October 5, 2020
The need for a broad, integrated organizational change based on the Agile way of working arose at ING five to six years ago. “At that time, we saw the rise of fintech, and later big tech companies, from which we expected increasing competition”, says HR Director Maarten van Beek of ING Bank the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. “Due to their Agile set-up and structure, these companies were able to innovate and market products more quickly.”
This customer and market-oriented agility fitted in seamlessly with the new digital services, which now also typify the new ING Bank. Agile has been used within the Dutch organizational unit since 2007, but initially mainly within TECH. Moreover, the approach relied heavily on the Scrum method. In order use the way of working widely and internationally, a proprietary Agile version was developed around 2015, following the example of companies like Spotify and Netflix.
The basis of that model is formed within ING Bank by the self-managing Squads, with a Product Owner and comparable to the well-known Scrum teams. A Tribe is a group of Squads working to achieve the same purpose. Craftsmen and women with the same expertise and skills are collected in so-called Chapters and Guilds.
The fact that everything was not implemented by the book from the start is quite logical, according to Maarten van Beek. “There was no manual six years ago. In other words, there was no one-size-fits-all approach that would have worked for us. Our own strategy and customer needs have always been the starting points. We had to formulate an answer to fintech, bigtech and the rapidly changing consumer demand. As ING we were already strong and had a huge experience, but as an ‘elephant’ we also had to be able to move faster and accelerate. We have adapted our way of working to achieve this.”
According to the HR leader the initiated change has certainly lived up to expectations. “Much has been renewed and changed in the past five years. We are indeed faster in realizing new products and services. Obviously because we work more iteratively with Agile, but also because TECH and business are now much closer together. Our service is therefore also more focused on the customer and the market.”
As a side effect, considerable cost savings have been realized, partly due to a smaller number of FTE needed by efficiency and end to end responsibilities. In addition, ING Bank has unexpectedly become much more attractive to talent. “The only bank in the top five of the most popular employers in the Netherlands, and number 1 for engineers. At ING, employees can work on an app that millions of people use every day. That impact is very important to many people. A completely different vibe is created.”
By deploying the Agile way of working across national borders, the bank was able to implement the transformation worldwide. Van Beek: “You can carry out international processes much faster than we used to do with hierarchical projects and programs. The question now is mainly: which sequence of Sprints is necessary to achieve something? Incidentally, you cannot easily accomplish that scalability across borders. Sometimes it is useful for people to sit close together – though that applies more to the Squads than to the Chapters. We learned this during COVID and now will apply these learning to our new way of working which includes partly working from home.”
Maarten van Beek believes that a modern, fast and flexible organization requires an adapted form of leadership. However, he doubts whether there really exists such a thing as Agile leadership. Agile leadership feels like a buzz-word, with no depth or research backing it up. He does see some crucial characteristics are more effective to lead in an agile organization. Van Beek states in the end it’s situational leadership (e.g. flexibility in styles or in other words leadership agility instead of Agile leadership) and a greater focus on results. “As a leader, you have to be able to determine the direction and then leave it to the people and teams. For that you have to create a safe environment in which people can make mistakes.”
“The Agile way of working offers more individual freedom, but is also much more transparent on performance”, Van Beek explains. “ING Bank has an enormous focus on ‘performance driven’, and Agile quickly makes it clear whether people are delivering the required or requested performance. That can be a big advantage, but not everyone feels comfortable with this. People can develop themselves on this in a safe environment.”
The HR function of at ING Bank itself was relatively late in the Agile transformation. This was partly done consciously, because there was insufficient time for a broad movement from the start. “In retrospect, we might have been able to go directly with the changes from HR. In addition, we may have had to set more frameworks and provide guidelines for a consistent rollout. I like to call it ‘liberating rigor’ – freedom in a clear framework.”
Major organizational transformations have a significant influence on employees, purpose and structure, according to HR Director Van Beek. “Craftsmanship and expertise are very important within the Squads. In-depth knowledge, certainly within TECH (ING tests all new engineers on their quality of coding), has more added value than a more general skillset.”
These skilled employees are stimulated within the new way of working to develop and shape their own purpose. “People can connect themselves and their craftsmanship with their work in relative autonomy. ING invests in both craftsmanship via online learning platforms with IA, and ING’s Purpose to Impact program which is available to all employees and gives them the opportunity to discover their purpose and learn to live it. This provides many benefits for both the company and the employees. Continuous feedback allows people to constantly adjust and refine themselves and their goals.”
Maarten van Beek has a clear vision of the future way of working and what it takes to realize this. “Agile should not be an end in itself, but a means to become faster and more flexible. The enormous changes that companies have had to make because of Covid-19 teach us that this has great advantages. Agile itself will also continue to develop. Some elements will be adjusted or added under the influence of major events, while others will remain unchanged.”
“I also strongly believe that in future organizations we need to match people’s skills with the jobs that need to be done”, continues the HR Director. “We have to move away from functions, fixed jobs and function houses, and link craftsmanship with the organizational strategy. Job crafting is a great example of this. Another is ING’s pilots with Agile capacity of its workforce.”
That fact also affects Maarten van Beek’s own personal motives. “Making something better and more beautiful, having an impact - that’s what drives me. My purpose is: Being the conservator, and creating beauty and impact by orchestrating individual masterpieces and crafts. The HR product portfolio within ING Bank is constantly being adapted to improve Agile working. This means: fewer rules and policies and value driven. Here too liberating rigor counts. I take pride in pioneering, trying things and continuous development. For example: ING’s employee council also works Agile and we are taking steps with our ‘Agile CLA’, completely in line with the changing way of working.”