SAN DIEGO — It's easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day grind of running a credit union and, in the process, lose sight of the soft skills that are just as important to success: creativity, empathy and not having to make a choice between doing good and making a living. But those soft skills took center stage at CO-OP Financial Services' THINK 16 conference here.

Creativity Isn't Taught, It's Unleashed

Tom Kelley, general manager of IDEO, a design and innovation consultancy headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area, told attendees creativity does not have to be taught — but good managers need to see their job is to unlock it, unleash it, let it flourish. "There needs to be the courage to act, the courage to leap," he said. "Kindergartners all think they are creative, all think they are artists. As adults, people hesitate to offer an idea. They fear being criticized, of appearing different. Until that idea comes out, no one knows if the idea is worthy."

Businesses are starting to embrace this, Kelley said, noting that Adobe performed a "State of Create" global survey of creativity at work. It found 80% of people think unlocking creativity is critical to economic growth. Next question: do you live up to your creative potential? Only 25% said yes. Kelley says the question for companies everywhere is: how might we unlock the creative potential/creative confidence of the other 75%?

How to Unlock Employees

According to Kelley, the tools to unlocking creativity are: empathy, experiments and storytelling. "Always start with empathy," he offered, telling the story of an executive at General Electric who was responsible for designing MRIs and other scanning machines. By accident, the man discovered the standard MRI machine scared children, causing 90% of them to need sedation. Despite not getting monetary support from GE for the project, the man created "Adventure Series Scanners" with a pirate theme. A session in an MRI went from scary to "Mommy, can we come back tomorrow?"

"He started with empathy, blended humanity, and ended up with an industry-changing product," Kelley said. For credit unions, he suggested the CEO get out from his/her desk to use observation and asking questions to discover what confuses, frightens or frustrates members. "The members will not give it up right away, you will have to keep asking. The first question will just get a standard answer. Members do not always express themselves. If you can anticipate needs and solve problems, your members will remember."

Credit Union Innovation Project

From left: Tom Kelley, managing director, IDEO; Jason Rissman, director, Open IDEO; Scott Bales, global futurist; Chelsea Rosty, NuVista FCU and Chad Lynch, America First CU, participate in the Credit Union Innovation Panel at CO-OP Financial Services' THINK 16.

Samantha Paxson, chief marketing officer for CO-OP Financial Services, said the company has partnered with IDEO, funded by a donation from MasterCard, to create the Credit Union Innovation Project. She described it as, "An immersive fellowship program for credit unions." It is in beta testing now with four representatives from CUs and two people from CO-OP.

Jason Rissman, director of think tank Open IDEO, said the idea is to build a community to solve complex problems that cannot be solved by one person. "Innovation is not just technology, it is a mindset," said Rissman. "The differentiator for credit unions is their proximity to the community. The community is the killer app."

We Fear Change

Chad Lynch, ATM services manager for America First CU and a member of the beta test group, said a barrier to innovation is people do not like change. Chelsea Rosty, VP of marketing and community relations for NuVista FCU, said they key is to offer "compassionate empowerment." Asked how to overcome the objection, "We have always done it this way," Rosty suggested doing things differently a little bit at a time.

CO-OP also announced it is going to be a "Chair of Excellence" sponsor along with Filene Research Institute. There will be a four-year sponsorship of a university professorship with an institution TBD this is expected to help credit unions master the technology they need. Also, CO-OP is creating a proof of concept payment app.

'Compassionate Communication' for Conflict Resolution

Whitney Hess, certified coach and author, urged credit unions to practice compassionate communication. "This will help resolve conflicts more peacefully," she said. "Compassionate communication assumes all actions are attempts to meet needs, that all needs are universal, that all feelings are signs of needs met or unmet, and all conflicts are about strategies, not needs."

According to Hess, money is not a universal need, it is a strategy to meet a need. "That need might be security, stability or freedom, but money is always a strategy." Credit union members tend to worry about accessibility, affordability, fraud and literacy. If someone says, "My account got hacked and now I don't trust you," it presents a challenging problem to solve because it is out of the credit union's control. "You will need to come up with new strategies for meeting this person's need for trust because the previous method failed. This person needs compassion, guidance and comfort. Ask questions, allowing the person to feel heard and understood, to matter."

Merging Capitalism with Idealism

Max Schorr, co-founder and director of GOOD, an interactive media company, said when he graduated college he felt he had to choose making a living or doing good, "and that choice sucked!" He and a friend founded GOOD to embrace his generation's merger of capitalism and idealism. First issue of the magazine was: "America, love it or fix it." The company's website now reaches 10 million people per month, many of whom are millennials.

"The story is the reality," Schorr said. "Credit unions need to use their story to overcome being the best kept secret. The community is the brand, is the impact."