Agility Within ING – Responding Flexibly to the Market

October 5, 2021 | Leadership and Organizational Development, Operations Management

Companies that undergo an agile transformation have the ability to respond to obstacles and requirements with greater flexibility and precision. In an interview with Nicolas Romfeld, Hatice Sen and Patrick Hofacker, who work as Agile Coaches at ING, explain why this is so and what challenges and opportunities this approach brings with it. He is a consultant and coach at Staufen AG.

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Agile Transformation for Banks in Challenging Times

For several years now, banks have been facing a variety of challenges: The low interest rate policy is causing a shift in the appeal of different types of investment. At the same time, customers have become accustomed to doing many things online as a result of ongoing digitalization. The signs of the times are also pointing toward environmental protection and sustainability – a circumstance that banks must also take into account. Meanwhile, more and more regulations need to be complied with.

It’s a balancing act that has to be mastered: responding flexibly to customer wishes, reliably and securely fulfilling all the rules, and at the same time keeping an eye on the competition in the market is a challenge. Anyone who still wants to operate dynamically here must say goodbye to traditional structures and organizational methods.

ING has done just that – as the direct bank with the most customers in Germany, it is a large financial company. As such, taking the step into an agile transformation was a risk.  But it has paid off.

Agility is Not an Upgrade – It’s the Future

Today’s financial market is becoming increasingly fast-paced and diverse. If you want to survive here, you have to say goodbye to “business as usual”. Particularly in the financial sector, IT infrastructures have often evolved over long periods of time and are rather inflexible overall.  They should be replaced by leaner, more up-to-date structures that facilitate a rapid response to the changing market.  Only in this way is it at all possible to organize the bank in a way that is as decentralized, customer-oriented and flexible as possible.

A distinction must be made here between “doing agile” and “being agile”. If, for example, you only train your teams to work in an agile manner, you have not created an agile company. It is a holistic transformation that is required here. It affects all areas of the company and must also be anchored in the minds of the employees: In addition to the change in methods and structures, it is also particularly important to exemplify the appropriate mindset and the new values.

Employee Satisfaction is Key

If you want to implement an agile transformation in your company, it is essential to bring your employees along with you. This is by no means an easy task, because “We’ve always done it this way” is deeply anchored in many people’s minds. With a lot of open communication and encouragement, however, most employees are happy to embrace the new transparency: They take the opportunity to point out things that are going wrong in the company, that are slowing things down, or where mistakes keep occurring.

This feedback can seem overwhelming at first, once it really gets going: Many employees initially hold back, but once they realize that their input can bring about a long-desired change, they shed their shyness. Consequently, it quickly becomes important here to find the right rhythm for the necessary surveys: Planning and implementing the measures to abolish the grievances and finally checking whether the approach leads to success takes time.

Agile Transformation is Really an Ongoing Process

Companies undergoing agile transformation go through the PDCA cycle over and over again.  This abbreviation stands for Plan – Do – Check – Act. In other words, after a grievance is identified, a plan is made on how it should be remedied. The action decided upon is implemented, and the extent to which it has been successful is checked. This can happen using appropriate key figures, but also by surveying employees.

Sometimes it turns out that the measure is not working as well as hoped – or is even producing contrary results.  In this case, a change needs to be made: If a structure has proven to be wrong, it must be replaced by another.

Agile transformation never ends. The moment you declare the change complete, things come to a standstill again, which in the current fast-moving market no one can afford. In fact, the agile transformation is not designed to be simply completed:  New points are always opening up where something can be improved.

This is also the case in companies with rigid organizational structures, but the problems here are often simply overlooked. The transparency and open communication in an agile company, on the other hand, make it possible to quickly identify and work on the difficult points.

The Journey is the Destination

For some company owners, the fact that it is not easy to set fixed goals for the agile transformation may seem confusing – it is almost impossible to draw up a roadmap for the next few years. The fundamental objective is to solve the respective problems as quickly and well as possible. Staff should be satisfied and motivated in the process, which is primarily made possible with internal work in the teams and by optimizing collaboration between the teams. Customer satisfaction with performance is also an important point.

The Focus is on Teams

Particularly in banks, where for a long time the focus was always on the individual, suddenly switching to a team approach is difficult:  In such cases, a system that provides bonuses for good results, for example, has to be changed from the ground up. Yet colleagues simply work better together when they know that they are not competitors, but a team. It is a challenge to free them from their old structures and to accompany them into the new form of organization in such a way that they quickly feel at home and comfortable.

Agile Transformation Must be Holistic

Anyone who commits their company to agility must not do things by halves: This form of transformation succeeds exclusively all the way or not at all. Some entrepreneurs strive for some form of change in the company because it seems to be fashionable at the moment.  They hope to achieve as much as possible with as little effort as possible.  Such attempts cannot work at all, because they do not get to the root of the problem. Agile transformation, on the other hand, does exactly that permanently.


Nicolas Romfeld

Nicolas Romfeld, Project Manager STAUFEN.AG


Hatice Sen, Agile Coach / CoE Way of Working, ING-DiBa AG


Patrick Hofacker, Agile Coach / CoE Way of Working, ING-DiBa AG

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