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Innovating at speed during a crisis

By implementing agile principles, Synchrony better served its business partners, customers, and employees

Innovating at speed during a crisis
During the pandemic, Synchrony started operating as an agile team companywide, prioritizing speed and decision-making.

When the pandemic first closed in on Synchrony’s Stamford, Conn., headquarters, leadership realized the consumer financial-services company needed to act fast. Faced with an unprecedented challenge, Synchrony quickly moved its roughly 16,000-person workforce home. There was no time for presentations and long discussions.

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“The leadership team recognized we needed to operate differently,” says Carol Juel, Synchrony’s chief technology and operating officer. Guided by her experience in the tech sector, Juel suggested that management start operating as an agile team, prioritizing speed and decision-making. The team met multiple times a day to discuss issues and make strategic decisions.

With leadership’s support, Juel led adoption of agile principles into every corner of the business. In a difficult year, the company saw its massive investment in technology made just a few years earlier pay dividends: Many of Synchrony’s partners were able to use its open-banking APIs—application programming interfaces— to build customized apps that responded to consumers’ increased demand for contactless commerce.

Synchrony named to Best Workplaces for innovators

Those investments also allowed Synchrony to respond nimbly to swings in market forces. “We looked at the massive shift to digital during the pandemic and used agile innovation processes to listen, learn, and deploy capabilities for our partners,” Juel says. As a result, Synchrony was able to launch major credit-card programs remotely with Verizon and Venmo at the height of the pandemic. Accomplishments such as these are what helped Fast Company recognize the firm as one of this year’s Best Workplaces for Innovators.

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PEOPLE-FIRST APPROACH

During the pandemic, Juel says the company used its experience with partners to inform how it dealt with internal matters. “We had to support our employees in ways that we hadn’t in the past,” she says. “Our ability to do that with the same innovative spirit that we use on the commercial side of the business really has been a differentiator for us.”

Juel says that using agile principles to improve the lives of Synchrony’s employees during the pandemic has been one of the most rewarding experiences of her career. “The challenge that I saw, as a mom of three small kids, was that the summer was going to be unbelievably hard,” she says. To address the issue, a small group of Synchrony leaders quickly came up with the idea for a virtual summer camp for employees’ children. “This was an agile project about how to help families with kids at home so that they could do their jobs.”

Synchrony Summer Camp was a hit. More than 3,700 campers logged on to engage in activities—including dance, arts, and crafts—led by high school students who, in turn, were mentored by Synchrony employees. “It just became this virtuous cycle of helping,” Juel says. The program was renewed for 2021, alongside other expanded benefits that were also inspired by feedback from Synchrony employees.

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As for designing Synchrony’s post-pandemic future, Juel says a combination of agile techniques, a people-first approach, and emphasis on flexibility will inform the leadership team’s decision-making. And she underscores that the company’s “culture of caring” will continue to be a top priority for CEO Brian Doubles. “At the end of the day, your organization is all about your people.”

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FastCo Works is Fast Company's branded content studio. Advertisers commission us to consult on projects, as well as to create content and video on their behalf.

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