Hackathon at DBS Bank

‘Good idea, go and teach them digital…’

With those immortal words, DBS Bank CEO Piyush Gupta launched an unprecedented Digital Mindset revolution.

The Genesis

In 2019 DBS Bank in Singapore became the first bank to simultaneously hold the titles “Bank of the Year”(The Banker), “Best Bank in the World” (Global Finance), and “World’s Best Bank” (EuroMoney). This is in addition to receiving multiple awards as the World’s Best Digital Bank from 2016 onwards.

This was the result of a 10 year transformation journey led by CEO Piyush Gupta that took DBS from the worst customer service rating and being joking referred to locally as ‘Damn Bloody Slow’ to, just a few years later, being referred to by Forbes magazine as ‘Digital Bank Singapore.’ 

One of the most fundamental drivers of this success was the transformation in mindset and culture across the bank. 

“Leaders in digital banking talk about the difference between digitizing aspects of a bank and creating a truly digital financial institution. DBS is doing this better than any other bank.

It is demonstrably the case that digital innovation pervades every part of the bank, from consumer to corporate, SMEs to transaction banking and even the bank’s charitable foundation”

Clive Horwood, Editor of EuroMoney Magazine – ‘World’s Best Digital Bank’ Award 2016

As Group Heads of Talent & Learning, and Innovation, Laurence Smith and Neal Cross, were instrumental in designing, executing and driving many of these initiatives.

A critical point was during the annual Talent Review and Succession Planning process in summer 2014 when Laurence suggested to Piyush that in addition to investing in creating a new DigiBank in India, that we should also ensure that everyone in the bank could ‘talk digital.’ That everyone could at least have an intelligent conversation about all the new tools and technologies that were changing the world of banking and that of our customers.

At that time we could not find any of the major consulting firms or business schools that had run such an initiative, but we did find a small team, led by Professor Jonathan Briggs and Orri Helgason, who had been doing this for years.

The First Experiment

Jointly we designed a series of experiential Masterclasses and hackathons. We told ourselves it was ‘an experiment’ as we really didn’t expect it to work, but as Piyush later shares…

“One of the big things we focused on was how to get the company technology literate… the learning group…came up with a (different) idea—running a series of “hackathons.” 

This involved taking seven or eight DBS employees and forming them into a joint team with a couple of people from a start-up company. We had about 20 teams of this size and put them through a five-day hackathon process, with one day devoted to understanding technology and skill building in human-centered design, then three days or so of working together with start-up kits to help the teams code and create an app. 

We gave them mattresses, Ping-Pong tables, and free-flowing beer, but at the end of 72 hours they had to have an app.

On the final day, they would showcase these apps to a judging team. 

In many cases, people came up with fairly good creative solutions, but the real power came from the experience of recognizing that you could do something and you could actually come up with an app. 

The first hackathons we did involved young people in their 20s. But by the third, we started throwing in 40- and 50-year-olds and other employees not naturally comfortable with technology.

The renewed confidence and self-belief among employees was astounding. This made them realize that they could do things differently and have a real impact. It made us realize that if you want to change the company, you have to give people opportunities to experiment and that by making this mandatory you can start to shift the culture. In 2015, it was in everyone’s KPI3 to run an experiment, and we ran 1,000, with most of the senior leadership taking part.”

DBS CEO Piyush Gupta, McKinsey Quarterly, March 2017

Thus back in October 2014 the Learning & Innovation teams partnered with Jonathan and Orri to drive a series of Masterclasses and Hackathons, mixing bankers and startup entrepreneurs to solve real business problems.

Stimulated first by a 2 day masterclass led by Jonathan and Orri, the bankers learned how the top digital players really operate and make money, how they use data and leverage social media and digital marketing to shape both markets and trends. They learned about the internet of things; exploring sensors and making their own simple IOT devices for fun. But above all, they had fun, they developed a sense of curiosity and wonder about all things digital – and a thirst to explore more.

The Hackathons

Late on Tuesday afternoon we pulled in 2 senior business leaders, who each announced a real business challenge that the teams would work on for the next 3 days.

Over 72 hours the bankers learned to think a startup by being a startup. They learned by doing, design thinking, customer journeys and personas, prototyping and MVPs. They hit the streets to test their prototypes with real customers, getting data and insights to decide whether to pivot or persevere.  

Demo landing pages and web sites were rapidly built, Facebook and Google ads used to drive traffi, and analytics used to identify whether customers ‘liked’ the potential products and solutions offered there. All of a sudden decisions were getting made from data versus opinions (or seniority) as quick prototypes and MVP either proved or dis-proved assumptions to un-cover what customers really wanted or needed.

On Friday afternoon, many teams having worked through the night, each team was pitching to the senior business leaders, VCs and other judges, to get their App voted as the best of the show.

