The secret behind successful innovation within ABN AMRO
Interview & Podcast
Over the past few years, the financial world has expanded greatly because of the many innovation initiatives by, among others, FinTech companies. But how can a bank that has been around for a long time keep pace with and leverage these developments?
After all, adjusting and changing course is not as easy for a corporate as it is for a start-up, but corporates need to do just that in order to keep up. Most younger companies and start-ups have innovation in their DNA, whereas most big corporates do not. In order to innovate successfully within ABN AMRO, Innovation Manager and product owner, Marcella Simons, launched the DARE programme about a year ago. This innovative initiative earned her the award for Best Corporate Entrepreneurship at the Corporate start-up Summit in Zürich.
For the podcast, Innovative Leaders by INFO, we spoke with her (remotely!) about innovation within a corporate environment, the importance of DARE, long-term innovations, speed, stage gates, metrics, innovation lessons and dreaming about the future.
DARE is ABN AMRO’s innovation programme. It offers structure and guidance during innovation processes and ensures that the innovation wheel doesn’t have to be reinvented time and again. About three and a half years ago, Simons discovered that the teams she was coaching didn’t really have any tools or processes they could fall back on when it came to innovations, and even though she was supposed to work on developing new revenue models, she noticed that she would rather work on solving the underlying problem: “[I wanted to know how] we could scale innovation. This requires a specific approach, but it didn’t exist yet back then, so I decided to build it together with my co-workers.” It was, in her own words, a “tough job”, but Simons is happy that the teams now experience structure, are able to work in a data-driven environment and that innovation initiatives can now be implemented (faster) as a result.
How is innovation organised within ABN AMRO?
Simons works for Group Innovation, which is part of Innovation & Technology, and focuses on disruptive innovation within ABN AMRO, also known as horizon 2 and horizon 3. Simons: “It’s not about improving existing products and services [- that’s horizon 1 -] but about finding and developing new revenue models for the bank.” Group Innovation revolves around three central themes: platforms, sustainability and digital assets. All three are in line with the bank’s strategy. Simons is part of the Expert Center within Group Innovation and supports the innovation teams — or ‘ventures’ — that focus on these themes with programmes like DARE. Group Innovation is also supported by Tech Lab, Distribution Ledger and AI: “These teams provide us with new technological developments and help the ventures thrive,” according to Simons. Lastly, there’s also the Impact Measurement team, but we’ll get to that later.
Speedboat vs. oil tanker
As we mentioned in the introduction, innovation is very common for start-ups. Simons compares start-ups to “small speedboats on a large body of water, agile and fast.” Corporates are more like oil tankers, she feels, since they need more power to change course. Moreover, it’s hard to create the right mindset where people are allowed to fail within large corporates, while at the same time maintaining speed. The larger the company, the more complex it is to take calculated risks. The opposite is also true: the smaller the company, the more agile it is. That’s why start-ups are better able to take bigger risks, because there’s less at stake.
“The larger the company, the more complex it is to take calculated risks.”
This, however, doesn’t mean that ABN AMRO’s innovation teams can take all kinds of major risks. To mitigate risk, Simons and her co-workers introduced stage gates to the DARE programme. The innovation process normally consists of four stages: proving the problem, proving that the solution fits the problem, proving that people are prepared to pay for the solution and proving scalability. By implementing stage gates, each stage now ends with an assessment to see whether your innovation initiative is mature enough and whether you can proceed to the next stage. The goal of these assessments is to work data-driven, to pull the plug as soon as it turns out that an initiative doesn’t fit the strategy and to remove uncertainties. Simons: “It allows us to provide direction in the early stages and to apply the right focus by asking the right questions during the assessment.”
“The goal of these assessments is to work data-driven, to pull the plug as soon as it turns out that an initiative doesn’t fit the strategy and to remove uncertainties.”
Initially, the assessors were all senior board members of the bank and they got involved at the very first stage. Later, when more initiatives and projects were added, a special Board team was created, which consisted of managers that specialised in a specific theme. Now, only the last stage is reviewed by the senior board members, even though they still are involved with all of the team’s activities.
Measure to manage
So, at the end of each stage, the Board team decides whether the innovation is mature enough to launch, if it adds enough business value and whether a new product or service will be added to the portfolio. There’s also another team involved in this programme, the Impact Measurement team. This team measures the progress of long-term innovations, such as tapping into new markets and developing new revenue models. In practice, however, everyone is responsible for measuring. The Impact Measurement team also measures the performance of the intrapreneur programme (an eighteen-month training programme for all ABN AMRO employees who want to contribute to the long-term success of the bank) and helps with the development of growth metrics in order to monitor success and growth. Simons: “To me, data-driven work is key. ‘Measure to manage’ holds especially true for innovation.”
At first, it was hard for Simons to convince the ABN AMRO board that time and money had to be made available for innovation, “but we all felt that we wanted to create something original and that we wanted to scale and grow,” she says. In order to actually add those initiatives to the portfolio, a base was required for people to fall back on. This “think big, start small” attitude ensured that Simons and her team were able to take the first small, tentative steps. “We continued building and when it began to take shape, we developed the strategy for DARE [and fleshed it out], together with management and stakeholders, so that it would fit in with the long-term vision.” This was Simons’ biggest takeaway from the entire process: that it’s important to involve stakeholders and the people around you early in the process. “That’s important in a corporate environment,” states Simons.
Innovation’s maturity level
When we asked her if she had any more tips for other people that work in a corporate environment and are looking to innovate, she laughed: “I have lots of tips.” She believes it’s all about the maturity level of innovation within your organisation. However, when it comes to long-term innovation, you really have to make sure that you get allocated a budget and people. Moreover, she advises everybody to implement an innovation process that includes stage gates for taking concepts from idea to launch, “because then your choices will stem from a vision and a strategy.” Her last tip is for companies whose innovation is still in its infancy or still in the concept stage: “Build awareness among management and co-workers, educate them on the importance of innovation. For example, we organised Start-up Fridays, where we invited outsiders in.”
Dreaming of the future
It’s clear that DARE is a very successful initiative. So successful, in fact, that Simons has already been approached by several companies interested in using the programme. Simons would love to make that possible in the future. For now, though, she is focused on scaling up, but she would love to help other companies that are unable to innovate due to time constraints, like hospitals: “If I’m allowed to dream out loud for a minute, it would be so cool to make DARE available to other organisations, big and small, so that they too can start to innovate and get a little closer to future-proofing their organisation.” A lovely dream that completely fits in with the corporate social responsibility that ABN AMRO has and feels.
Would you like to learn more about this corporate social responsibility, why Simons chose ABN AMRO in the first place, the intrapreneur programme and who made her list of innovative leaders? Listen to our podcast to find out!