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AFP Conference Preview: Tom Kelley of IDEO on Innovation

  • By Ira Apfel
  • Published: 2012-08-27

Treasurers today hear the same demands over and over: Get outside your group, add strategic value to the C-suite and board of directors and, of course, do more with less. But how?

Tom Kelley, general manager of leading design firm IDEO, will offer advice to help treasurers innovate when he speaks at the AFP Annual Conference, October 16.

A self-described "innovation practitioner" whose company's successes include PNC's popular Virtual Wallet and Bank of America's "Keep the Change" program, Kelley understands that treasurers want to innovate but often get caught up in critical day-to-day tasks. "The problem with innovation lives in what Stephen Covey would call Quadrant Two: It's the important, but not urgent stuff," said Kelley. "And the nature of work life today is there's a lot of urgent stuff every day, and so it's tempting to set some of that innovation aside.

"And yet, innovation happens."

Kelley believes treasurers should rely on "cross-pollination" for inspiration-getting ideas from other countries, other cultures and, most important, other generations. "For the first time in human history, you need mentors that are not five or 10 or 20 years older than you. Now you need mentors that are five or 10 or 20 years younger than you," he said. "I call them reverse mentors. I actually have two reverse mentors, learning from people who are less experienced than me but have different experiences."

Reverse mentors are the single best way to help translate ideas into action, Kelley believes. "I have had hundreds of people say to me, 'Oh, Tom, I tried out the reverse mentor thing and, man, does that work,'" he said.

As for providing value to CEOs and the board, Kelley knows that treasurers have plenty of data to share. But he believes that's not want executives want-at least, not necessarily in raw form. Rather, treasurers need to tell a story with their information.

"My firm was slow to come around to story-telling, too," Kelley confided. "It is a really, really important skill in which you take the numbers and you craft it into a message that is memorable, that is accessible to the CEO-who may not be a finance professional.

"We used to think that data should speak for itself, but data is very perishable," he added. "You tell an audience even a single number, seven digits or less, and they start to forget it right away. But we-all of us-are carrying around stories that we heard even in early childhood."

Tom Kelly of IDEO will speak at AFP's Annual Conference in Miami on October 16 at 8:30 am.

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