Martin Bamford: The dangers of becoming obsessed with innovation

Martin Bamford

Originality is a tricky trait to balance. As a columnist, I need to be original in order to captivate your attention as a reader. As a financial planner and wealth manager, originality is a potentially risky behaviour to display, especially if it results in making a recommendation to invest in an esoteric offshore fund.

I need to be original when it comes to my suggestions for date nights with my wife. I need to be unoriginal when tempted to recommend tax planning schemes involving Bahamian residents signing off company accounts.

We seem to be facing ever-growing calls for originality and innovation in retail financial services. It has become trendy to talk about disruptive technology. How many failed consultants are scrambling around right now raising venture capital to create the Uber of financial advice?

Our regulator seems to be encouraging this original behaviour. Project Innovate resulted in an Innovation Hub to help businesses bring new models to market. It talks about a mission to “build disruptive innovators at scale”. Wow. Even its events come with uber-trendy names, like “RegTech”.

During my slightly unoriginal holiday to Scotland over Easter, I read a book called Originals by Adam Grant. It is one of the best books I have read so far this year and definitely recommended it for anyone with an interest in creating new and interesting things.

Grant is a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, a couple of years younger than me yet substantially more accomplished and successful as an author.

In his book, he writes about how non-conformists change the world, dispelling plenty of myths about originality. One of these myths was originality involves being first. It does not. His research concluded the most successful originators are fashionably late to the party.

But in financial services we seem to have become obsessed with being first to the innovation party, to the extent the FCA is actively supporting firms with that goal.

Another interesting study in the book found three in every four new businesses fail because of premature scaling; making investments the market is not yet ready to support.

This could well be the biggest danger to those investing today in financial services innovation and even, dare I say it, robo-advice. There is no doubt a future for these technologies to transform what we do today but that future might be some way off being capable of financially supporting one or several large new businesses.

There are quite clearly two routes to achievement: conformity and originality. Conformity means following the crowd and maintaining the status quo. Originality involves championing a set of novel ideas that go against the grain but ultimately make things better.

With a rapidly ageing population and a great deal of the wealthiest segment of society reaching retirement age over the next decade or two, I have to question whether the drive for originality is coming from a genuine consumer demand or simply a desire from practitioners to get involved with something exciting.

Balancing that desire to be original with the sometimes dull, boring and predictable nature of the work we do on a daily basis might well be the greatest innovation challenge we all face.

Martin Bamford is managing director at Informed Choice