It’s been 25+ years since Bill Gates dismissed retail banks as ‘dinosaurs’, and banks have come a long way from the self-satisfied ‘take it or leave it’ attitude when it comes to customers and their products.

We humans don’t want to have to think about managing money: simply put, we have better things to do.

And yet the world of banking is turning upside down due to digital-only disruption and the democratization of APIs. Hybrid business models hailing from fintechs are now becoming the norm, with fewer regulations meaning faster time-to-value, and lower-threshold customer entry requirements.

Just like astronomer Copernicus realized +500 years ago that the sun does not revolve around the earth; so we have discovered that the customer no longer revolves around the bank. It’s the other way around.

The pull of customer-centricity means there’s a whole solar system for customers to choose from, so banks had better start innovating. How can traditional industries like retail banking reinvent themselves to keep pace with customers, break out of silos and remain a relevant part of our connected world?

We dive into four frank lessons from Benoit Legrand, ING’s Chief Innovation Officer, as shared on stage at Innov8rs Paris last April, about how this famously forward-thinking bank finds a balance between embracing the unknown and driving bottom-line.

1 – Start listening – to customers and to other employees

As innovators, we often get lost in a sea of our own shiny ideas. But the real value of change will not come from solely within our tribe, but from across our whole company and outside of it.

ING makes €5 billion in net profit, has grown 40 companies, has 40 million customers and employs 54,000 people. We need to accept that those ideas, their development, and their implementation will come from 40,000 employees who take insights from millions of customers; not solely from the brilliant but turbulent minds of 200 innovators.

Innovators like to think in a certain way: big ideas, adventure over routine, originality over conformity. We struggle with a lack of patience in letting our great ideas take root and become the norm. This requires us to shake up the way we think, and the way we act, by listening more carefully to what those around us are saying and how they’re behaving.

So this is not about managing the ego of the head of innovation – or the product manager for that matter.

As Benoit points out, ‘we need to step back and ask ourselves, “am I doing this in a responsible way? Am I doing this to serve myself, or my customers?”’

This means shifting the conversation from focusing on great ideas to prioritizing great ideas which solve problems. What is the pain that can be removed?

In ING’s case, small business customers didn’t want to visit a branch to take out a loan: this face-to-face process required piles of paperwork, and 6-10 months’ wait time. To solve this problem, they developed a solution for customers to spend less than 10 minutes applying online, and by gathering data from all bank accounts in real-time, a business loan of up to 100,000 euros could be granted in under 10 minutes.

This meant ING was eating a slice of humble pie, by taking themselves out of the game and making themselves more invisible.

‘We breathe oxygen every day and don’t realize it. You don’t want to experience that conscious friction with banking either. Instead of displaying the thousands of cables and connections needed to make financial services happen, we need to take a step back and hide away.’

2 – Create organizational, mental & physical space to get outside of your comfort zone

It’s in our DNA to move towards known targets. Even as changemakers, we’ve grown accustomed to corporate ground-rules which define our success or failure, such as associating being fired with punishment, and knowing that the natural next step to consistently hitting KPIs should be a reward – like receiving a promotion.

What about exploring the unknown? How can we go against human nature’s desire to flock towards familiarity, and incentivize thinking about something which may, or may not work in five years’ time?

‘Everyone is working towards quarterly targets, but no one ever thinks about why – because there’s no reward for doing so.’ – Benoit Legrand – Chief Innovation Officer, ING

ING does practice a test-and-learn culture, turning innovation from a tiny basement science experiment into a conscious cost center. 3% of the time, budget and mindshare of colleagues are dedicated to disseminating and developing ideas, moving those with the greatest potential into longer-term investments.

Catalyzing creativity by getting outside of your comfort zone doesn’t just happen within the confines of your own environment. Banking is a great example of an ecosystem which can no longer stand alone but has to grow and collaborate beyond its own outer walls in order to flourish.

A strategy for the bigger picture

On one side, ING’s mission as a bank is to empower customers to take their financial future into their own hands. They exist to enable this journey.

But the ‘how’ is much more widely spread and transformative than financial services. ING’s innovation tactics transcend banking with projects in real estate and transportation. They use the banking of things umbrella initiative to connect and cross-pollinate value on a bigger scale, for example enabling easier payments at petrol stations by partnering with car manufacturer BMW.

