THINK Through the Years

How one innovative conference is changing credit unions and their leaders, one event at a time

It began with a simple question: What if CO-OP could change up its annual shareholders conference to not just report on what happened—but to begin looking forward, with an ambitious eye to the ever-changing future? Just how big could the impact be?

“We had this idea that if we did something completely different, we could not only inspire new thinking, but also motivate people to action,” says Samantha Paxson, CO-OP’s chief marketing officer and the creator of THINK. “We could not have predicted how far THINK would go.”

Nine years in, the THINK Conference has become the industry’s flashpoint for new ideas, creative growth and expansive thinking. Next month – May 3 to 6 – credit union innovators from across the country will convene in San Diego for THINK 16. With a speaker lineup that includes Upworthy’s Sara Critchfield, Fast Company’s Polly LaBarre and returning provocateur Gary Vaynerchuk of VaynerMedia, THINK 16 will once again challenge this industry to innovate beyond all previous boundaries. Make no mistake, it’s going to be big.

But THINK’s impact extends far beyond the annual conference. And in fact, the history of THINK itself illustrates the exponential power of innovation. “THINK has become a true laboratory for change and growth,” Paxson says. “We’ve gone from presenting innovation as a possibility to advocating for it and now helping to activate the ideas and innovative spirit of our participants throughout the year.”

Let the THINKing Commence
THINK 08 did something no credit union conference had done before. Not only did it invite an all-keynote speaker line-up from outside of the credit union industry; it brought in Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and a squad of breakthrough brands – Starbucks, Southwest Airlines, Harley-Davidson, Pixar. If credit unions were going to learn, why not learn from the best—those who had broken all the “rules” in pursuit of serving their customers better, and reaping the rewards as result?

THINK 08 broke attendance records, and it also set a new standard. That standard wasn’t to match the power of the first THINK conference. The standard was to innovate beyond it.

And so THINK has become synonymous with the brightest ideas from brands like Nike, Zappos, Disney, Target, Virgin America and Facebook. Some of the sharpest minds – from Sir Ken Robinson to Margaret Heffernan and Debbie Millman have found their way to the THINK stage. Yet, THINK has evolved into more than a showcase. It’s also become a laboratory of sorts:

“For a few years in a row, we heard people asking why credit unions couldn’t do a ‘Got Milk’ style industry campaign. So at THINK 11 we brought in Jeff Manning, one of the creators of ‘Got Milk,’ to talk about how we might do just that,” Paxson recalls. “We’ve always been up for opening the box. If we can test a hypothesis or find out how to build something, that’s a great challenge for THINK.”

THINK pushes the boundaries of what a conference can be, with a long list of firsts that include:

  • THINK It Outs – the first on-stage discussion segments to connect headline speakers with credit union leaders. Iconic example: acclaimed creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson and skateboarding champion Tony Hawk in conversation with CO-OP CEO Stan Hollen and then CUNA CEO Bill Cheney.
  • Journalists as hosts to analyze credit union initiatives and problem solve with credit union attendees, including Valerie Coleman Morris and public radio’s Tess Vigeland. One of this year’s co-hosts is Upworthy’s founding editorial director Sara Critchfield.
  • Original Research – THINK put a live consumer focus group on stage to reveal what people think and know about credit unions. THINK also produced a research documentary on the money habits of Millennials.
  • Collaboration and Consulting – in THINK labs, participants have learned how to generate collaborative ideas and, most recently, how to implement innovative strategy. Last year’s THINK workshop included follow-up reviews of individual credit union marketing plans by consultant Jeanette Thebeau and strategic consultant Ivan Askwith.
  • Ongoing, multi-year collaborations with contributors including Gary Vaynerchuk, Tess Vigland, Sara Critchfield, Ivan Askwith, Daria Musk, Kate Feather, and IDEO.

Taking the Prize for Collaborative Innovation
THINK recognizes great ideas and rewards them. The THINK Prize launched in 2011, when Matt Wiedler of Christian Community Credit Union won $10,000 for his idea to enable cardless ATM transactions using a mobile phone. Later THINK Prize winners include Paul Yang’s proposal for real-time P2P payments and Chris Whalen’s idea for Mobile One, an integrated mobile banking solution.

“We’ve been overwhelmed by the number of serious entries and the great ideas that have bubbled up from credit union employees across the country,” Paxson says. “It certainly proves there’s no shortage of inspiration out there. But we’re equally inspired by the fact that every THINK-Prize-winning idea has informed our product development at CO-OP, so that today real-time P2P payments, integrated mobile banking and ATM-mobile interoperability are all part of the vision CO-OP is working on every day.”

Last year, the THINK Prize itself underwent some innovative changes. THINK partnered with OpenIDEO, the open innovation arm of human-centered design consultancy IDEO, to host an online “Financial Empowerment” challenge. Over a three month period, the Financial Empowerment Challenge attracted close to 15,000 visitors to OpenIDEO’s collaborative platform, where more than 500 active participants made nearly 2,500 online comments and contributions to team efforts. In the end, five prizewinners shared the THINK Prize – with news about how they are activating their ideas to come at THINK 16.

Turning Inspiration into Action
THINK’s partnership with OpenIDEO continues this year. A cohort of credit union fellows is working with CO-OP and OpenIDEO to explore collaborative innovation and human-centered design in the workplace. THINK 16 will also feature opportunities for participants to try human-centered design themselves and apply it in their work at credit unions.

Driven by the notion that “Innovation + Purpose = Opportunity,” THINK 16 will explore the many ways that the credit union mission of “people helping people” has evolved in recent years, and how innovating around those changes is not only possible but critical. New voices – including Moneythink co-founder Ted Gonder and Zappos Insights co-creator Robert Richman – will help puzzle out the needs of a changing consumer marketplace.

At THINK 16, look for a full slate of new initiatives to get credit unions involved and exercising their innovative muscles. But also, expect the unexpected. “One of the greatest outcomes for THINK has been the magic that happens within and between our participants,” says Paxson.

Case in point: After a few board members reported great experiences at past THINK conferences, the entire board of directors at Firefighters First Credit Union came to Colorado Springs to attend THINK 15. The conference led directly into their planning meeting, kicking it off with a heavy dose of trend information, inspiration and strategic workshops. “We’ve been on a mission of discovery,” says Firefighters First CEO Mike Mastro. “We think about innovation a great deal. We think about strategy a great deal. We’re doing things differently and more innovatively than ever before.”

Credit union strategy consultant Brandi Stankovic shared the stage with bestselling author Mark Thompson at THINK 14. The conversation about leadership they began onstage continued after the conference – and eventually resulted in a book, The Strategic MVP: 52 Growth & Leadership Exercises from the World’s Top Executives. “It took 18 months, a little blood, lots of sweat, and multiple discussions with some of the world’s top CEOs, including Warren Buffett, Charles Schwab, Sir Richard Branson, Alan Mullaly and our credit unions’ own Cutler Dawson,” says Stankovic. Co-authoring a book with one of America’s top leadership experts wasn’t on the agenda when Stankovic arrived at THINK 14. But you never know where innovation and purpose will lead. “Thank you to THINK for the opportunity.”

What opportunities will you find at THINK 16? See for yourself. For more information and to register, click here.

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