Rabobank's journey towards a leading agile and digital bank

22 December 2021 Consultancy.eu 6 min. read

Following a large-scale Agile transformation, Rabobank is one of the Agile frontrunners in Europe’s banking industry. Alexander Zwart, Rabobank's Head of Digital Transformation and Tribe Lead, reflects on the bank’s transition to Agile ways of working, as well as on the successes and struggles throughout the journey.

Facing a rapidly changing competitive and consumer landscape, it is increasingly evident that banks require greater flexibility, speed, and customer-centricity to remain relevant. This is where Agile comes in – a methodology that enables smoother decision making and more rapid, and tangible delivery of outcomes.

Rabobank’s transformation to Agile started over a decade ago, when the methodology was embraced by teams in the IT function and beyond. Having been at the forefront of the Agile transformation and still playing a significant role, Alexander Zwart has first-hand witnessed the method’s growth – and impact.

Rabobank’s journey towards a successful Agile and digital bank

Now Head of Digital Transformation (which includes responsibility for the banking app, online banking and websites) and co-leader of the bank’s global Agile@Scale program (together with Kiki van den Berg), Zwart oversees the bank’s agile roadmap and its delivery.

“Agile brings transparency, transparency increases control, and being in control enables you to advance and innovate faster. Increased transparency allows the organization to make better decisions,” said Zwart.

A new structure

Rabobank set up its Agile transformation meticulously: with a clear product development portfolio, an appropriate organizational structure, 9-11 squads per area, and 5-7 areas per tribe. The whole pyramid was inverted. Agile coaches were installed to support each tribe and help leadership teams and squads improve collaboration.

Additionally, Rabobank chose to create its own consulting capacity by setting up a permanent organizational change team, which continuously challenges the bank’s way of working on all levels, from the squads up to the Board.

In rolling out the philosophy, Rabobank made sure to create and harbor both trust and perseverance. “Trust can make or break an Agile transformation. For example, do leaders trust that employees will perform their new roles correctly? Do they trust that more autonomy will lead to better results, and can they focus on facilitating the process instead of deciding on its content?” explained Zwart.

“Additionally, perseverance is essential; continuously setting a good example, resolving priority conflicts, sharing successes, and moving forward.”

This perseverance is required from the work floor all the way to the top. Commitment from the top was insured in the early stages of the transformation: “We have total commitment from the Board on our Agile way of working.”

Organizational change

Introducing squads, areas, tribes, new Agile rituals (the so-called Agile heartbeat), deciding matters at a team level, and more, will impact any organization.

This is especially true for management. Zwart: “At first senior leadership has a hard time understanding how Agile works, what the benefits are, and what the implications are for control and reporting lines. There is also, of course, a fear of letting go of control and no longer being a member of committees with prepared pieces and a fixed cadence.”

With a small team of colleagues, Zwart spent a few months determining what impact an Agile transformation would have on governance, both in the Netherlands and internationally and made sure that mandates, accountabilities, and responsibilities were clear. “A challenging assignment because you continuously need to zoom in and out. You have to get both the details and the bigger picture right and ensure you are facilitating both alignment and autonomy.”


Asked why the Agile transformation was a success so far, Zwart pointed to a number of metrics that demonstrate value-added. These include:

  • Full BizDevOps: Business and IT now operate “as one team”
  • Better quality apps
  • Increased responsiveness
  • Shorter timelines for improvements and innovation
  • More control of processes and enhancements
  • Employees are more empowered and committed
  • Rabobank is now a more attractive employer

“One of the main success factors for the transformation was that the bank recognized its impact on processes, technology, and people,” said Zwart.

Also, Rabobank applied a ‘zero tolerance’ for deviations, requiring a tightly regulated process and much discipline. “For example, traditional progress reports and steering committees were entirely off the table and had to stay there. Instead, teams had to share their progress during Sprint Reviews and decide on conflicting priorities during the Quarterly Business Review.”

The next big thing?

Taking a leap forward, Zwart cites two developments that he considers to be “the next big thing” in Agile. “The first is data. Automation is on the rise, leading to an influx of data. Analyzing data and increasing its quality will help boost its value – this is an important task for product owners.”

Secondly, he asserts that remote working is here to stay, also after the pandemic. “The ‘old way of working’ – sending emails, waiting for a response, needing to meet face to face – is behind us. In the new way of working, working remote or from the office is equally valuable. As a result, digital communication will play a more significant part in our daily lives.”

“This means that organizations need to consider which activities require us to physically meet (build team cohesion or brainstorm), which can be covered by video conferencing (stand-ups to address impediments or large-scale meetings to share progress and set direction) and when asynchronous communication or iteration is best (editing or reviewing a document). A digital-first approach is the future.”

Working with Xebia

Throughout its Agile journey, Rabobank worked together closely with Xebia, a consulting firm and IT services group headquartered in the Netherlands.

In the early stages (from 2009 to 2014), Xebia helped many of Rabobank’s teams kickstart Agile working. Then, the firm guided several departments during their journey, including Savings, Internet Banking, Retail Banking, Business Banking, Special Asset Management, Investment Banking, and more.

Meanwhile, Xebia’s consultants became part of Rabobank’s Lean Competence Center (LCC) and acted as mentors for Product Owners to start the movement to DevOps. Additionally, Xebia trained dozens of coaches (most of which have also obtained an Agile Practitioner certificate), helping the bank nurture a group of champions and ambassadors.

Fast forward to this year: Xebia provided around 150 of Rabobank leaders with ‘Stakeholder Management’ training, with the possibility to continue to offer CI/CD and Engineering Culture training.