What is Your Box?

I recently wrote about the idiom of “thinking outside of the box.” If you have not read that blog post, you can do so here. While we can all agree that getting “out of the box” is necessary to encourage true innovation, it got me thinking about how we would define “our box.” It makes sense that we need to have some idea of where we are if we are going to challenge ourselves to get out of it.

For the purposes of this article, I am going to restrict my definition of “the box” to our profession of banking; however, your personal box may be defined and may be relevant to how you operate in a business setting, but there is no way for me to account for the vast amount of variance in our personal boxes. When we talk about a “box”, what we are really defining is a set of industry practices or norms that we all accept and follow, even if they are unspoken. From a pure banking perspective, how then would we define our box?  Any one person’s list would likely generate a divergent set of definitions than another based on geographic regions, target markets and demographic customer-based focus. I will take a stab at what I perceive is a list of box attributes that I see most bankers exhibit as their industry norms.

An FIs box can be defined as:

  • Establishing accounts for individual and business entities
  • Accepting deposits for customers
  • Providing loans for customers that align with credit policies
  • Disbursing cash to customers on demand in accordance with account balances
  • Providing access to payment systems (Card, ACH, EFT/POS, RTP, Zelle et all…)
  • Physical locations where banking transactions can occur
  • Provide tools for access to accounts and transactions outside of a physical location
  • Safeguard information and physical items behind extremely high security procedures

I realize that this is not a comprehensive list and I can hear some of you crying out for items left off the list (“Hey, what about our trust services?”) Amend away on the list as you see fit. In general, I am not sure that there would be any great pushback on the elements that I did include. We are a transaction-focused business. Opening a new account, posting an ACH payment, executing a wire transfer request, cashing out a CD are all viewed as a transaction. We have training programs to enable our staff to execute all of these transactions with a high level of proficiency and professionalism and that’s good. If we accept that the above list is at least a basic understanding of our “box,” then what does it mean to get out of that box?

I would argue that at the very start of that creative process would be to recognize that if we are focused on transactions, how would our thinking change regarding the services we provide if we were not focused on transactions? Is that even possible? How can we have a banking service without transactions?  It is this very thought exercise that highlights the extreme difficulty in getting bankers to “think outside the box.” Your left brain is set in stone on the immutable truth of banking transactions. How can we somehow ignore that they exist? I get it, it’s hard to do, but try we must in order to get any real creativity. Start by not thinking that transactions do not exist but that they are not the focus of providing banking services. As a thought example, consider that our primary focus would be targeted on identifying and enabling customer’s goals and dreams. How would that change your perspective on how and where you would provide services?

I have written about goals and dreams in the past, here is a link to that blog post if you missed it. Want to have some fun at your next managers meeting, try this exercise. Ask each manager to come up with an example of a goal and dream that a typical customer would have that aligns with their area of expertise. You can let them know in advance of what you want them to relay at the meeting or just spring it on them. I can argue on either side of them having prep time on this question or not. Regardless of how the question is posed, listen carefully to the responses you get. Do your managers struggle with this exercise or are they able to think away from a transaction focus to a “goal and dream” focus?

Perhaps the appropriate follow up from the exercise above is to ask each senior manager to brainstorm within their area and come up with ideas for how the financial institution’s focus can move away from transactions and target assisting customers with achieving goals and dreams. This would be a great exercise to incorporate into your next strategic planning offsite meeting. So what would you do with the results of the brainstorming I have outlined above?  Just having ideas doesn’t mean that they are to be implemented, but it would start a conversation about the value of moving your FI’s focus away from transactions. Today’s customers are looking for a genuineness in the businesses with which they associate and bankers certainly could go a long a way to being more appealing to future customers based on how we change our focus.

Combine a change in focus with the harder work of changing the branding of the institution. Not the colors or logos, but how the institution is perceived by its customers, community and other stakeholders.  When all of the staff is talking about assisting customers in achieving their goals and dreams, when your social media posts show examples of customers achieving goals and dreams, when the community all can see and hear that this bank is … different. Then and only then will you have made a substantive change in how your box is structured and perceived.

I am using “goals and dreams” as a representative example of thinking outside the box. I am not advocating that this is the only method that all FIs should undertake but I feel strongly enough about it that I would not advise against it for any FI that is looking to break out of the industry norms and strike a new tone with customers and prospects. Let’s face it, staying inside of the box is … safe. It feels comfortable to stay within industry norms and while things are going well and the income statement and capital accounts look strong, it is a radical move to suggest that something needs to change.  We are facing radical change in the coming years and the FIs that will make the transition are the ones that are willing to challenge the status quo.  What about your institution, are you ready, willing and able to “get out of the box?” I hope so and if you need any assistance in getting this process started at your institution, reach out to me at and let’s chat about what might be needed to take that first step outside of your box.