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DIGITAL MINDSET - Five Things that Work

DIGITAL MINDSET - Five Things that Work

How can we drive organisational transformation, create a ‘digital mindset’ and enable a startup culture of experimentation?

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by Laurence Smith

“How can we drive organisational transformation, create a ‘digital mindset’ and enable a startup culture of experimentation?”

These are the questions I hear most often from CEOs, CHROs, Heads of Innovation/Digital, and CLOs these days, and while there are a few globally recognised leaders on this journey - it is still early stage for most companies and there is a real quest for what works.

As a result of the ‘Digital Mindset’ work I was involved with at DBS Bank - recently awarded the recognition of being the ‘World’s Best Digital Bank’ - I am constantly asked to share what I have seen that works, both at DBS and other companies. This article is a brief attempt to answer those questions. (If there is enough interest, it may expand into an actual Playbook with guidance and examples).

Firstly it’s important to understand that at DBS, this did not happen overnight, it was a multi-year journey driven by a visionary CEO and supported by a strongly aligned leadership team. There was a huge sustained effort on customer journeys and human centred design, on creating a Purpose driven organisation, and developing a supportive culture of collaboration and decisiveness.

This was exacerbated, in a positive way, by the recognition that the only viable growth strategy for DBS Bank was a distinctive and innovative approach to digital banking in the core growth markets of China, India and Indonesia. There was also the pressure of an increasing realisation, at least at the top, that there was a very real threat of serious disruption from aggressive FinTech (Financial Technology) startups.

So in many way, the ‘environment’ was conducive to transformation - but that is not to say it was easy.


This leads me to the first question I ask in these conversations,

How critical is digital to you?

‘In your mind, is it about digital marketing? Or is it a new growth strategy? Or is it literally a matter of organisational survival?

For Banks, Telcos, Insurance companies, Media and many others it is clearly about survival as disruptive tech startups literally threaten to eat their most profitable segments out from under them. In the case of banking, 30 - 50% of today’s sources of revenue are deemed to be at threat over the next 5 years - and 50% of jobs over the next 10. It really is a matter of both individual and organisational survival.

In many other industries, there is less perceived urgency. See here and here for an assessment of where your industry sits in terms of ‘urgency of threat’ and required action.


The second question I invariably get, is, so what is ‘digital’ anyway? In most organisations there has not been a deliberate effort to de-mystify digital and establish a common understanding and shared language.

The most common mis-understanding I see is an assumption that this is all about ‘technology’ and thus mainly the responsibility of IT. While technology is a critical enabler, the actual critical success factor is culture. It’s all about people's mindset and behaviours. This must be led from the top, enabled by HR and constantly re-inforced by leadership behaviours. (See here for how HR can play a more effective enabling role).

Executive sponsorship is probably the single most important success factor - without it you will get nowhere, even with it, a thoughtful and sustained campaign of cultural transformation is required.


I’ve seen five things that work really well, that really led to a noticeable impact on the digital transformation journey. Each of them is a variation on an important theme - of getting a critical mass of influencers to have a deep and visceral understanding and appreciation of the ‘digital world’ in a very broad and holistic manner. To learn and think about the personal, societal and organisational implications of AI, of virtual and augmented reality, of the sharing economy, and the disruptive business models of companies like Uber, AirBnB and AliBaba.


Although there is far more to this than a standard ‘hackathon’ - the most frequent request I get, due to the fame of the #DBSHackathon series, is ‘can you please help us do hackathons?’ There is an art to this and I’ve written about it here in ‘Developing Future Ready Digital Leaders.

It’s also about a lot more than just bringing in random startups and doing hackathons. There must be carefully aligned sponsorship and prioritisation and a structured methodology - one we learned the hard way.

In addition, here’s an awesome article by David Beath, previously from the DBS Innovation Group and also describing some of the insights and learnings.


Hackathons are so powerful because they are deeply experiential - but they are not scalable. The immediate challenge faced next is how to scale such learning from hundreds, to tens of thousands of employees.

The most powerful method I have seen is to ‘do digital, by digital.’ A key realisation for hackathon participants is that digital is not ‘once and done’ - it’s not a programme or an event - it is a new mindset, a new way of seeing the world, and it requires constant learning to keep on top.

It’s essentially a new habit of awareness of the world around and seeing everything through ‘digital’ lenses to understand the opportunities and grasp them before competitors.

