Unego – The creative power of not focusing so much on yourself (Episode 24)

Interview with Benoît Legrand, Chief Innovation Officer at ING and CEO of ING Ventures.

What is the antonym for “Ego”?

According to the dictionary, it is words like “bashfulness”, “self-doubt” and “disgrace”, implying that “ego” is a good thing.

But ego – your idea or opinion of yourself, especially your feeling of your own importance and ability – can also be a negative thing. Especially when it comes to creativity and innovation.

True: To be creative you have to have a strong belief and your ability, especially when you are in the phase of creation when no one else believes in your idea. But too much ego kills creativity. Creativity is about focusing on finding a solution to a problem. Not focusing on yourself and how good you are. So good ego is good, but bad ego is bad. And if we want our organisations to become more creative, we should pay attention to how we encourage the opposite of bad ego. Let’s call that “Unego”.

I was inspired by the concept of “unego” during a conversation with Benoît Legrand, Chief Innovation Officer at ING and CEO of ING Ventures.

ING is a global bank with a strong European base. Their 53,000 employees serve around 38.4 million customers, corporate clients and financial institutions in over 40 countries. And ING has gotten a strong part of its corporate DNA from the fact that they originated in Holland.

As Benoît Legrand explained to me: “In Holland we, historically, had to come together against the elements and collectively build dams and walls to protect ourselves from the sea. For us it’s not about having a wall to just protect yourself that is bigger and better than your neighbors, it is also about our neighbor, if his wall is not good enough it does not matter how good my own wall is. This sense of un-egoistical thinking for the benefit of all is fundamental for us. We go for the best solution which makes sense at the macro-level (for all), not just on the micro-level (for me).”

So what does that mean for ING? Benoît said: “At ING we are working together, being open to each other trying to make things better in the genuine interest of the customer. We’re not trying to do it for our own ego, but mainly because we generally think that we need to solve customer problems that make their life easier. We believe that banking should be like oxygen – it’s just there and when you breathe in you don’t realize it, but if you stop you suddenly realize how important it was for you.”

Now, unego does not mean a lack of ego. It means a lack of too much ego. The absence of over-confidence.

Benoît : “I think we all have egos, but I think it’s about finding the right balance between you, me, and us.”

He then told me about ING Ventures that he is CEO of. The purpose of ING Ventures is to invest money into companies that might disrupt the financial sector. ING brings funds, connections, and expertise into the companies they invest in, but they do not step in and tell them how to run the companies.

Benoît Legrand again: “We know a lot of things here (at ING) but there’s so many things that we don’t know and so many things which are happening much faster outside of ING.”

ING Ventures have invested in a total of 33 companies and Benoît told me about some of these investments and about why they were made.

He told me about Payconiq, a peer to peer payments company, that was started in their own innovation lab, but where ING concluded it would be better for the company if other banks were let in as owners too. Less ego increases the chances of that company to survive.

Or the company Cobase that simplifies the workflow for a treasurer in big organisation that was funded by ING, but is run by an external partner as it’s own company to give it the freedom of a start-up.

Benoît explained the “step back approach” as: “We can not go into these companies and say “I’m the big elephant and I know everything, and I’m going to tell you how things should be done because I’ve been doing this for a very long time”. If you do that you just kill the creativity and ideation.”

Of course, ING Ventures is investing in these companies to get a good return on their investment. But they are also making these investments to get a better understanding of where the, right now very dynamic, financial sector is heading.

At the end of our conversation, Benoît Legrand told me something that really resonated with me. He said: “It’s about humility, and the word humility comes from the root word “humus” meaning earth, or ground. While he was speaking I quickly googled it and it turns out that “humility is also an antonym for “ego”.

I get the message from ING and Benoît Legrand is that to be truly creative we need to be “humbly confident”, not arrogant. Confident in our own abilities, but at the same time confident that others might have better ideas than ourselves. He calls it “The Dutch power of collective intelligence”. I call it “unego”.

How can you instill some of this unego DNA into your own organization?




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