The secret behind the successful innovation of ABN AMRO

By 30 April 2020Innovatie

The secret behind the successful innovation of ABN AMRO

The last couple of years, the financial world has expanded greatly, because of the many innovative initiatives from FinTech companies, among others. But how can a bank that has been around for quite some time keep up with these developments?

Adjusting and changing course is not as easy for a corporate as it is for a start-up, after all, but corporates still have to in order to keep up. (Most) younger companies and start-ups have innovation in their DNA, (most) big corporates don’t. In order to innovate successfully within ABN AMRO, Innovation Manager and product owner, Marcella Simons, launched the DARE program about a year ago. This innovative initiative earned her the award for Best Corporate Entrepreneurship during the Corporate start-up Summit in Zürich.

For our podcast, Innovative Leaders by INFO, we (remotely!) spoke with her about innovation within a corporate environment, the importance of DARE, long-term innovations, speed, stage gates, metrics, innovation lessons and dreaming about the future.

This podcast is also available on Google PodcastSpotify and Apple Podcast. Please note this podcast is in Dutch.


DARE is ABN AMRO’s innovation program. It offers structure and guidance during innovation processes and ensures that the innovation wheel doesn’t have to be reinvented every time. About three and a half years ago, Simons discovered that the teams that she was coaching didn’t really have any tools or processes that they could fall back on when it came to innovations, and even though she was supposed to work on developing new revenue models, she noticed that she would rather work on solving this problem: “[I wanted to know how] we could scale innovation. This requires a specific approach, but it didn’t exist yet back then, so I decided to build it together with my co-workers.” It was, in her own words, a “tough job”, but Simons is happy that the teams now experience structure, are able to work data-driven, and that innovation initiatives can now actually be executed (faster).

DARE platform

How is innovation organized within ABN AMRO?

Simons works for Group Innovation, which is part of Innovation & Technology, and focuses on disruptive innovation within ABN AMRO, aka horizon 2 and horizon 3. Simons: “It’s not about improving existing products and services [- that’s horizon 1 -] but about finding and developing new business models for the bank.” Group Innovation revolves around three central themes: platforms, sustainability, and digital assets. All three are in line with the bank’s strategy. Simons is part of the Expert Center within Group Innovation and supports the innovation teams – aka ventures – that focus on these themes with programs like DARE. Group Innovation is also supported by Tech Lab, Distribution Ledger, and AI: “These teams provide us with new technological developments and help speed up the ventures,” according to Simons. Finally, there’s also the Impact Measurement team, but we’ll discuss that later in this article.

Marcella Simons in the remote podcast recording

Speedboat vs. oil tanker

As we’ve stated in the introduction, for start-ups, innovation is very common. Simons compares start-ups with “small speedboats on a large body of water, agile and fast.” Corporates are more like oil tankers, she feels since they need more power to change course. Additionally, it’s hard to create the right mindset where people are allowed to fail within large corporates, while at the same time maintaining speed. The larger the company, the more complex it is to take calculated risks. The opposite is true as well: the smaller the company, the more agile it is. This is why start-ups are more often able to take big risks because there’s less at stake.

“The larger the company, the more complex it is to take calculated risks. “

Stage gates

This doesn’t mean, however, that ABN AMRO’s innovation teams can take all sorts of major risks. To mitigate risk, Simons and her colleagues introduced stage gates to the DARE program. The innovation process normally consists of four stages: proving the problem, proving that the solution fits the problem, proving that people are prepared to pay for the solution, and proving scalability. By implementing stage gates, each stage now ends with an assessment to see whether your innovation initiative is mature enough and whether you can proceed to the next stage. The goal of these assessments is to work data-driven, to pull the plug in time in case it turns out that an initiative doesn’t fit the strategy, and to remove possible uncertainties. Simons: “It allows us to provide guidance in the early stages and to apply the right focus by asking the right questions during the assessment.”

“The goal of these assessments is to work data-driven, to pull the plug in time in case it turns out that an initiative doesn’t fit the strategy and to remove possible uncertainties.”

Initially, the assessors were all members of the highest board of the bank and they got involved at the very first stage. Later, when more initiatives and projects were added, a special Board team was created, which consisted of managers that specialized in a specific theme. Now, only the last stage is reviewed by the highest board members, even though they still are involved with all of the team’s activities.


Measure twice, cut once

So, at the end of each stage, the Board team decides whether or not the innovation is mature enough if it adds enough business value and whether or not a new product or service will be added to the portfolio. There’s also another team that’s involved with this, the Impact Measurement team. This team measures the progress of long-term innovation, such as tapping into new markets and developing new revenue models. In practice, however, everybody is responsible for measuring. Additionally, the Impact Measurement team measures the performance of the intrapreneur program (an eighteen-month training course for all ABN AMRO employees that are looking to contribute to the long-term success of the bank) and helps with the development of growth metrics in order to monitor the success and growth. Simons: To me, data-driven working is paramount. Measure twice cut once holds especially true for innovation.”


Involving stakeholders

At first, it was hard for Simons to convince the board of ABN AMRO that time and money had to be made available for innovation, “but we all felt that we wanted to go somewhere and that we wanted to scale and grow,” she says. In order to actually include those initiatives in the portfolio, a base was required for people to fall back on. This “think big, start small” attitude ensured that Simons and her team were able to take the first small, tentative steps. “We continued building and when it began to take shape, we developed the strategy for DARE [and further elaborated it], together with management and stakeholders, so that it would fit in with the long-term vision.” This was Simons’ biggest takeaway from the whole process: that it’s important to involve stakeholders and the people around you early in the process. “That’s important in a corporate environment,” states Simons.


Innovation’s maturity level

When we asked her if she had any more tips for other people that work in a corporate environment and are looking to innovate, she laughed: “I have lots of tips.” According to her, it’s all about the maturity level of innovation within your organization. However, when it comes to long-term innovation, you really have to make sure that you get allocated a budget and people. Additionally, she advises everybody to implement an innovation process that has stage gates in order to achieve execution, “because then your choices will stem from a vision and a strategy.” Her last tip is for companies whose innovation is still in its infancy or still in the concept phase: “Create awareness with management and colleagues, educate them on the importance of innovation. For example, we did Start-Up Fridays, where we invited outsiders in.”

Dreaming of the future

It’s clear that DARE is a very successful initiative. So successful even that several companies have already approached Simons to ask if they can also use it. Simons would love it if that became possible in the future. For now, she is focused on scaling up, but she would love to help other companies that, because they are pressed for time, are unable to innovate, like hospitals: “If I’m allowed to dream out loud for a minute, it would be so cool to make DARE available for other small and large organizations, so that they too are able to really innovate and get a little closer to future-proofing their organization.” A lovely dream that completely fits in with the social responsibility that ABN AMRO has and also feels itself.

Would you like to know more about this social responsibility, why Simons chose ABN AMRO in the first place, the intrapreneur program, and who made her list of innovative leaders? Listen to our Innovative Leaders by INFO podcast to find out!


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