The objective had purely been to build Digital Mindset, and in this we were tremendously successful. What surprised us at first, was that one of the 5 prototypes actually went on to become a real product. In fact, out of the first 4 hackathons we ran, covering some 250 of the most senior leaders, 11 of the 50 prototypes became real products.

Insert 2014 video

DBS Hackathon – Hacking corporate culture – 2014 Round Up


But more importantly, we now had 250 self appointed ‘Digi-Ninjas’ who had fundamentally changed they way they sensed, operated and led in this new ‘Digital World’ in which they were suddenly comfortable.

Many of these Digi-Ninjas went on to share what they had learned with their own teams, changed how they ran meetings, managed people and made decisions. And Many went onto to create their own ‘Digital Mindset’ initiatives in their own markets and functions.

Going Regional

Over the next 2 years Orri and Jonathan designed and ran a whole series of workshops and  Techathons across all of Asia, ultimately covering about 1,000 of the top talent in the Bank.

Simultaneously the Innovation team helped catalyse, launch or support dozens of initiatives across the bank, driving an overall culture of learning & experimentation, and over the next 2-3 years touched two thirds of the bank staff with some form of Digital Mindset experience.

Key Learnings

  1. CEO level sponsorship is absolutely essential. Digital Transformation must be driven at the C-suite level. 
  2. A partnership of CTO, CHRO and CMO can be very powerful. (Chief Digital or Innovation Officer also if present)
  3. You need to rapidly develop a cadre of senior leaders who go through some form of ‘learning experience’ to truly develop a ‘Digital Mindset’ and learn to think and operate like a startup
  4. You need a scalable learning experience for middle managers that gives them the confidence to step forward and be digital
  5. We have repeatedly seen that ‘touching’ ~10% of the right people in an organisation, creates a tipping point
  6. HR needs to be both a part of this journey, and a key enabler in driving it
  7. You need to think of this as a 2 – 3 year journey, resource and plan accordingly, while maintaining a rapid pace and momentum
  8. Think like a startup – if not sure what to do next, build a quick prototype to test and learn
  9. The CEO must lead by example in leadership style and behaviour: giving people permission to try and fail, to experiment and learn, and to take smart risks. 

Insert video

DBS MegaHackathon 2015 

The Impact

In addition to the multiple Best Bank awards, and being able to attract and retain the best talent in the market, DBS has quantified the impact of this investment in Digital.

“Compared with a traditional branch-visiting bank user, a digital customer brings in twice the income, keeps higher loan and deposit balances, costs 57% less to acquire, conducts 16 times as many self-led transactions and delivers 27% return on equity compared with 19% for traditional clients.

Providing that answer prompted a riot of analyst upgrades, with comments about “Jeff Bezosesque” chief executive Piyush Gupta and a 4% jump on the share price that day.”

EuroMoney, ‘World’s Best Digital Bank’ Award 2018

And a final comment from CEO Piyush Gupta upon the transformation being recognised in the Harvard Business Review as one of the Top 10 Business transformations of the Decade:

DBS among top 10 business transformations of the decade: Harvard Business Review

Joins likes of Netflix, Amazon, Microsoft, Tencent and Alibaba, who were similarly recognised

DBS was also recognised for “transforming from a traditional regional bank to a global digital platform company, around a culture-based vision of becoming a 27,000-person startup”. 

DBS CEO Piyush Gupta said, “We are delighted that DBS continues to be recognised as being among the world’s best for our digital transformation. Conventional wisdom is that it is difficult for a legacy company to transform at scale. Our own journey has shown otherwise, and what has worked for us is attacking the core; making transformation mainstream by changing culture company-wide. A few years ago, in running the company, we started to act less like a bank and more like a tech company. That startup culture has infused the entire organisation from top to bottom, front to back, enabling us to truly reimagine banking.” 

Other Testemonials

Peter Andrew, Executive Director – Workplace Centre of Excellence

I met Laurence when we spoke at the same industry event. I was captivated by what he was doing at DBS Bank at the the time - with leadership hack-a-thons as DBS went on its amazing journey of Digital Transformation. Laurence was at the heart of the creative thinking...

Frederic Chardot, Chief Transformation Officer at Moët Hennessy

" Laurence partnered with us in facilitating our journey towards creating a digital mindset.  The whole experiential learning was created keeping in mind that participants had various levels of understanding and maturity on digital.  Laurence did a...

Paul Cobban – Chief Transformation Officer at DBS Bank

"Laurence and I work at DBS together driving the innovation and improvement agenda across the organisation. It has been quite a journey and Laurence should take credit for significant shift in the culture and capabilities of DBS. Laurence worked with the CEO to...