Untried and Untested

Interview by Charlene Chan & Jolene Hee
Photography by Jovian Lim

When we arrive at DBS Asia X—the bank’s innovation lab at the Sandcrawler Building in Singapore—we are met with a hub of activity: a large open workspace houses clusters of communal desks, interspersed by discussion boards lined with hundreds of Post-Its. We are ushered into a meeting room where we will speak with Neal Cross, who in 2016 was named the most disruptive Chief Innovation Officer globally by the likes of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson.

What strikes us immediately is Neal’s exuberant, laid-back personality. Perhaps this is what lends itself to his job; with innovation, uncertainty is part of the package, and designing the untried and untested takes more than just a willingness to experiment—it is the acceptance of failure. This level of experimentation, he says, is something he must nurture his team to embrace, while avoiding the finance culture of risk aversion and the quintessentially Asian fear of losing face.

“There’re four things I give as a leader: firstly protection, which means if you make a mistake, it’s fine, that’s your job, and it’s my fault,” Neal shares. “The second thing is freedom—the time to go make up your own programmes and concepts. The third is inspiration. Everything we do here, we want it to be the world’s best.”

“And the final thing is education. I’ve done lots of things in my life; I’ve built hotels, taught taichi and kungfu, been a computer game designer, designed aquariums, founded social enterprises and startups, written software…seeing a lot of things helps you see things from different angles. A hallmark of a strong innovator is that they can see different sorts of problems and have made lots of different career choices rather than stay in one industry.”

Read more in the Design Dialogue Document here.