"Failure" is not usually in most CEO vocabularies, but it’s a comfortable word for Oliver Hepfner. His leadership of Sparkassen-Finanzportal (SFP), the in-house service provider for Germany's Savings Banks Finance Group, is underpinned by a belief that allowing employees to fail drives their creative success.
Hepfner recognizes that creativity and innovation are imperative for success in the finance industry. Traditional institutions need to keep pace with the digital experience of other industries. For savings banks, this often means modernizing legacy services.
“There are a lot of buzzwords out there. People are talking about blockchain, AI, that kind of stuff. I actually want to go one step back,” Hepfner shares. “We need to do a lot of digitalization and automation, especially in the banking sector. New technology can help us, but it cannot solve our problems.”
Perfection Does Not Exist
SFP helps digitize the services offered by Germany’s nearly 380 independent savings banks. It is also responsible for the Sparkassen Group’s marketing and communication services, such as online customer portals.
Under Hepfner’s leadership, SFP constantly develops new applications to enhance the customer journey. And with each savings bank’s board of directors needing to sign off new product launches (more than 1,000 decision-makers), his team focuses on time to market rather than pursuing perfection.
“I tell my employees that perfection does not exist,” Hepfner says “It's important to bring something out quickly because you will never have a 100 percent perfect product. You always need to improve, to collect user feedback and take that next step.”
An example of SFP’s commitment to rapid transformation is its real estate application, S-Immobilienportal. Hepfner and his team launched new, customer-friendly innovations in just ten weeks. Now, users enjoy a personalized experience, saving their favorite properties in a digital wish list.
People Are More Creative and Innovative if They Don’t Fear Failure
Critical to SFP’s success is the way teams are structured and work together. The company’s agile approach creates cross-functional development groups that curate key competencies. Engineers work alongside product owners and user-experience specialists.
“We empower people to make new products and try something out, but we also give them the freedom that they can fail,” Hepfner admits.
Failure is not a taboo subject at SFP. It’s an accepted part of the innovation process. And while Hepfner wants his teams to use common sense and make good business decisions, he also encourages out-of-the-box thinking.
“People are more creative, more innovative and they also don’t fear that they can fail,” he says. “Put all that together and you really can create an amazing product.”
Every Employee Needs to Feel Fearless
Digital transformation isn’t just a technical initiative for SFP. Hepfner ensures it’s part of SFP’s company culture.
Everyone in the business can contribute to user-experience improvements. And a regular feedback loop with customers means teams gain valuable insights that shape the future development roadmap.
To continue financial industry innovation, Hepfner hopes other institutions will develop the same accountable, fearless approach. “With this empowerment, you can free up every employee to make the best product and services for your end customer. And then you really have a win-win situation,” he concludes.