DBS rolled out a mobile micro-learning App called* that provides ~600 gamified 5 minutes modules on every aspect of innovation, entrepreneurship and innovation. Because it was a really gorgeous user experience, helped people learn what they needed for the next meeting, or through the leader boards and gamification, encouraged them to use it on their commutes, evening and weekends, we soon had thousands of people familiar with the language of design thinking, lean startup, agile and the concepts of big data, analytics and the sharing economy.


A large global real estate company has recently used the same SmartUp platform as a pre-learning campaign leading up to their top talent leadership programme.

They curated a ‘playlist’ of modules on ‘Digital Mindset for Future Leaders’ featuring the type of content mentioned above and ran it as a competition for the 4 weeks leading up to the workshop.

They launched with an introductory module by their regional COO, welcoming the people to the programme, explaining it’s importance to their growth strategy, and challenging them to keep up with him on the leader board!

Weekly updates on the top 3 and the most improved, hot new modules on AI, VR and autonomous vehicles, gave people plenty of interesting content to keep them engaged. Week three, their CEO added his own module and perspective and sense of urgency around digital transformation.

By the workshop itself, the participants walked in tremendously more knowledgeable and informed than ever before and far more eager to learn and contribute. In addition the COO walked in for his opening speech with some fascinating insights on the knowledge and attitudes of the people in front of him based on their answers in the polls and quizzes.

Now they are looking at creating a 60 day review and reflect module. This would both refresh the key points and check their understanding via the quizzes, and use the polls to identify if people have applied anything they learned and whether it has made a tangible business difference.

Collecting such stories and examples will hopefully get us towards quantifying real organisational impact of the learning - (the long sought after holy Grail of KirkPatrick level 3 & 4)


This week a large global industrial firm is trying a similar concept at a larger scale. They have their ‘APac Digital week’ with events, startup pitches and tech demos at their offices in Singapore, Sydney and Shanghai.

To complement this, they are running a week long competition, kicked off by their Regional COO, to see who can get the most points (and prizes!) on their version of a ‘digital mindset’ playlist on SmartUp. Each day they will feed in new content from their senior people and the Head of Digital, on their Innovation Seed Fund, their approach to Design Thinking and other custom content.

Not only will they enhance the live events, get out important comms in a trackable way (due to the built in polls and quizzes), but also get people into a new habit of learning on the go. The hope is that a significant percentage of people can be converted to regular users of micro-learning to continue learning about the ‘digital world’ on an ongoing basis.

Like all of these things, it starts as a small experiment, it generates validated learnings, and then they will pivot or persevere!

Update: now on day 2, they already have over 300 people registered and a dozen already over 1,000 points.


A few months ago I was invited to join the Digital Advisory Board of a large global MNC and I really like their model and wonder why more organisations don’t do something similar.

Here’s a brief outline of how it works.

They meet twice a year for an evening and a day and the DAB is comprised of a mix of internal business leaders and external thought leaders and leading practitioners from related industries.

The evening is spent at an interesting and thought provoking venue or event, in our case the Big Data show at the Art Science Museum, followed by networking drinks for the new members to get to know each other.

The next day is spent on a mix of best practice presentations and case studies by the external board members and mixed teams working on problem solving sessions based on the internal presentations. It’s a nice combination of shared learning, exploration and problem solving.

I really enjoyed it and would recommend it as something well worth considering irrespective of industry. Happy to share more if of interest.


One thing all of the above have in common, is that they all stared as experiments. The sponsors were not sure they would work - (in the case of the #DBSHacakthon - I was almost convinced it would not work) - but in each case the sponsors decided to live what they were trying to teach and to lead by example.

It’s classic lean startup - observe a problem/opportunity, form a hypothesis, run a small experiment, get validated learnings (that’s lean startup speak for ‘fail fast’ - but is far more acceptable organisationally), then pivot or persevere! (For more on Lean StartUp - open on mobile).


Hackathons are deeply experiential but don’t scale. Challenges, campaigns and competitions get people involved and learning without the stress and pressure of having to ‘do training,’ and a surprisingly large percentage of people actually get hooked on the new habit of on-going learning in useful and engaging bite sized chunks. The Digital Advisory Board keeps your leaders on the edge of innovation and learning as they learn and problem solve with an outside-in approach.

Could you combine all of the above into an integrated programme? Probably, though I’ve yet to see anyone try all of them. What do you think? And what have you seen work in this area?

If you want to know more about any of the above, contact me at

*Disclosure: Since we started working with at DBS, I have since joined the Advisory Board of SmartUp.