innovation – Catherine Allen

“For any innovator, the most important thing is to find your network of safe havens — the people who support what you’re doing.”


More: Innovation – Albert Yu, Innovation – Joyce Wycoff

Title: CEO
Company: Banking Industry Technology Secretariat
Location: Santa Fe, New Mexico
Age: 52


Over the past two decades, Catherine Allen has worked in — and escaped from — the traditional banking industry; started her own consulting firm in the center of Santa Fe’s complexity-theory community; and coauthored a book on workplace creativity and innovation that reflects “the artist’s way.” Now she’s back in the belly of the beast, working in the traditional banking industry as the CEO of the Banking Industry Technology Secretariat (BITS). Drawing on the knowledge gained from her earlier work, Allen is teaching a consortium of all-too-often stodgy bankers how to innovate its way into the future.

What does it take to introduce innovation into the risk-averse world of banking? According to Allen, who knows the industry well from the three years she spent at Dun & Bradstreet and from the eight years she spent at Citibank, the first lesson is to recognize that the banking industry resists innovation. “I learned a lot at Citibank about the barriers to creativity,” she says. “In some ways, the company’s culture was for people not to trust one another. Whoever could come up with ideas and get them to market first would get funding. It worked in the short run, by creating some areas of innovation, but there was no mechanism that allowed good information to be shared within the company.” And that experience has direct and immediate relevance to the banks and associations that have come together to form BITS (a division of the Bankers Roundtable), because cooperation and collaboration are essential to solving the industry’s technological challenges.

Allen derives a second lesson from her work with the Santa Fe Group, a consulting firm that she started in 1996. From her base in Santa Fe, Allen found herself absorbing the ideas of complexity theorists in that community. “One thing I took away from them was their theory about increasing returns,” Allen says. “Most people thought that enormous companies could increase their scale and scope only so far before it became futile to add growth capital to their enterprise. But Microsoft has demonstrated that owning a particular software platform can enable you to integrate other products into it. If banks could learn to think like software companies, then banks could take advantage of increasing returns too.”

In fact, Microsoft is much on the minds of these bankers. “We saw a big shadow flying over us, and it looked a lot like Bill Gates,” says Ed Crutchfield, CEO and chairman of First Union, the sixth-largest bank in the United States. “Gates thinks that banks are dinosaurs, and none of us bankers could convince the others that we alone knew the right way to avoid becoming extinct. We needed a referee.”

Allen may not be a referee, but by drawing on a third lesson, she just might be able to teach those bankers how to play together. Her first step was to form an advisory council that consists of one high-level executive from each of BITS’s 13 largest member banks and one representative each from the Independent Bankers Association of America and the American Bankers Association.


To stimulate creativity among council members, Allen has deployed several techniques from her book, “The Artist’s Way at Work: Riding the Dragon: Twelve Weeks to Creative Freedom” (William Morrow, 1998). In the book, Allen and her coauthors offer unorthodox techniques for teaching even the stuffiest banker how to think more creatively. Allen suggests, for example, that people keep a journal of “morning pages” — a book in which they write down their thoughts first thing every morning. “By creating a chronicle of the obstacles you face as you try to push your organization further along, you can go back and see where the points of frustration were and how they got resolved,” she says. “You can see from your pages that people come around if you take the time to get the proper buy-in.”

Allen’s combination of industry experience, out-of-the-box thinking, and creativity techniques is starting to bring a new look to BITS — and to open up new thinking among its members. “For any innovator, the most important thing is to find your network of safe havens — the people who support what you’re doing,” Allen says. “People here know that they can bring in wacko ideas and still be received with respect. We at BITS are the ‘guerrillas in the midst.’ Now we’re trying to get all bankers to think of themselves that way.”

What’s Fast

What are some of the core principles of being an organizational innovator? According to Catherine Allen, people who work to innovate within big companies need to develop several essential skills. “There should never be just one person in an organization who owns the latest innovation, because then people get stuck out on a limb defending a new idea all by themselves,” she says. “Innovators who work in an organization that lacks shared ownership of new concepts often end up getting shot, like the people leading the front lines in the military.”

What is the right way to practice innovation? “When you have a great idea, the first thing that you need to think about is marketing it internally. Ask yourself who will be impacted by it. Then seek those people out. Make the impact of the innovation a win-win for everyone. You’ll find that the people who start out as your greatest detractors will end up being your best friends.”

Ron Lieber ( is a Fast Company senior writer. You can reach Catherine Allen by email (