It’s not that difficult to make something simple, complex. But, if you want to make something complex simple, it requires a great effort. Simplicity is important if you want to communicate a clear business strategy to your employees and customers. ING used the method of design thinking to bring a 250-page strategic REPORT into a single A4. A look behind the scenes.

Thinking outside-in VS INSIDE-OUT

In 2013 ING appointed Ralph Hamers as their new CEO just after banks were about to recover from the financial crisis. At these times consumers and companies had little to no trust in the financial sector and their demands in financial services shifted significantly. The outside world changed too, for example the rise of mobile banking and the rise of fintech companies. Dorothy Hill joined Hamers’ team as the new Director of Corporate Strategy. They both wanted to think outside-in and putting the customer central when it comes to ING’s strategy.

Dorothy Hill, Director of Corporate Strategy ING
Dorothy Hill, Director of Corporate Strategy ING

She explains: “Within a time frame of nine months, Ralph visited many countries in which ING is active and he spoke with a variety of stakeholders, including retail customers, corporate clients, unions, regulators, but also other kinds of stakeholders such as the SER and investors. In addition, we researched trends which are relevant to our business. Trends within the field of customer behavior, technology, rules and regulations, competition and social developments. The faith in the system had plummeted, obviously. We were wondering: what can we do to earn back their trust?”

The strategy plan consists of 250 pages.
The strategy plan consists of 250 pages.

ING gathered all of the data from this research and wrote a bulky 250 page report. In this strategy report they pointed out the bank’s strengths and weaknesses in detail, their position within different markets and the general direction in which ING would like to head. Hill: “the strategic plan is highly detailed and gives us guidance as to how to manage things at different levels, but you can’t expect employees and other stakeholders to read the whole thing. At the same time, our employees are absolutely crucial to our company, because we really wanted to reshape the culture of our company. This reshaping was mandatory to many of the changes we wanted to make.

About 52.000 people work for ING globally. We asked ourselves, how do you get all those employees to embrace the new strategy and have them all interpret it in the same way?

HOW TO InspirE employees

The answer to this question is: use a compelling story, Hill says. “Nobody feels inspired by abstract stuff such as ‘creating shareholder value’. People need a purpose in their work, they look for meaning. This aligns perfectly with ‘placing our customers first’. The real question was, how do we put this into words in a way that excites our employees and which they can use in their day to day work? It is very easy to say that we have to place our customers first, but what does this mean? What kind of impact does it have on the daily work of our employees, on the decisions they have to make and how they communicate with our customers?” Hill continues: “CEO Ralph Hamers had already made this very abstract goal much more specific by stating that ING wishes to help its customers realize their dreams and aspirations. That is a mission which could inspire employees. Almost every decision you make as a consumer or as a company, has a financial aspect. You don’t want to constantly stop and think about this financial impact, but you do want to be reminded of your goals and desires. Does this decision contribute to your dream? This is where we, as a bank, would like to give support.”

A 1-day workshop on strategy and vision

The 250-page strategy plan gives a detailed overview of how the companies’ mission impacts products, services, processes and decision-making. We had to go back to the core to cut it in digestible pieces. Hill assembled a team of ten members from different departments, including HR, investor relations and internal and external communications. They locked themselves up in a room for a day and applied the Context Canvas, Cover Story Vision Canvas and the 5 Bold Steps Vision Canvas. The team was guided along the way by strategy designers of Business Models Inc. It was a very inspiring session. “You jot down all your ideas on Post-its on these canvases, which is an easy way to get a stream of ideas going and become very productive with your team. Participants could voice any idea and there are were no wrong answers. Post-its are easily clustered on the canvases, making them ideal for structured brainstorming. Similar subjects or themes are quickly spotted and grouped.”

A strategy and vision on 1 page: The 5 Bold Steps Vision for ING
A strategy and vision on 1 page: The 5 Bold Steps Vision for ING

At the end of the day, the team was left with a clear and inspiring summary of the extensive strategy plan. The new strategy fits on one sheet and shows the practical steps ING takes to help its clients in realizing their plans for a better future for themselves, their family or their business. \

The new strategy is based on four pillars:

banking SHOULD BE clear and easy, banking doesn’t have to be difficult and time consuming. Less is more. It’s all about clear products, plain language, fair prices and simple processes. That saves both time and money.

