Guiding RBC’s Innovation Challenge

According to Avi Pollock, vice-president of innovation and strategic planning with RBC Financial Group,  the key to leading an innovative culture within an organization is maintaining a constant focus on continuous means of improvement. “I like to personally look for ways to continue to drive, support and enable change in the organization,” says Pollock, named 2011 IT Mentor of the Year at ComputerWorld Canada’s IT Leadership Awards. Pollock demonstrates his skills for doing so through spearheading numerous challenges, both within and outside of the RBC organization.

Over the last five years, Pollock has led an external initiative called the Next Great Innovator Challenge, encouraging Canadian students to offer their perceptions in determining the future of financial services. Gathering nationwide participation since its initial launch, the challenge has attracted nearly 500 team entries of close to 2,000 students from universities across Canada.  
Not only does the student contest provide an opportunity for employees to approach future costumers, but it’s also a chance to monitor talent for prospective recruitments. “The competition [provides] a way to get new insights from the market, as well as new ideas that we can put into place in the organization,” says Pollock. “And every year, we [make] a very concerted effort towards ensuring the ideas that are identified through the innovation challenge are piloted or implemented within the organization, in some form.”
After receiving such positive feedback, it didn’t take long for Pollock to integrate the notion of the student competition with plans for an internal operation. Thanks to the sponsorship provided by RBC’s chief information and operations officer, Morteza Mahjour, Pollock was able to propose a similar challenge for rousing diverse ideas and perspectives among RBC employees. Now completing its first year, the Technology and Operations Innovation Challenge has already exceeded expectations, with more than 500 employees participating in 134 team submissions.
“It’s incumbent for us as IT professionals to maintain a focus on what are the future trends, the new technologies, the emerging opportunities and how we [can] apply them to the challenges that our different businesses are looking to solve,” says Pollock.
The objective of the initiative was to generate practical innovations at a low-cost to the organization.  “We strongly encouraged the different teams to work cross-functionally both within Technology and Operation, but also to bring in partners from the business.” In other words, the contest allowed any of the 79,000 RBC employees from across the enterprise (and around the world) to partake. Participants were urged to reach out as far as possible in order to build a solid team with varied thoughts and viewpoints. “We really believed that would make a more robust idea,” he says. “And I think that’s exactly what happened.”  
Looking back, it wasn’t necessarily the end result of the challenge which Pollock found to be most gratifying. “I think what was most personally rewarding was that so many people participated, and so many of them were passionate about their ideas,” he says.
Of course, it’s Pollock whom the RBC employees acknowledge for motivating such vivid ambition among the organization. And they seem to have done so by nominating him for this year’s IT Leadership Awards. Sean Nelson, senior manager of strategic planning in Technology and Operations, voices his support for Pollock. “I nominated Avi because of his commitment to developing and fostering a culture of innovation in his team, as well as at RBC,” Nelson says. “By encouraging and rewarding risk, Avi inspires and motivates others to demonstrate the ‘art of possible’ in all that we do, resulting in creative solutions to our clients’ challenges.”
When asked what the award winner himself looks for in a leader, Pollock highlights three qualities: “intellectual curiosity, strategy for leveraging diversity and ability to navigate change.” As he explains, a leader should always be looking forward; always trying to understand what’s going on around us and what it means for the organizations where we work. A leader should value the role of diversity in driving change—including diversity of thoughts, diversity of perspectives and diversity of experiences. And a leader should help the organization manage through that change, as the world around us continues to evolve at a rapid rate.

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