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The world’s most disruptive innovator hates innovation

Neal Cross pictured on the left in a black t-shirt. His arms are crossed, he is smiling and he is wearing glasses. On the right, Steve Wozniak is pictured at an event. There is a microphone held to his face by someone else. He is wearing a black shirt and a black jacket, and he is smiling.
Neal Cross was named the world's most disruptive innovator by Steve Wozniak and Sir Richard Branson. Source: LinkedIn/Getty

Neal Cross will speak about why the future isn’t digital at Yahoo Finance’s All Markets Summit on the 26th September 2019 in the Shangri-La, Sydney. Check out the full line-up of speakers and agenda for this groundbreaking event here.

“Stop innovating. Please, just stop.”

It’s an unlikely phrase to be spoken by the world’s most disruptive chief innovation officer, Neal Cross, who was awarded this title by two of the world’s biggest innovators: Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak, and Sir Richard Branson.

Cross was DBS Bank’s chief innovation officer until January this year, when he co-founded a personal wealth management platform to aggregate users’ information, PictureWealth.


But while both of these roles scream innovation, one thing Cross swears he never did was invent anything.

In fact, Cross flipped the entire innovation model on its head.

“I actually said, ‘Right, the innovation group at DBS is never going to invent anything. We're just going to do the complete opposite of every corporate innovation team. We're not going to hire anyone from technology, we're not going to hire anyone from the industry, and we're never going to invent anything’."

“Technology is fighting against millions of years of evolution, so good luck with that.”

Instead of hiring “innovation experts”, Cross asked his own staff to come up with ideas and new product options.

“By the time I left DBS, of the 25,000 staff every year we had 15,000 doing something in innovation,” he said.

“It's the highest, I think, of any company in the world full stop. Two thirds of the entire organisation, in all divisions, in every country, we’re doing something in innovation.”

The future is human

While most of us are dreading the day that artificial intelligence steals our jobs, Cross says the future isn’t digital. It’s human.

“Technology is fighting against millions of years of evolution, so good luck with that.”

“Humans like to buy from humans, humans like to engage with humans, and certainly technology is optimising a lot of those engagements.”

But it’s not all human - it's a hybrid.

Don’t go digital

“Don't digitise your bank. Digitise your staff and they will digitise your bank.

“Nearly every company I talk to has lost sight of what business they're in,” Cross said.

“The business they're in is very simple. Every company is in the same business: solving customers’ problems.”

And solving those problems isn’t just about digitising everything, explains Cross.

“We've got to work out where the humans fit and where technology fits.”

“No one's really being smart about this. They're saying, ‘Okay, we've got this big analog business. We'll fully digitise it,’ not realising that, actually, that's commodity.”

“And,” Cross said, “if all your competitors do the same, you're just commodity.”

“If you are 100 per cent digital, your customers are easily detached from you. But if you've got a hybrid model, that's very hard to dislodge.”

So what are businesses doing wrong?

At DBS, Cross put the onus on his staff to innovate, which is something businesses are failing to do. And it’s to their detriment, according to Cross.

“The biggest mistake is not involving everyone in that journey,” he said. “A lot of those staff are the ones who sit with the customers and hear their hopes, hear their fears.”

By not involving every person in your organisation as part of the innovation process, the process will fail to create something for customers that solves customers’ problems.

“Find the right problem, solve it in an elegant manner that's successful. Whether that's increase profit, customer satisfaction, reduce cost - whatever metric you set.”

But Neal Cross is no expert, and you shouldn’t be either

Cross’ LinkedIn bio says, “Co-founder and chairman of PictureWealth - Done some innovation - Won some awards - Not a bad speaker.” But, you’ll never see the word “expert” there.

“Whoever invented work should be shot.”

“People who say they're a guru or an expert, do you know what I see? Someone who stopped learning.”

“I mean I throw resumes away if they've got too many qualifications.”

According to Cross, too much education is “a terrible thing” and “whoever invented work should be shot”.

But there’s a method to his madness.

“If you've thought one way for so long, you're so invested in that, even subconsciously, it's difficult for you to think of something from a different angle.”

And he’s speaking from experience, too.

“I've designed aquariums, I've built computer games, I've done start-ups, social enterprises, done corporate, done sales, done marketing done kung-fu.”

Yahoo Finance's All Markets Summit is on the 26th September 2019 in the Shangri-La, Sydney. Peter Costello, Neal Cross, Lucy Liu, Matt Barrie and Amanda Stevens will be speaking. Source: Yahoo Finance
Yahoo Finance's All Markets Summit is on the 26th September 2019 in the Shangri-La, Sydney. Peter Costello, Neal Cross, Lucy Liu, Matt Barrie and Amanda Stevens will be speaking. Source: Yahoo Finance

Cross wants you to know innovation doesn’t stop with corporations

While he was busy overturning innovation models and inventing new techniques to universally solve problems, he was also busy saving the Sumatran Orangutan.

Initially, he took that ‘universal problem solver’ technique to DBS, and even before that at MasterCard Labs. But if it only solved payments or tech, it wasn’t really a universal problem solver at all.

So Cross ended up putting his innovation technique to work in the jungle - and built a boutique hotel to attract the rich and powerful to Sumatra, and affect change.

“Two hundred flights on the weekends spread over four years, and most of my salary - certainly my spare - went into it.”

And it’s something that Apple co-founder, Wozniak, found impressive.

"Steve Wozniak said to me, ‘You probably had enough to do at DBS but then you thought you'd spend all your weekends and your own personal money trying to save the Orangutans and give local villagers jobs and education’. He said, ‘That's impressive’."

But that wasn’t really enough, so Cross is on to his second venture: coral preservation.

“I bought an endangered coral reef and stopped all the fishing and dynamiting and turned it into a sanctuary.”

And he’s still on a mission - or three

Saving a reef, helping Sumatran Orangutans, running PictureWealth and writing a novel hasn’t kept Neal busy enough, so he’s set himself three life missions.

His original mission was to create the world’s most innovative bank, but as he’s ticked that off his list already, he replaced it.

Now, his first mission is to save Asia’s land and sea animals, but he admits that’s a work in progress.

The second is to bring financial happiness to the world.

“PictureWealth is that model, and probably doing something in Africa as well.”

And the third, “because I always need three”, is to make the corporate world a more joyous place to work.

“Whoever invented work should be shot.”

“The core is that staff don't feel connected. You can fix all the outside stuff, but that's not going to fix it. That's just like putting band aids on it.”

The best minds in business, government, academia and entrepreneurship will come together to examine the most critical issues facing Australia at Yahoo Finance's All Markets Summit event.