documentation. By learning from how the farmers had reduced the complexity of their supply chains they were able to see solutions for how the bank could cut trade finance transaction time by around 40% and lead the future of trade.

Many people look outside for inspiration, but what we really should be doing is too look outside for application – in other words, look for new ideas in other industries and then aim to figure out how they can be used at home.

According to Pamela, an applicationist is a person who:

1) can see a problem

2) can identify someone, somewhere else, who has a similar problem

3) will understand how that solution can be applied internally

4) has the initiative to do implement the change.

Pamela added: “(As a applicationist) you need to have that drive to want to make the change happen internally.”

The key skill for an applicationist is in steps 3) and 4).

And while a lot of people love the part of going outside to attend conferences or study companies in different industries, it is the people who then also have the ability to figure out how to apply all that inspiration that is collected and the power to make the necessary changes happen who are truly powerful innovators.

It’s just as with the original meaning of “inspiration”, which is “to breathe in”: There is no purpose of inhaling all that oxygen if we do not have the capacity to get it out into the body.

And there is no purpose of collecting all that external, creative, inspiration if we do not also have the ability to turn it into valuable insights around what it means to us, and then have the ability to make those changes happen.

That is what applicationists can do. So let’s give them the value that they deserve. And if you really want to innovate, learn how to identify the applicationists in your organisation – the people who can take the external inspiration and apply it internally.




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