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Driving innovation at Standard Bank: An interview with Paul Steenkamp

Tuesday, 16 February 2016   (0 Comments)
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Participants in one of Standard Bank’s Design Thinking Workshops take part in an empathetic inquiry exercise. 


Paul Steenkamp is the executive responsible for leading an Innovation Capability Unit at Standard Bank, which involves using design-led innovation to create financial solutions to improve lives across Africa. Through this project Paul’s team are a working towards improving the bank’s innovation success rate while transforming it into a learning organisation that continuously explores, experiments and iterates.

We had a conversation with Paul to learn more about the Innovation Capability Unit.

Why did the Bank decide to embark on this project?

Our purpose statement as Standard Bank is that Africa is our home and we drive her growth. We salute those who have ensured the bank has remained relevant over the past 153 years. Our challenge now is to lay the foundations which will help ensure relevance over the next 153 years.

For us success is around significance not just profit. Banks are privileged to be at the centre of economic activity.
We want to better serve customers through innovation because doing so helps drive economic growth, including job creation.

With this project we are working to position the bank as an open innovation partner of choice and infuse new ways of working that enable creative problem solving. We do this through a six-stage lean innovation management process that business units within Standard Bank apply to be part of. The aim of the process is to help units move from assumption to empiricism through the use of customer-centric methods. This ensures that we do the right things and do them right.

Can you tell us a little about your six-stage process?

There’s a growing consciousness that we can’t afford to continue doing things the way we used to – for example, corporates producing things that they assumed their customers wanted without really testing them. This can be a very wasteful because it’s not commercially pragmatic.

With the lean management process, there is a sustainable and profitable business notion that underpins innovation. We are asking practical questions such as: what should we be doing from a customer perspective; do customers agree that this is important/pressing; and are we able to make money out of it?

The six-stages help the business units to move from assumption to empiricism via a transparent and incremental investment process. At the end of each stage teams have to answer various questions in order to progress to the next stage and unlock further funding and resources to continue building their concept. The questions are the same – agnostic of the topic, or the seniority, internal relationships and/or tenure of those employees applying for funding.

What this means is that we are able to see very quickly if a concept has traction because prototypes are being tested with small groups of customers from very early on. If there are positive signs of traction, underlined by an improving assumption to empiricism ratio, then more resources are directed towards the project to develop it further

We also have a team of lean innovation coaches who work with the business units and support them in applying this innovation management process.

And it’s founded on a Design Thinking approach?

Absolutely. A Design Thinking approach works well as it encourages people to stay with the question rather than jump to solutions too quickly. We subscribe to the notion that ‘Customers own the problems/pain. Innovators own the solutions.’  Once a minimum viable solution emerges, we treat them as ‘Always in Beta’ – and leverage Agile methods to continuously iterate the solution – including the business model underpinning it.

We are in the business of ‘culture change’ in which we are helping to create an environment where everybody should be actively innovating in everything they do

Culture change can be challenging. How do you do this in a large corporate?

Design-led innovation methods work well with start-ups because they normally work on a single project with a small core team, and they have no legacy, unlike the large, complex organisations with thousands of projects and lots of legacy.

We have criteria that business units need to meet when they apply to become an Early Adopter of the Lean Innovation method. They need to be willing to unlearn things and be open to new ways of thinking and working. We need to break the habit of assuming that we categorically know what the customer wants and how to serve their needs.

There is a need to move away from the old practices such as drawing up business plans based on roadmaps and milestones that claim to predict the future. Unfortunately we cannot predict the future. So it’s time to change this and revel in ambiguity and uncertainty.

Developing new products or services is an unknown process – like an adult version of hide and seek in which you keep trying to figure out what the customer needs and let things emerge. It’s about exploring in a lean way and getting incentivised to experiment - because the more small batch experiments you run, the better you manage risk across your portfolio of innovation investments.

This can be frustrating for those who are used to working with project plans and milestones and finding quick solutions. It’s a profound shift, which is why it’s a culture change programme.

What are you most excited about this project going forward?

We are in unchartered territory here, we are delighted to be one of the pioneering organisations globally trying to figure out this way of working - exploring, experimenting and iterating. Having said that, this method is simple. Even I understand it!  It’s refreshing because it’s full of aching common sense rather than MBA-speak.

What excites me is that it’s so deeply principle-driven that I believe it will prevail. Lean will beat waste. Lean is not just about efficiency, it’s also about sustainability in the context of limited resources. The world has come to a point where waste is wrong and cannot continue.

I’m really excited and grateful to be part of this momentum and that change of consciousness.

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