Anytime, anywhere. ING works to get our services where our customers are. Banking should be possible anytime and anywhere;

Empower clients to make financial decisions. The best financial decisions are informed decisions. Customers want relevant, up-to-date information at their fingertips. They need to understand their choices, and the implications, both today and for the future.

Keep getting better. Life and business are about moving forward. We will keep looking for new ways to make things better. With new ideas, new solutions and new approaches to make things easier for our customers. That way, we can all stay a step ahead.

Strategy implementation or activation?

The next step was to implement the strategy. It all starts by measuring, according to Hill. “Before you can change, you have to find out where you stand. We designed three different metrics to do so.  First are the KPIs for our processes, like lead times, numbers of times we contact the client etc. Also, we often carry out customer research projects, to determine if we reached our goal of making customers feel ‘empowered’ by ING. We had been using the Winning Performance Culture Scan within the organization for some time already, to measure employee engagement. We were able to measure our status quo. The good thing is that our staff was already highly customer-focused, but it’s important to make it easier for them to put that into practice.

Everything had to be changed.

“Take revolutionary decisions and kill your DARLINGS, don’t make minor changes here and there. Review your processes and determine whether they were truly customer CENTRIC or merely to make things easier for the bank.”

These profound changes dissolved employees’ barriers and allowed them to really act out of the customer’s interest. Ralph Hammers personally visited every branch in the world to present the new vision. It worked. “Ralph is a very passionate and inspiring speaker. When the audience realizes that we’re serious and that we’ve changed rules and processes to prove it, they automatically become involved with the new strategy.”

The vision of ING visualised, "Think Forward: Empowering People to stay ahead in life and in business."
The vision of ING visualised, “Think Forward: Empowering People to stay ahead in life and in business.”

Special attention was paid to employees who generally don’t have direct contact with clients. “We developed a ‘Closer to the customer’-program for head office staff. As part of the program they were asked to shadow colleagues who communicate with customers on a daily basis like customer service agents or account managers.” This strategy had already been implemented at ING Direct and with great success, according to Hill. “It’s nice to see how several elements of the new strategy were in fact already part of daily routines in other departments. Instead of reinventing the wheel, we applied our successful ideas on a broader scale.”

Through design thinking, we will meet customer demands

Currently, the new strategy has been implemented company-wide. Hill’s Strategy team constantly checks whether or not the assumptions on which the strategy is based still apply. The team makes adjustments where necessary. “Luckily, there have been no major transformations which forced us to deviate from the four ways we established to reach our goals. We are of course constantly adjusting on the micro level to keep up with small details. In general, however, the strategy has remained the same”, says Hill.

Now that the organization applies design thinking, ING will be able to actually meet the customer’s demands now and in the future. “This is because design thinking forces you to constantly check if a change you are considering really fulfills the customer’s needs”, says Hill. The time is over, that banks simply assumed customers needed a certain service is over. “We have changed our way of thinking and working. In the end, the customer is all that matters. If you satisfy your customers’ needs, good results in other areas will follow.”

Design thinking becomes the default at ING

Although several departments of ING already used design thinking before, the strategy project was the bank’s first major project in which these principles took a leading role. Its success did not go unnoticed, resulting in other teams to apply design thinking as well. The innovation team applied design thinking to develop a new strategy, new business ideas and the organization has created its own approach to scenario planning based on design thinking. Moreover, account managers use design thinking during their sessions with clients.

Hill: “The great thing about design thinking is creating something your customer actually wants, while at the same time adhering to the demands of the outside world. You have to constantly check your assumptions and whether or not your product matches the customer’s needs. That’s why the method is not only suitable for strategy design, but also for innovation and scenario planning.

For instance, we observe trends like blockchain, artificial intelligence and robotics. How do these technological developments influence our business? To answer this question, we have developed a tool kit which we use for our own organization, but also to help our clients. After all, many of those developments influence other markets and industries as well. It feels amazing to help other companies with a tool which we initially created for ourselves.”


On this platform design a better business we share insights on tools for strategy and innovation and learn how people use this in organisations. Tools like the Context Canvas, Cover Story Vision Canvas and Five Bold Steps Vision Canvas are included in the toolbox. We run training programs to help you work with these tools. Dorothy Hill is featured in our book Design a Better Business.

By Patrick van der Pijl - Author

Patrick is CEO of Business Models Inc. and producer of the worldwide bestseller Business Model Generation. He is passionate to help entrepreneurs, leaders, rebels and corporate companies to innovate their business model and design a future strategy.