Leading innovation at the world’s most celebrated digital bank

Laurence Smith speaks to DBS' chief innovation officer Neal Cross about building a start-up-inspired innovation team.
By: | June 27, 2018

This is the second part of a two-part interview series in the Digital Mindset and Future Skills forum, hosted by Laurence Smith. For the first part, see: How to hire a CIO, first published on June 9.

Laurence Smith: When you first joined DBS, did you already have a plan in mind of what type of innovation organisation you wanted to build?

Neal Cross: I’ve always believed in involving as many people as possible in the business of innovation. In some ways, this can be a defensive strategy, to ensure that everyone is aligned. If a business unit isn’t involved in an invention, chances are they won’t adopt the idea, or any idea for that matter. The innovation group can’t just dictate adoption.

In fact, this is why most innovation groups fail, they just don’t involve the business enough.

I like to do radical stuff, which means involving the business isn’t enough, I actually want the business to do the invention themselves.

I started with three staff, but coming from a technology company background, I knew how to get free resources and partners to scale, and to utilise the bank staff as a multiplier. My group has grown to a 25-strong team, but we still have this huge multiplier of a large external ecosystem of startups, government, and students. Internally we are putting some 5,000 staff through some form of innovation programme this year and that’s having a huge effect on the bank’s culture.

Each innovation team member is essentially training and supporting about 200 bank staff. These engagements range from monthly lunch briefings with external speakers to taking part in our FinTech pitch days, or running workshops and inventing products.


So on that point, how do you scale innovation?

You can’t do all this manually. We have six key markets and even in Singapore alone, we have three main locations. So we need some digital touchpoints, and platforms for crowdsourcing. You need to involve as many people as possible, especially when they are geographically dispersed.

One tool we’ve used is SmartUp. It is a really effective method of engaging through learning, and the great thing about it is it is a platform you can put any content on. We use it to train people on everything from innovation to compliance training.

In particular I think the use of SmartUp for on-boarding is really interesting. When people sign the new employment contract there still a 30 to 60-day lag before they join us. With the gamification aspect, and because it’s so versatile, they can get a great understanding of the bank before they even arrive.


How have you gone about driving innovation at DBS?

The first thing is hiring great people. They can come from any background, but you need to look at lots of résumés. A good hunting ground for us is looking at design thinkers, but that’s highly competitive. There is a lot of talk, but some find it hard to convert and deliver. Their level of skill isn’t high enough, or they don’t have the right culture.

What we do is look at what people have done before, and find people who are known in the industry, and people who can get stuff done. Also, you must have someone in the team responsible for the culture. We have Cade Tan who is the “culture queen” and interviews all final candidates to judge alignment, blackballing anyone who would not be a good fit.


What skills do you look for, and how do you judge capabilities?

The required skills we look for are design thinking, the ability to work with a lean startup mindset and carry out experiments, as well as experience working with startups.

We like people who have done lots of jobs in different industries, working in sales, marketing, or technology. We like good movement, not necessarily those who have done a year here and a year there, but good tenures with good movement and diverse experiences.


What else do you look for when interviewing?

We look for people who are quite humble, but really the skill that is most lacking is the ability to listen. People answer the question they want, not the one you asked. Too many lack listening skills, and really being “present” in the conversation.

I like people who sell to me, but not overtly or aggressively. I prefer a more mature sales approach, where they can tease things out of you, and then gently convince you that they are the person you need.

Sales skills are very important to innovation, as, essentially, innovation is all about behavioural change. You’re asking people to move from waterfall to agile, from inventing things themselves to co-innovation. Being able to influence is a very significant skill.

During an interview, people must be very enthusiastic, feel that it is a great honour to work for this innovation group, and that we do really important work. If people say “I’ll think about it”, I immediately turn them down.


About the Authors

Neal Cross is the Chief Innovation Officer at DBS Bank, and a constant advocate for innovative thinking and agile cultures within organisations. His tenure since April 2014 has involved building and developing a comprehensive innovation roadmap for DBS.  Cross is charged with driving that innovation agenda regionally, as the bank looks to shape the future of finance in Asia-Pacific, enhance customer experiences, and better engage audiences in the digital landscape.

Laurence Smith  is a former colleague of Cross, having served as DBS’ Managing Director of Learning and Development between 2013 and 2016. He is currently Global Head of Talent and Learning for SmLartUp.io, as well as an advisor to its board.


Laurence Smith is the host of HRM Asia’s Digital Mindset forum, and regularly contributes articles on how technology is changing the way workforces, and HR, operate.