Paul Iske is the Chief Dialogues Officer at the ABN AMRO Bank. It’s an intriguing position in which he is responsible for the Dialogues House and Dialogues Incubator. The ABN AMRO Bank created these spaces to support entrepreneurial and innovative thinking and behaviour within and outside the bank.
Ruben: The Dialogues House and Dialogues Incubator are your brainchildren. What’s your relationship with dialogues? What does make dialogues so interesting for you?
Paul: For me a dialogue is a form of interaction that leads to increase of knowledge. We live in a world where debate and competition dominate the way we communicate. But these ways do not lead to innovation or new insights. When, in a conversation, you genuinely ask ‘what do you think?’ to your partner, you open yourself up and let associations flow. You create something new by building upon each other’s input. And it’s also more fun to do.
Ruben: Building upon each other’s ideas sounds like theatre improvisation or the way Jazz combo’s improvise. Is that also a way of working you’re advocating within the Dialogues House and Dialogues Incubator?
Paul: My style of working is improvisational. Already at a young age teachers would exclaim: ‘That’s a nice solution Paul, but I never taught it this way!’ Making associations is one of my greatest qualities. That’s why I like the banking sector because in a way I don’t belong to this planned world. And that’s exactly why there is a need for a Dialogues House and Dialogues Incubator.
Ruben: Why did the ABN AMRO support the development of the Dialogues House and Incubator?
Paul: The Board of Directors wanted to disclose the intellectual capital of the people working at the bank. So many ideas and knowledge were remaining idle and could be used for something bigger than just the banking operations. The Board chose to promote entrepreneurship in the spirit of dialogue, as a way to innovate and look at things from different perspectives.
Ruben: How long ago was that?
Paul: That was in 2007. The funny thing is that within 3 months after clearance by the Board the Dialogues House and Dialogues Incubator were up and running. There was a lot of energy in building such a place. And now 4.5 years later it’s still vibrant. The Dialogues House is often referred to as a Future Centre and these last 4 years on average. So we’re doing pretty good and I hope for many more years to come.
Ruben: What’s the impact for the ABN AMRO bank of the Dialogues House and Dialogues Incubator?
Paul: I’m being asked this question often. But the Dialogues House is an open source concept. It’s not about the ABN AMRO. We want to support the development of a positive climate for entrepreneurs.
Ruben: Could you name an example of this support?
Paul: We started a research about successful entrepreneurs that had gone through bankruptcy. Now you have to know that there’s a stigma in the Netherlands about people that go bankrupt. In Dutch society you’re viewed as either stupid or criminal, probably even both. That’s not the case in the US, where bankruptcy is viewed much more positively. Interestingly enough, the persons we interviewed told us they had learned the most from their broke period. Also Boston Consulting Group presented a research that people that had gone bankrupt were more likely to be successful than starters. I would call this type of bankruptcy a brilliant failure. So I suggested the ABN AMRO to make a product that would help bankrupt entrepreneurs. But this was a bridge too far: it might have given the impression the bank would be promoting bankruptcy.
Ruben: So the bank struggled with this paradigm shift. Why not create an experimentation space for such a product?
Paul: It’s interesting to see that people always talk a lot about the things they can’t do. You don’t need to set up specific experimentation spaces. There’s always space to act innovatively. Just take the space you already have at your disposition. In all the work I did, all the positions I had, I experienced a lot of space to initiate and pursue innovative activities. It’s all about having an entrepreneurial mindset. It boils down to: ‘how much space for innovation do I grant myself?’
Ruben: Why do you think people do not take this experimentation space?
Paul: For many people the barriers to act seem too big, insurmountable. It is, however, often a matter of perception. Also within big organisations ambitions may prevent you from taking certain risks. If you want to have a career then you’d better watch out. At least, that’s the perception.
Ruben: what things are important for an innovative culture?
Paul: Having lots of linkage with people outside. They bring in new ideas, new patterns and new linkages.
Ruben: What’s the value of that?
Paul: It could lead to total different new and concepts. A nice example is the cooperation between ABN-AMRO and Phillips. ABN AMRO has many individual costumers trading in small amounts. It is known that costumers would make poorer investment decisions in an emotional state. So they went to see Phillips and developed a device, the Rationalizer, that monitors you’re emotional state. At this stage it’s not possible to say whether the product will be successful. Maybe it will become a brilliant failure, but it already led to new linkages between totally opposite fields. It’s a combinatoric innovation.
Ruben: What is a combinatoric innovation?
Paul: It’s a new concept of mine, one I’m experimenting with. There’s no clear agenda defined upfront. It’s just the people in the room and their associative power, focusing on the question: ‘What could we do together?’ It leads to many unique and creative ideas. The group really comes up with unique inventions and approaches. Participants look at the issue from different perspectives and start combining ideas and concepts. From this emerges a total new picture, just like the parable with the elephant being touched at 6 different places by 6 blind men. The question with combinatoric innovation çould be rephrased as: ‘will it blend?’
Ruben: Are there any drawbacks with this way of working and innovating?
Paul: The process is a nightmare for managers who love control because it’s an emergent process. It doesn’t fit with their milestones. Also there’s an issue of intellectual property. During the process it’s not clear where ideas originate, so which stakeholder is owner of a specific idea? You need to make provisions around intellectual property.
Ruben: I work a lot with meetings as agents of change and innovation so I’d like to on this issue. As a Dialogues House you bring people together, often physically. So how do you make great meetings?
Paul: I apply the creativity index to meetings. The creativity index tells you that people are creative when they laugh often and ask many questions. It’s not an idea of mine. The NASA already did creativity research at an early stage. They needed to improvise, especially in the beginning of the aerospace. It turns out that the creativity index decreases rapidly with age. My job is to help organisations maintain the creativity index on a high level. This requires an environment in which people are motivated to ask questions and to seek new, unexpected combinations (the basis of humour)!
Ruben: How do you use it in meetings?
Paul: I have a little toolbox with humour and big questions. Actually the humour box is tricky to use… you have a big problem if you have to inject humour in the first place. You can easily kill a meeting with humour. Regarding the big question: the most important question to ask is ‘what do you think?’ This makes for a very powerful question when asked genuinely. Another one is ‘what if…?’ Or ‘Why do we do the things this way?’ If you combine these questions with humour then you have a very productive meeting.
Ruben: Thanks for your views on dialogues, innovation and meetings
Paul: The pleasure is mine.