A conversation with Pascual de Juan, executive director of Innovation Labs at BBVA.

Author: Rob Daly

Global Finance: What mandate were you given when you assumed your current role?

Pascual de Juan: Do impossible things; the rest of us will handle the other possible things to do.

GF: Which features should a successful innovation plan have?

De Juan: An innovation plan should not be planned, otherwise it becomes business as usual. However, there’s a rule of thumb for innovative proposals: Aim for crazy ideas instead of percentage increases. There’s a great key performance indicator (KPI) to validate the innovation project set composition: Have you failed enough? Too few failures means that you haven’t taken risk—or that you have infallible masterminds, which is unlikely.

The key for a successful innovation funnel is to register and share ideas, proposals and projects as much as possible and with the least possible overhead among all the different innovation teams so that the teams avoid reinventing the wheel.

GF: Is it better to have a dedicated innovation team or to work with representatives across the business lines?

De Juan: The answer is both. There must be some day-to-day, freed-up team that pushes the boundaries, but they must cooperate periodically with specialized teams that are closer to reality and provide the most important asset: the right questions.

The innovation team welcomes the temporary members of other teams in a kind of internship we call “nerdasmus.” It is something enriching for both parties because we get more free hands and they get hands-on experience with innovative technology and working methodologies.

GF: Does your team “move fast and break things”?

De Juan: Being part of a bank, yes, and they move at the speed of light. But given that they are concerned about their destructive power, they are considered one of the most cautious teams in the company. We used to break the status quo. It is more interesting to “fail fast, fail often” and make tiny evolutionary steps toward a huge goal.

GF: How have you changed your approach since starting your role?

De Juan: We were the nasty, misunderstood nerds. Now, we are the beloved explorers. We have the same degree of freedom, but our sense of responsibility makes us get closer to help our tech fellows.

GF: What are the most common pitfalls that innovative organizations should avoid?

De Juan: You must not fall in love with your innovative ideas. Once they are out of the lab, they become legacy. If you don’t have a ton of ideas waiting for your attention, you are not a worthy innovator. The extreme case is when you fall in love with others’ ideas that you haven’t touched by yourself yet. Big headlines, plenty of buzzwords are a huge, distracting source of trouble. You must test hyped technologies with your own hands and avoid the theoretical promises that are often pushed by nontechnical enthusiasts. Empiricism always wins. Innovative organizations must discover new paths and warn about the ones that are not worthy, like fancy solutions in search for a problem.

GF: When should banks consider employing a head of innovation?

De Juan: They shouldn’t employ any. They must find that innovative leader among their employees. It is harder to learn the corporate internals than some fancy new tech. The innovative spirit can’t be hired or, even worse, learned. If you don’t find that person, be patient and create some to choose from in a few years.

GF: What is the most misunderstood thing about having an innovation organization?

De Juan: There are plenty. Innovation as a fancy label, an ad claim or a me-too strategy can cheat some customers for a while. However, there’s nothing like empirical facts.

GF: What has been the most important lesson you have learned during your tenure?

De Juan: Age is uncorrelated with innovation. There are legacy jewels we must learn from every day.

GF: Which project has given you the most pride?

De Juan: The next one. Remember, innovation means looking forward.