Chris Verstegen (ProRail) “Breaking patterns keeps you healthy.”
From a series of interviews with innovation managers in Dutch corporates. Follow the Hacking Innovation publication and stay up to date.
“Even the Swiss are checking up on what we’re doing,” laughs Chris Verstegen (49), as he shows me around what he playfully refers to as the ProRail innovation alley. He’s been working here as Chief Innovation Officer for seven years now. His task: strengthen innovation within ProRail and the rail sector, and increase their visibility. “There were already great ideas when I started here, from windmills above the tracks to the electrification of highways,” says Verstegen. “But then, the track wasn’t sufficiently robust. Winters, the snow, disrupted the track system too easily. And if the base starts to rattle, that’s what you need to address first.” So, it’s back to the core activities: more trains running, and on time, preventing disruptions, comfortable stations and safe railway crossings.
Recently, Verstegen has been made program director, responsible for the transformation of ProRail towards the public sector. But, he’s more than happy to glance back at his past seven years. “Your interview series is called Hacking Innovation. This really speaks to me, because I’m constantly hacking. As much in ProRail, as in my own life.”
You learn most when you get out there together and simply start testing.
Breaking patterns and a fearlessness towards taboos are what typify his approach. “If you want to create a healthy innovation culture, you need to break off structures.” Verstegen sums up: we got rid of fixed working hours and built self-managing teams, our filing cabinets and papers are gone, and we got smaller desks and flexible spaces. Verstegen even declined his own office and secretary. “I swarm with the team,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. He got inspired from his bee colonies. As an amateur beekeeper, he is fascinated by them. “Bees are very efficient. They live in a small cupboard, 50 000 of them in there. They communicate a crazy amount, but they never really congregate. And that’s how Verstegen also got rid of meetings. Their new motto became from talking to testing. When there’s a new plan, the tendency is to discuss a lot and write up lengthy plans. So just stop, says Verstegen. You learn most when you get out there together and simply start testing. You get back on the rails where the action really takes place. That’s what everyone likes!”
There’s a misconception about ProRail, in that people see it as a mammoth organization in which movement and changes are difficult. “People are really surprised when they see what we’ve accomplished in the past years. That’s largely due to our CEO, Pier Eringa,” says Verstegen. “He’s made space for us, challenged people and has shown courage. Because of that, the innovation culture I visualised could blossom.”
So, what are we really talking about here? What did Verstegen and his team get out of this and what did they accomplish? To start with, there are more trains running on fewer tracks. “What very few people know is that nowadays during rush hour, more people travel by train than by car, between Amsterdam and Utrecht. There are 10 intercity trains that run per hour between the two cities –four from the Amsterdam Zuid station and six from Amsterdam Central Station.” This is something they copied from Japan. Verstegen and a group of experts went there to see how the country managed to have so many trains running. “Turns out, it wasn’t because they have a different culture, contrary to what people thought. Just that the Japanese have developed a smarter system with the rails, signals and railroad switches. So, we adapted this innovation the Dutch way, and now Utrecht can run 50% more trains on fewer tracks. Add to that, less disruptions and improved train punctuality.”
And another innovation: wireless sensors for railroad switches. “KPN had just launched a new Internet of Things (IoT) network and we were willing to be a guinea pig. Not too much discussing, just trying it out. So, right away we began with testing to see if the railroad switch heaters worked properly. Of course, there were a few teething troubles, but that’s OK. You learn something faster by simply testing it out.” The result? There are now wireless railroad switch heaters in all crucial spots in the country.
But there’s another innovation that Verstegen is even prouder of: the self-driving train. “That was really a taboo subject in the sector. Mostly because of the fear that train drivers would lose their jobs. We organized meetings with train drivers and trade unions to explain our plans. Train drivers wouldn’t have to leave at all. Instead, just as in airplanes, drivers would get an automated system to support them while driving the train. We began preparations at the start of 2018, and by the end of the year, the first self-driving train was doing a test run in the Netherlands.”
Important: don’t look for people like you. Go for people who challenge you and don’t always see eye to eye with you.
It all sounds as if it was a walk in the park, but this was mostly due to mindset. And that’s something you can practice, says Verstegen. “Many people think that innovation is mostly about coming up with new techniques. But the most important part actually comes after that. How do you get people onboard? We worked a lot on that as a team. How many nays do you have to conquer, just to get one aye? And how do you yourself deal with those setbacks?” Verstegen laughs. “We zeroed in on it. We’re going to do something new, so we’re getting at least 50 naysayers. We just don’t know who and when. We turn it into a sport, to get people’s support. Then you end up with even more lols!”
The one thing that kept Verstegen up at night during all these years was the people in his team. People are the biggest resource you can have, so knowing how they’re doing as persons, is really important.” How did he put his team together? “Not in a conventional way,” chuckles Verstegen. So, don’t: Imagine your perfect team and hand out roles with blueprints included. However, do: Start with the people already in your team, and their passion. Take a year to get to know everyone. Make room for the qualities people bring to the team. Get out and go for a lot of walks around Utrecht. “This set things into motion. It eventually became clearer, who we needed to stay, and who was ready for something different. Important: don’t look for people like you. Go for people who challenge you and don’t always see eye to eye with you.”
Meanwhile, a new chief of innovation is following in his footsteps. What’s his mandate? “The strategy for rails is clear and we know in large part which innovations we need for this. Now it’s about implementing these innovations fast. My dream is that in ten years, we have eight operating trains per hour between all major cities, preferably running on hydrogen or electricity, so that we don’t need catenaries. With sensors and big data, we can predict the big disruptions. And with smart hubs and algorithms, you can seamlessly hop between all kinds of transport. Just look at the successful marriage between the train and the bicycle.
Verstegen himself did something radical ten years ago, and gave the boot to his car. “I do this kind of hacking in my own life as well.” So that made him travel and work differently. “I don’t go to five places in the country for five different meetings, all in one day anymore. That doesn’t really work with the train and the bicycle. So, I have fewer meetings in different places, and instead, focus on quality. I try to consciously enjoy a half hour of cycling to an event. Or I propose that we go for a walk when something needs to be discussed. Breaking patterns keeps you healthy. You get more fresh air, become lighter in your step, and don’t have a plateful of stress in the evening.”
Current position: Chief Innovation Officer at ProRail from 2012 to 2019
Education: Civil engineering at TU Delft (1988–1994), Master of International Business at École des Ponts ParisTech (1993)
Previous positions (selection): various functions at the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management (2001–2006), senior consultant at AT Osborne (2007–2008), strategy manager at ProRail (2008–2011)
Favourite innovation book: (A beginner’s guide) Beekeeping by David Cramp
Essential gadget: iPad mini
Impressive innovation: battery-free wireless sensors that harvest energy from WiFi and cellular frequencies