Interview Nicole Stroj

By December 13, 2018May 25th, 2021No Comments
[This interview was translated from German]
Let’s start by talking about your background! Please tell us how you ended up in Innovation Management at RBI!

I originally studied law, but eventually ended up working in the strategy department at ÖBB (Austrian Federal Railways). “Strategy” therefore describes my background very well. At ÖBB, strategy meant dealing with new technologies and business models and developing those for our company.

Furthermore, research projects in the field of electromobility were also part of my job – and innovation management was, of course, always part of it. A great deal here was also “learning by doing”. The biggest learning curve I experienced was through iMobility GmbH. iMobility was an internal ÖBB company which built a mobility platform for all of Austria. I co-founded this company and was also a member of its management board.

For a year now, I have been responsible for the innovation management activities at Raiffeisen Bank International. I basically built up the Innovation Management department from scratch. Since then, we have grown from 4 to 18 employees (including students).

How does a typical working day look like for you?

We are located in the Vienna Head Office and we act as the hub for innovation within Raiffeisenbank International. There are 4 major projects which I started over the last year related to our innovation strategy. Actually, we started right at the beginning with a startup accelerator, the Elevator Lab. Only after that we defined our innovation strategy in detail to determine what we want to do and what methods and approaches are needed. We then also directly set up an intrapreneurship program and managed to pilot it immediately in the fall.

Then this year, we founded the Venture Capital Fund, and now we are currently working on an Innovation Lab. The Innovation Lab is ought to be an externally outsourced unit which does not actually work so closely with the core business. Here we are also exploring the idea of Company Building and a few other things. However, we are not a department where you have to report something if somebody wants to work on an innovative project. Using Design Thinking and Lean Startup workshops, we help people come up with new methods to start new projects.

Please draw what spontaneously comes to your mind when you think of the question “how does the new come into the world”? – How does innovation originate?
What did you draw, and why?

For me, innovation is born in a beautiful and safe environment. Where teams and people feel secure and are free to say what they think. Where they can freely exchange ideas. It’s a place where you can feel the wind blowing a little bit – you can feel that the outside climate is perhaps a little rougher, making you feel driven.

There have been various studies – including one by Google – on how teams can be effective. Psychological safety is a very, very big part of that. That’s exactly what we’re trying to achieve in our startup collaborations and other innovation projects. We try to provide room for innovation, time, and a feeling of safety. In doing so, everyone can try out everything without any consequences whatsoever. No line manager assigns other priorities. Even in our cooperation with startups, we make sure that we come up with a process that allows us to just get started instead of having to conduct lengthy planning first.

What is it that fascinates you about innovation in your company?

The dynamic market. In Eastern Europe, on the one hand we have a lot of political instability, but on the other hand there is simply more going on in terms of technology. Some of the legislation there is also different opening up more possibilities. The energy displayed by the people there is sensational. The determination and enthusiasm we are experiencing is exactly the thing helping uskeep going. The Financial Services area is something new for me, which appealed to me. Although the market is highly regulated, it is actually a purely digital business, and everything is ultimately non-tangible.

Which technology trend would you describe as very promising?

I think there are 2 topics that will be very significant in the future. Blockchain is a technology that will change everything. All the use cases we come up with now will probably be obsolete in 2 years. I believe that technology will change our behavior when dealing with identity and contracts. The 2nd topic: Everything with Artificial Intelligence!

How do you acquire knowledge about innovation?

I try to read – the last book that was really relevant was “The Startup Way” by Eric Ries. This book describes very well how to introduce the “Lean Startup” method into a big company. Another way is through a lot of interaction with different people in the community. I try to go to conferences and educate myself. Just last week we were in Berlin for 2 days for meetings with Company Builders, and Innovation Labs from the financial industry.

Where do you look for innovation? Directly within the company with the help of employees, from outside through inspiration, workshops, seminars, or somewhere else entirely?

We try to encourage employees to also bring in topics that they deal with privately. Working with startups and screening startups is so exciting to see what solutions already exist. It makes us aware of problems. We also recently invited the Lean Startup Company for a workshop with our CEOs. We try to educate ourselves, but also at the same time educate our top management. We also talk a lot with consultants, such as viable, which helps us come up with new methods that we could use for certain issues.

Is there a company, a tool, a service that you would describe as very innovative?

Of course, a financial services startup which immediately comes to my mind is Revolut. It fascinates me because of the incredibly user-friendly focus and simple marketing campaigns they’ve used to grow so rapidly. That’s admirable.