The Real Deal

A talk with Paul Cobban, global head of Digital Innovation and Transformation at DBS.

Global Finance: What is your mandate as the chief data and transformation officer?

Paul Cobban: I lead a team that translates the bank’s vision into transformation programs that are then executed across the whole bank. When we started 10 years ago, we aimed our programs at putting in place the foundations of operational excellence and customer experience. We also focused on data and analytics, employee experience, agility and, of course, digital transformation.

GF: With whom does your group typically liaise?

Cobban: We work right across every part of the bank. We made a conscious decision that we were going to bring the whole bank along the transformation journey, as we believe that a cultural shift is the only way to ensure sustainable change. Therefore, we supported the transformation in every department. Our aim is to have all employees develop transformation skills, so that they can help drive the necessary change to achieve our ambitions.

GF: What criteria do you use to evaluate a pilot project?

Cobban: We have what we call a T-shaped approach that has worked very well for us. The top and broad part of the T means that we go wide and encourage many projects. We focus on participation, and we teach skills. We do not expect all to succeed; but we recognize that people learn by doing, and this approach has helped embed new practices and ultimately changed the culture. The deep part of the T refers to the few projects where we focus on getting an outcome because they are critical to the success of the company. These initiatives get serious focus from senior leaders. For example, in the case of innovation, the executive team meets once a year to learn about emerging themes from external sources and then spends a day choosing a handful of areas where we would explore further. We form projects and review together regularly. The same applies to our transformation work in other areas, such as customer experience, data analytics, employee experience and ecosystems.

GF: What are the features of a successful innovation strategy?

Cobban: There are two elements to our strategy: what we call the hardware and the “heartware.” The hardware is the process. We have four tiers of innovation that range from the big ideas based on emerging themes to the microinnovations that we encourage each employee to make. The heartware is about the culture and giving people the skills and, most importantly, the confidence to innovate. We have distilled five cultural characteristics critical to driving our innovation agenda: agility, customer obsession, learning orientation, data-driven decision-making and experimentation.

GF: What are the most common innovation pitfalls?

Cobban: I see many companies partake in “innoganda,” to quote author Scott Anthony: creating funky spaces with bean bags and table-tennis tables for a small isolated team that is asked to work on pet projects that go nowhere.

However, the fundamental pitfall is the lack of psychological safety. To innovate at scale, you need to have the appropriate environment: a climate where people feel comfortable challenging long-established norms and where a good challenge is considered more valuable than scoring points in front of the boss. Experimentation must be the norm to succeed at innovation; many legacy companies do not have the required intellectual humility to pull this off.

We ensure that there is no innoganda by focusing our innovation efforts on real business problems. We have developed an internal process of innovation that explicitly asks what is the problem you are trying to solve. Culture and people are the hardest to influence and change. At DBS, we have created a systematic approach to driving the right culture. The first step is defining the target culture in enough detail so that it is clear to everyone exactly which behaviors are acceptable and which are not. We then create rituals that nudge people into the right behaviors. For example, we have a practice that at least once in every meeting we pause and ask people for a dissenting view.