A disruptive influencer
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A disruptive influencer

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Many banks pay lip service to innovation, but none has embedded it as deeply into its operations as DBS.

Under the leadership of CEO Piyush Gupta, DBS is reimagining what a bank should be and how it should work. One of the biggest facilitators of its innovation agenda is Neal Cross, the bank’s chief innovation officer. Cross is a fascinating man, with an extensive background in technology, and is a long way from a traditional banking executive. 

“I started games development at 11 and was very successful, so I left school at 16,” he says. “I travelled the world for years, DJ-ed for a bit, taught tai chi and kung fu. I have worked at a tech company, built aquariums and hotels. I only do things once and then I move on. I enjoy being a professional problem solver. I like big puzzles and that is why I like DBS. It is a big box of Lego.”

Cross’s remit is broad, working across all areas of the bank. His role is not to impose change or dream up new gimmicks.  Rather, it is to get bankers to rethink what they are doing, by applying processes more akin to those of start-ups and tech companies.  It is not just about new products, but rethinking how old products work and redesigning them with the customer’s job-to-be-done approach. In the process, as Gupta has noted, the bank is starting to think like a 22,000-person start-up. 

The impetus for innovation does not come from a desire to jump on the fintech bandwagon, but rather springs from a fear that banking could be disrupted as fundamentally as other industries. “The banking industry is changing,” says Cross. “And we've got great examples of other industries that did not change. It hit the retail and telecommunications industries quickly. They were in the first wave and had no foresight into what was happening. The wave is coming our way and we need to deal with it.”

DBS’s newest innovation playground

Neal Cross at DAX launch

The first thing you see when you walk into DBS’s newest innovation centre, DBS Asia X, is a kaleidoscope, reflecting and refracting the light. The kaleidoscope has been built around one of the building’s supporting pillars. The design reflects how the bank is looking at things in new ways, but also emphasizing that the core of banking is still within. 

For Cross and his team, innovation is more nuanced. It is not about inventing the latest fintech product – although there is a role for that. It is about relevance and application; agility and losing the fear of failure; and, ultimately, changing a corporate culture. 

“Yes, changing a culture is one of the hardest things to do,” he says. “And picking a bank to do it in…No, I couldn't have made it any harder.” His approach is fundamentally different from that of any other innovation officer at a large financial firm. “It is about getting stuff done and, in fairness, has nothing to do with innovation. It is all about the value add and how it will improve their work.” What he does not do is tell bankers with a full career of experience behind them that what they are doing is wrong. Rather, he offers ideas they would not think to consider. He stresses that his conversations with his colleagues are based on a deep understanding of their needs. 

When Neal arrived at DBS, he didn't come in to execute a plan immediately. Instead, he spent time getting a feel of the bank. His first year was spent gaining credibility and building his internal brand. “The innovation group was just three people and we had one table,” he says. “A lot of the initial work was just to add value and start a wave of excitement.” This approach has been very effective. “Now more and more people want to work with us, both inside and outside the bank.” In 2016, the bank has put over 5,000 staff through various innovation programmes – around a quarter of the bank’s headcount. Some of the bank’s innovation programmes include hackathons for employee development and accelerator programmes catering for start-ups.

The group is now operating in full swing and the effects are being felt across DBS Group. The end goal is not in sight, because true innovation never ends. This is the mentality of a tech company, which constantly releases new products, sees what works and what does not: pivot, iterate, improve. “I am start-uppy,” Cross says. “We pivot and iterate the innovations group strategy all the time.  When I first joined, this was probably weekly. Now it is probably every few months. We use our own innovation techniques and crowdsource our strategy every year across the team.”

Despite the rhetoric, Cross is not anti-bank. Far from it. He is bullish about the opportunities banks have, as long as they apply new ways of thinking and new products to their existing strengths. “I see banks having an extended value rather than just being providers of a digital product,” he says. “But do we just go headlong into being a generic kind of tech company that delivers finance? No, we need a broader reach from what we are already strong at: security, scale, physical assets and a regional brand.”

This notion of building on existing strengths can be seen in Cross's attitude towards creating partnerships and ecosystems, with DBS at the hub. The bank has entered into several symbiotic relationships, which seek to embed the bank in other people’s businesses. This creates incentives for others to make DBS successful. It is a drastically different way of viewing the world from a traditional mentality that demands everything be done in-house. “When we make a dollar in the bank, who else is making a dollar? How can we become an ecosystem and platform company where we have lots of people outside the bank trying to make DBS successful?”

It is a huge challenge. Get it right and DBS will revolutionize a hidebound industry. “I love doing things that no one else in the world has done. I think that is great and I really enjoy it,” Cross says. “Our thinking is ahead of the curve, with a strong ability and will to execute to make it happen. I must say, this is all pretty exciting.”

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