What is your background and current role?
I am a banker by training and have been with RLB for almost 20 years. I started as a trainee and have had different positions internally, primarily with our corporate clients. At one point, I was offered a position in a new department, capital market sales, which in many ways resembled a small start-up. I then got hooked on starting new things, and after that, I was always part of creating new stuff, e.g. new business models for start-up clients. By getting in touch with start-ups as clients, I started to realize how quickly they developed things. There was a huge difference between the speed of development in start-ups and the speed in corporations, including our own bank. The question then became how quick we could become. I went to the executive board and suggested a digital bank. Initially, they were hesitating, but I kept at it, and in the end, they decided to do something about it. This is how the innovation department started, although we call it “intrapreneurship”: enabling the willing employees to come up with and do something about their ideas. My title is thus not innovation manager, but “ZukunftsBauer” which means “a builder of the future”.
What are some of the challenges you have faced?
I was very enthusiastic about working with start-ups and we provided them with a lot more services than regular banking business. In order to help them as much as possible and find potential customers, I tried connecting the start-ups with people from inside RLB. That completely failed. The organisation simply was not ready. In the bank, we have a zero-mistake culture. When collaborating with start-ups, there will be failures, and our people could not handle that. It became clear to me that we had to do something to change the culture. This was where we engaged with Nosco. The goal was not so much about developing new products or services, but to create an impact on culture and make people realise that it is ok to fail. I see collaborations as essential for us to catch up with the market and survive in the future.
How do you know if you are successful when it comes to changing culture?
My feeling is that people are already more open to look for new things outside the bank, but we still have some way to go. One thing is the innovation challenge we are running right now, where my goal is to let people understand that failure is ok, and expected.
The ultimate goal is that I would like us to radically open towards the outside world; that we can enter collaborations with e.g. start-ups in the future. We will not be able to stay on top of our game without collaboration. This goes for us as a bank, but also for most other corporations, in my view. The speed of innovation is a lot higher in start-ups and that is needed now, and will be even more so in the future. The ones who manage to get into collaborations with start-ups are the ones that will remain relevant. The others might stay, but have a higher risk of becoming irrelevant.
I will consider myself a success when we manage to do these collaborations and get value from them. It is something that is very difficult for us as a bank. It might be simple for others, but has many sub-components for us as a bank, including some very high regulatory barriers (do we even have permission to do this?).
Why are collaborations so important when it comes to innovation?
Collaborating with partners that have specialist insight is really important when doing innovation: it is naïve to think you can do everything yourself. When we decided to run an innovation challenge, we quickly realized we needed a partner on board. Nosco was a perfect fit for us, as they not only offer a platform that is super easy to use, but also share our view on how to best collaborate as partners. Traditional project structures do not work for innovation – it has to be agile, with immediate and concrete feedback and without too many decision layers. We ourselves need to be an example of how to work together, and I hope this way of working together can set an example for future projects.
A challenge for many is to convince internal stakeholders, incl. management, to invest in innovation – how did you manage to do that?
The short answer: you have to be a constant pain in the neck. I was always an intrapreneur and I was willing to fail many times. I first mentioned innovation as a topic 12 years ago, to the former CEO. I was constantly discussing and mentioning it, and the pressure for innovation increased in the past years. My job is to convey what I see happening outside the company and convey it to the board and make them see what is needed. This does not happen (?) immediately or suddenly, but by constantly highlighting that disruption might hit us at any time. And we probably will not realize it until it is too late. We have a tendency to think that because customers are not requesting e.g. digital products, it will not be relevant for us. But still, there was a feeling on the board that we will have to face it at some point.
The argument that made the difference was this: we are making enough profits now, and we are being very risk-averse. Our insurance-policy for the future is innovation: if it comes, we are prepared, if not, we have spent the money on insurance.
What are your key learnings from working with innovation?
I still consider myself an apprentice when it comes to innovation and I am still learning.
One of the key things I have learned so far is the importance of perseverance. You have to be very stubborn and open to take many hits, and if successful, be humble and make it the success of the many people who helped you.
Another thing I find quite essential is to understand how to operate independently of the hierarchy. If you always go by the hierarchy, you will never get things done. You need a network/a shadow structure to the traditional hierarchy. You must be an influencer to engage people and have them help you, instead of building small kingdoms.
What do you see as the future for innovation in corporations?
The rate of change will further increase. We are only seeing the beginning of it now. It will become more important to stay flexible. The classical innovation management will also need to change to become less about processes and more about organisation in general. We must be able to solve the problem of how we as an organisation can respond and adapt to change. As is the case in start-ups, we need to be able to switch roles and adapt to the challenges we are facing.
My demand when entering this new role was that I did not want a department. Innovation should not be the responsibility of one department, but be a collaboration among people from across the organisation that fulfill different roles but are equally important. I believe that companies need to rethink their organisational structures: hierarchies are needed to make things work, but you have to allow network structures to exist as well. This is especially true when it comes to the younger generation. When asking the students I am teaching if they want to become CEO or a main influencer in a company, 80% said influencer. And most of them are more interested in working with start-ups than big corporations. There is a huge change on the way when it comes to working cultures. It will soon happen that we will have multiple jobs/become self-employed working with different companies. This will challenge traditional companies like ours, but that is needed and a part of the change to come.