Turning Uncertainty into Innovation

What happens when you put four university students – a communicator, a designer, a problem solver and a data miner – who’d never met together to take on a real-world business challenge? Sparks fly, of course.

Turning Uncertainty into Innovation

National University of Singapore (NUS) students Thomas Qin Difei, Zimeng Zhang, Raunak Biswas and Soh Rong’en had never met. They hailed from diverse disciplines and cultures across Asia. The only thing they had in common was the desire to learn about innovation.

This common desire drove to join a summer internship at DBS Innovation Group in 2014 under NUS’s iGen programme. The team’s task in hand? Find ways to get more customers to sign up for the bank’s Multiplier programme.

What's iGen?

• Developed by NUS with leading corporations such as DBS

• Students up innovation skills through real-world projects

• Innovation leaders share insights with students 


Uncertainty Sparks Innovation

Launched into a real-life business challenge in one of Asia’s largest banks, the students were faced with uncertainty. Yet, it was this unrelenting sense of the unknown that kept them going.

We didn’t really know what were the right things to do. So we held no assumptions and opened our minds to what customers had to say. – Rong’en


The team worked nimbly like a start-up, taking each idea from concept to validation within mere days. They would then refine the idea or discard it – depending on whether it works – and start the process all over again.

The team trekked all over Singapore, to DBS bank branches and beyond, to talk to customers. They observed customers’ reactions to their ideas and designs. The team also delved deep into the sales process: They walked in the shoes of customers as mystery shoppers, and even sold the product as sales staff in the bank branches.

Eight weeks into the challenge, however, they were still getting nowhere. It wasn’t for a lack of solutions or insights, though. In fact, they had so many that they weren’t sure what to do.

We regarded each failure as a chance to learn about ourselves and our ideas. – Thomas


Truths about innovation

This was when their DBS mentors from Consumer Banking and Innovation Group stepped in. Timeout. Go watch a movie, one of the mentors said. They did and it proved to be the wisest thing to do. The team came back recharged, and with a fresh, new perspective.

Focus was their answer. They told themselves to forget about more ideas; simply narrow down the possibilities they already had.

Thomas says: “We went through the iterative process several times again. Eventually, we nailed down our solution: personalised ibanking pages that promote the programme benefits to customers who are already eligible.”

Adds Raunak: “From our interactions with customers, we knew that they wanted personalised advice about banking products. Now we knew how to give it to them.”

They now have the final solution – a package that included leveraging ibanking to engage customers on the Multiplier programme benefits, and a sales kit and fun training for DBS sales staff through mobile channels. Then came the moment of truth: a 10-minute pitch at a Dragon’s Den session, to a panel of DBS senior management. Would the team’s solution stand up to a firestorm of questions from the ‘dragons’? Would their nerves get the better of them?

The team made their pitch. Sure enough, the questions that came after were astute. Nothing less was expected from banking veterans armed with decades of experience and insights. But the team was ready – in fact, so ready that they were more than able to field the battery of queries with great aplomb.

They heaved a sigh of relief. Twelve weeks of solid hard work paid off. Not only did the ‘dragons’ not chew them up, they applauded the team for the rigor of their research and analysis, and creativity that sparked solutions the bank was able to implement.

We don’t have to have a strong background in business to innovate in business. It may even be better if we don’t. We will see things in a different light with fresh mindsets. – Thomas


The students came to the internship with fuzzy ideas about innovation; the three-month journey sparked new and unexpected insights for them. For these four strangers, innovation really did happen at the intersections – of different mindsets, different skills.

The Dragon’s Den programme nurtures an innovation culture in DBS.

• Cross-functional teams tackle real business challenges

• DBS senior management – the ‘dragons’ – assess their solutions

• Successful pitches are implemented

Mini Profiles

The data miner: Thomas Qin Difei, 21

A student in statistics and applied probability, Thomas has always been fascinated with seeing patterns in data. The humbling experience of data collection during the DBS project took him away from his computer and out of the classroom. When speaking with customers to discover their needs, he suddenly became very aware of how his body language and talking style could affect the conversation, and thus, the information collected. “I learnt so much about interpersonal skills,” he says.

A global perspective is useful – that is, putting yourself in other people’s shoes and cultures. Communicating a lot and good teamwork are also important. – Thomas


The designer: Zimeng Zhang, 22

Skilled in design, Zimeng realised her team’s vision on paper and taught them Photoshop skills. She believes design is where reality and imagination meet, and she hopes to be a conceptual artist in the film industry. Since age six, Zimeng has been drawing, sketching and playing the accordion. Free-spirited by nature, she hopped on a plane from China five years ago and landed in Singapore to study communications and new media. “It was the biggest event of my life. The environment here is liberating,” she says. This freedom encouraged her to take on more new experiences, including joining the DBS internship, and she hopes to learn to be bolder.

I used to be very shy! After talking to so many people, I’m now more comfortable approaching and speaking with strangers. – Zimeng


The problem-solver: Soh Rong’en, 25

What’s stargazing got to do with problem solving? Both pursuits thrill with the same sense of exploration and mystery, says Rong’en. The Singaporean astronomy buff and physics major (who also has double minors in technopreneurship and business management) is not one to shy away from uncertainty and the unknown. When his team was unravelling the Multiplier challenge, Rong’en encouraged his teammates to become more comfortable with the state of flux. He also stepped out of his own comfort zone, interacting with strangers and learning to work with people from diverse backgrounds.

The most satisfying part, to me, was solving the challenge. There were so many possibilities, so which was the right one? Finding it was a reward in itself. – Rong'en


The communicator: Raunak Biswas, 22

Mechanical engineering student Raunak, originally from Kolkata, India, has always believed that whatever is worth doing is worth doing well. Even though he had other internship offers, he chose DBS because he believed that he would be able to make the greatest difference in a project that would possibly have an impact on real customers. Making good use of his strength as a natural communicator, he took easily to interacting with bank customers to find out their likes and needs. Within his team, his communication skills initiated conversations and got ideas flowing.

It was important not to fall in love with our own ideas. Innovation is about accepting failure and striving for success. – Raunak

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