How Citi is creating seamless customer experiences: Q&A with Maria Potoroczyn, Strategy + Innovation + Ventures

For our Innovation Chronicles, we talk to interesting people who turn innovation into action in their organizations. How do you create products that make people’s lives better in fundamental ways? This week, we talk with Maria Potoroczyn, Strategy + Innovation + Ventures at Citi and Co-Founder + Board Director at WIN: Women in Innovation.

How do you define innovation at Citi?

Innovation at Citi is really about customer-centricity: how do we create products that will make our customers’  lives better in a fundamental way. 

We have a responsibility to create financial products to help our customers thrive. In the past 5-6 years, “digital transformation” has fundamentally shifted our company. We’re a digital banking partner now, which means we have to start with “where and how we can best serve our customers and deliver on their needs.” As a large banking institution, it takes time to reinvent entrenched  business models, so we focus on the customer experience when we’re thinking of ways to move the needle.

What are some of the core components of a good innovation strategy?

For me, a good innovation strategy is a choice.

A good innovation strategy is a choice. It’s a choice about what you do that exists in direct relation to all the things you chose not to do.

Our business is so big and we serve clients in a holistic way with a variety of different products. The challenge is to identify the things that don’t serve us anymore, and focus on the things that will be the future-proofing components of our strategy. Large organizations have a hard time making difficult strategic choices, letting go of things that aren’t working anymore, and focusing on fewer, bigger bets – all of that is a very scary notion in a large organization like Citi. 

What is unique about Citi’s innovation and ventures strategy? How does Citi approach innovation?

At Citi, we have different teams that are responsible for various “flavors” of innovation. Citi Ventures plays an important role in our ecosystem – spearheading a number of different initiatives: from incubation programs, to emerging tech research & integration, and investing in high growth potential founders and startup teams. Just a mere few weeks ago, we closed down a central hub of innovation that was tasked with envisioning the future of banking five years out. That team existed in somewhat a protected vacuum, while other teams – such as the one I sit on – historically have focused more on “running the bank”. Unfortunately the model never proved viable or sustainable. Most of that team & their key initiatives were recently taken over by my team – US Consumer Digital, the digital heart of Citi US Consumer Bank. This – to me – is a big learning in org design: siloed innovation doesn’t work, innovation must be everyone’s job, and should be driven by core business priorities. 

How do you spot opportunities for innovation and which customers do you target?

Historically, our cards and retail businesses did not talk to one another. To put this in perspective – until very recently our credit card customers may have had a retail banking relationship, but we wouldn’t have even known! This has significantly changed in the last 2 years or so and this transformation will continue to pick up pace as we break down silos, connect data, run cross-lines-of-business NPD initiatives, and begin to truly serve one customer as one company. As part of this process, our digital team is playing a critical role in bringing these businesses together to create a more unified experience. We have 28M credit card customers, but we’re still in our retail banking infancy with 4-5M customers. 

Overall – in a large organization like Citi – I see tremendous opportunities for innovation at the “intersections” or “bridges” – between teams, business priorities, customer pain points, channels, and beyond. I get very excited about the next frontier of our “cross-pollination” work – working with partners from across the franchise on NPD initiatives; implementing learnings from our Institutional Clients Group into our consumer business; embedding startup partners into our corporate ecosystem; translating wealth management frameworks to better serve mass market consumers; paving the path to Citi becoming an admired BaaS player; standing up and operationalizing key new functions aimed at creating seamless customer experiences regardless of channel. 

What are some of the most useful skills innovators in large organisations can develop?

Building relationships  and trust is what makes innovation happen in an organization like Citi. If there’s no trust in the relationships you build, there’s no way an idea will flourish or an initiative will get necessary funding and support. It’s part of the reason why so many people work at companies like Citi  for decades – building that trust takes time and is difficult to relinquish when you finally have the permission to push exciting work through the system and make a difference. I think it’s an interesting tension between grit, persistence, patience and orchestrating ideal timing. Getting it right can be very rewarding. 

Why is innovation so important?

If you don’t continuously push yourself to rethink who you serve and where the next generation of customers is coming from, you risk missing the boat. If you don’t innovate your business, it becomes that candle knot that was just extinguished – there’s no more fire, only a meek smoke, until it stops oozing. No innovation means no fire.  We’re a 200-year-old company, which tells you something about our ability to innovate as well as  our ability to preserve what’s good and right about the business. 

Having constraints creates a great breeding ground for innovation. Innovation means leaning into the challenges, regulations, our boundaries and solving for them or designing around them.

My team is focused on creating seamless, transparent and delightful experiences for our customers to help them live fuller, more rewarding lives. There are times when it’s difficult to make things happen because of our need to avoid risks, be responsible, compliant and abide by the rule of law. A lot of highly regulated industries face these constraints, but it’s about making that tug of war productive. Having constraints creates a great breeding ground for innovation. Innovation means leaning into the challenges, regulations, our boundaries and solving for them or designing around them. 

Why is innovation so hard?

I think the innovation challenge – probably much to Christensen’s chagrin – boils down to personality predispositions. Broadly speaking, I think there are really only two types of people: those who thrive in ever-changing environments and those who thrive in stable environments, where change does not happen too quickly or too often. The former can be powerful change agents themselves, while the latter can be powerful innovation “barricaders”. That’s the ultimate tug of war. How can the innovation agents bring the barricaders along for the ride, so that the progress being made has buy in from both sides.   

Obviously this is a very simplified view of a very complex challenge. So to build on this – I do think innovation is hard because it’s influenced by a variety of (often un-controllable) factors: timing, market shifts, consumer trends, speed of tech maturation, ability to pivot freely, regulation, and probably 55 more. For a truly new idea to take shape so many stars have to align. There is one thing I have found to be a strong predictor around the ability to innovate in large organizations – the pace or frequency of test & learn cycles. This is the single-most effective way to gauge whether an organization is committed to experimentation, able to learn quickly, evolve accordingly, and pivot when necessary. 

Owning our weaknesses and translating them into our strengths, the stuff that makes us us can be a source of real power.

Who inspires you? 

This may be an odd example, but I take inspiration from different places and apply them to my life and work. For example, Yayoi Kusama is a Japanese artist who has struggled with mental illness throughout her entire life, but instead of letting it hold her back she uses it to create unique and timeless art. Owning our weaknesses and translating them into our strengths, the stuff that makes us us can be a source of real power. Kusama doesn’t try to copy anyone or pretend to be someone she’s not. That’s how I want to live and how I want to work. 

Opinions expressed in this article are solely Maria Potoroczyn’s and do not express the views or opinions of her employer.

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