A famous Supreme Court decision included Justice Potter Stewart’s legendary quote about obscenity, “I know it when I see it.” You could say the same about innovation.

I recently explored the dynamics of innovation with two fintech leaders for the Next Chapter Innovation Summit. They are Reed Colley, CEO and co-founder of Summit Wealth Systems, and Michael Liersch, head of advice and planning at Wells Fargo & Co.

Colley and Liersch are doers with the intelligence, stamina and resourcefulness that innovation demands. They are also philosophical about their successes and their misses. I took the following lessons from our conversations, available on my podcast, WealthTech on Deck

Feel The Passion
Colley and Liersch radiate a passion for their work and mission—to humanize financial advice and make it available to a broader audience through technology.

Colley built and sold Black Diamond Performance, the first cloud-based performance reporting system. Today, he’s leading the development of a modern portfolio management system for RIAs that aims to eliminate, in his words, “the Gorilla glue and duct tape” from advisors’ desktop systems.

At Wells Fargo, Liersch, who has a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology, is responsible for using insight from research to create ways to help individuals, families, and institutions make more of their money. He was instrumental in developing LifeSync, the new and already successful mobile-first financial planning experience for Wells Fargo customers.

Tip #1: Ask Questions Relentlessly And Act On What You Hear
Colley described the inspiration his team found in deep and lengthy discussions with financial advisors about their pain points.

“Tell me more,” he said, describing his interviewing style. “I hear you talking about this. Is that frustrating? Is that hard for you? What would you like to be doing?”

He heard that advisors are distressed by the incoherence of the various systems they use daily. They pivot from one system to the other, download files from one to upload to another—all losing time from meeting with clients, understanding their needs and working to fulfill them.

 Liersch, a researcher by training and practice, described “the struggle of innovation” as “getting out of the cobwebs of our own minds” and “really getting into the heads of the people we’re trying to help and serve.”

Tip #2: Distill Your Vision Into Something Simple
All the research is done and examined. What’s next for the innovator?

“I kind of have to whiteboard everything to see the connections because it's about connecting these pieces of information data together,” Colley said. “And then, ideally, coming up with something that visually distills it down to what I've kind of always referred to as a simple, elegant solution. So it's approachable. It's human design thinking; it's a growth mindset. And it has an impact.”

With LifeSync, Liersch said, reflecting on customer feedback helped sharpen the focus on what to deliver first. As a result, Wells Fargo narrowed its release to a few essential features that met customers' needs. And adoption followed—more than 2 million users in less than a year.

Tip #3: Align The Organization To Your Vision
Liersch has also worked in leadership roles at J.P. Morgan Chase, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, and Barclays Wealth, Americas, as well as being on the faculty at New York University. In other words, he’s navigated many large organizations.

“What I’ve done recently is been very keen to understand that I have so many different audiences, and I really have to outline those audiences and describe the desired outcome (of a project) in very different ways,” Liersch said. “And that requires a lot of thought (and) effort. And what it does is also helps me be very crisp on the logic behind the ‘why’ around the innovation.”

Tip #4: Ponder The Obstacles
None of their innovations were lay-ups. Each has encountered obstacles and learned from their missteps or miscalculations. 

Colley described his philosophy like this: Some people stumble over a rock in their path, pick it up, and hurl it aside in anger. The better choice is to pick up the rock, turn it around, and see the lesson.

“There’s a lot of Zen and Buddhism in that,” he said. “But a lot of it is around what you do with (the obstacle) and recognizing kind of what's in your what's in your grasp, what's in front of you that you can have an impact on.”

Tip #5: Pace Yourself—But Be Quick
Agile (big A) is a project management process frequently used in software development. “Small ‘a’ agile” is how these innovators approach their work.

Colley recalled how at Black Diamond in 2007 or 2008, they described their process as “rapid application development.” Because advisors didn’t have time to wait.

“It was about being nimble,” he said. “We were releasing things early on in Black Diamond, sometimes multiple times a day, just to get solutions out to clients. It was a tight team. Quality was high.”

Liersch has concluded that the best path to achieving a vision is by a series of projects that are narrow in scope and can be accomplished in three to six months.

“A lot of times you think of innovation as this big, disruptive moment. I've moved away from that very deliberately now,” he said.

“Real innovation is bite-sized, incremental change (so that) in two or three years, people look back and say, ‘Oh, my gosh, we transformed the way we did something without even noticing it.’”

Jack Sharry is the EVP and chief growth officer of LifeYield and host of the WealthTech on Deck podcast. He is on the board of Next Chapter, a leadership community dedicated to improving retirement outcomes.