‘Making our value less linear and more of an ecosystem by becoming a platform of partners as opposed to a fixed-service provider is the only way we will survive’ says Benoit.

In the immediate-term, operating outside of the heavily regulated banking environment means that ING can stay in step with the world. But the economy’s shift in this all-encompassing direction means interconnection with the rest of the world becomes not only a nice-to-have but a necessity.

3 – The value of time in seeing measurable change: move fast, but be patient

Keeping one eye on the near-term as well as having the long-game in mind is, of course, a survival imperative. ING’s CEO, Ralph Hamers, knows that banking in 5-10 years’ time will look very different, but acting now and making incremental changes will ensure that they stick around long enough to get there.

One vastly overlooked lesson in innovation is that significant change takes time.  +20 years ago when ING began, their ambition was to be a worldwide bank; but miscalculations in terms of the scale and potential of this approach meant a return to the drawing board. What had they already achieved, and what were their strengths?

The internet had just leaped into being, and greater connectivity was becoming a collective part of public consciousness. By combining the dream of worldwide reach and the reality of local footprint, they grew the national postbank N.V., which operated through mail, phone and online, and became one of the largest financial service providers in the Netherlands. ING started from their strength as a local bank, and from a certain weak position gained enormous traction over time with a combination of existing and new value.

In a more recent example, Benoit explains the value of knowing when to hit pause:

‘The day before we opened in Japan, we just stopped. Everything had been prepared to press the button, but the interest curve just wasn’t moving in the right direction. It’s not about money – it takes time.’

From the starting line, they were unable to see the future unravel before them – and it takes time to become front-of-mind for customers. This required patience, courage, and over 1 billion of accumulated losses.

4 – Trust your focus: move towards your target, eliminate distractions, and don’t turn back until you’ve reached it

ING was inspired to create a hybrid methodology for getting things done. This meant borrowing the best from the worlds of agile, lean start-up and design-thinking, and placing trust in this new way of working.

It took a great deal of focus and determination in the lead-up to catching the second wave, before they could be confident that this approach worked.

Now, this way of working is not only an accelerator approach but is applied organization-wide, having trained 6,000 people to bring innovation to their day-to-day without the need to define it as a special skill or practice.

In a world swimming with distractions and in a saturated ocean of financial services providers, ING has to live and breathe pragmatism, with a side order of realism. Luckily, that’s the Dutch way: try something out, and if it doesn’t work, don’t hold onto hard feelings. Move on.

The crucial lesson here, says Benoit, is to create targets, define a pathway which makes sense, and once you commit to it – don’t waver from your course by casting a sideways glance at what your competitors are doing:

‘Pick your battle, have your vision and go straight to it – don’t be distracted by looking left and right at what others are doing. It’s at the first milestone, not during the race, where you should pause to reflect.’  

Discovering different ways to connect so we can embed innovation in culture

Some of the world’s brightest and smartest people call our community of like-minded thinkers home. What we seem to forget is that there are billions of smart people outside of our own core profile; people who are completely set apart from our immediate circle of subject matter specialists.

As innovators, it is our job to consistently remind ourselves that ‘I know what I don’t know’, and remember to be humble in the face of facts and challenges presented by others. We need this reality check in order to think differently, to act authentically, and deliver effectively in a shape-shifting world which is led by the customer.

By taking the time to stop and truly listen, we get much further. We learn that the innovation machine doesn’t work purely by accident: it’s a gradual process of evolution, where several mindsets start to shift, behaviors begin to follow suit, and processes are refined to fit the trajectory of the journey.

The ultimate prize is an organization which is ready to solve any problem.


  1. Harness the power of listening: in financial services, banks have traditionally been the sun around which customers orbit, but the tides are changing. We need to be more humble when it comes to knowing what we know, to sustain true customer-centricity.  
  2. Be patient, and change will happen: crossing the bridge from the unknown to the known is uncomfortable, but the fruits of innovation take time to blossom.
  3. Build outside of your comfort zone:  if we actively involve ourselves in the world beyond our own walls, this helps us stay in step with the bigger ecosystem we are really a part of.

Don’t get distracted by competition: casting sideways glances at your competitor during the race will only slow your pace. Set your target, aim, go straight to it – and spend time reflecting afterward.