Purpose, Silos, Agile – On buzzwords and real change

Organisations are funny beasts. Banks are funnier still. 

Chief among the many reasons why, the stark contrast between what we know and what we don’t know when it comes to the organisation.

On paper, we understand the structure but in practice we don’t fully understand -or care to study- the interactions. Human relationships and group exchanges are complicated at the best of times, when business imperatives and organisational status quo in terms of process and operations are laid on top, the meter goes straight to “nebulous” and sadly, insufficient effort is spent in the scientific community studying this intermingled mesh of human emotion that is working together in an organisational set-up, in particular in light of the speed technology has brought to the table in recent years.

To top it all off, banks are even more complicated of beasts than organisations in other industries. This is because, in addition to all the constraints, needs and wants of a big organisation, they sit at the firm intersection of several key concepts “finances’, “technology” and “clients” with their derived undertones of “trust”, “knowledge and strategy” and “purposeful experience creation”.

Even the most relentless of innovators and visionaries have to exist within the parameters of the status-quo that severely limits not only others, but themselves as well, within these structures. What’s worse, it does so in ways we aren’t sure about.

It’s a problem of extreme complexity and magnitude and while we all feel the need for change deep within our bones, the way to achieve it seems unattainable and distant.

This is why, when new ways of work come about and promise to speed us up, clean us up and make us finally get to where we want to be, we get collectively excited.



In this race for better, the new and different that claims to be the answer to all our prayers wins the slides battle. We call things fangled new consultancy-speak words and hey presto, they sound a lot more magical-power-imbued and far less like a lot of work.

In FinTech buzzword-ing is a never-ending trend. The source of much hilarity complete with Buzzword-Bingo cards created before industry events, the abundance of new terms is understandable as the industry is at the intersection of fast-paced technology and slow-moving banking and inflated to the gills.

On the other hand, when we do indulge in buzzwords when it comes to culture and organisations, we commit a far more cardinal sin. Understanding the drivers of what makes these monster organisms tick, untangling the webs of human connection and allowing them to re-weave around strong interests and natural abilities is a task too Gargantuan to be attainable if we allow either corporatitis or consultancy-speak to creep in.

When trying to really make a difference, examining and re-examining the core of every concept is the antidote to buzz-ing and it’s essential.

Ohhh glittery Agile!

Agile is not just “one of these new fangled ways of work” but a lens to recolour our understanding of limits, needs and intentions. If applied in the way the manifesto intends it, not the way that the myriad of consultancies want to flavour and regiment it, it’s truly transformational. A new way of thinking. A chance to re-think and re-set. Then start again with efficiency and purpose at heart.

If we allow it to become a PR tool in the “Innovation Theatre ” (JP Nicols’ TM) then we allow Cargo culture to set in and it becomes an expensive exercise in futility.

Anyone doing Agile as a re-org fix not as a religion, is signing up for a modern Sisyphus assignment as there’s no way to simply abandon the boulder at the base of the mountain and return to BAU, it’s simply so efficient when done right that it has to get back to the top and stay there.

“Purpose” – the word du jour for trendy retreats and laptop stickers 

Here’s the thing about purpose. It’s a major must. Let’s face it, everyone here reading this has it or you would be playing Candy Crush on your commute instead.

Much as it’s heart-warming that it’s becoming a main-stream conversation in mouths previously scrubbed with the soap of ROI , seeing it thrown around willy-nilly on social media these days is cringe-worthy. It cheapens it.

purpose-201701240148007851-20180123120235767Purpose, real purpose is many things. Intensely personal, unapologetic, driving, meaningful and immensely powerful. What drives us as individuals is often times as diverse as we are, made up of equal part values we can wear as a badge of honour and motivations we wouldn’t even verbalise to those closest to us or even to ourselves.

Shared purpose, the organisational cure-all is a Nirvana state where “everyone is in the same boat, rowing in sync, with a burning desire to get to the same shore” and it’s made up of bits and pieces of personal purpose fragments, that met and formed a magical chemical reaction.

The alchemy behind creating this shared purpose magic should be all that concerns us if we want functional organisms in lieu of, and above all else we’re undertaking.

Silos breaking 

Silos are one organisational villain we can all agree should be banished. We’ve been working on a software solution that does that, so we’ve been spending countless research hours and many Backlog items on understanding what we’re up against and how to redesign organisations. It’s an incredibly hard thing to do.

Humans naturally gravitate towards each other and layered upon it, the organisation enclosed them into artificial departments and teams that use their captive Stockholm syndrome as affiliation combustion for intra-organisational hunger games fuelled by P&L imperatives.

In many big organisations attempting to instil any form of higher goal is near impossible when you’re preaching to clusters of disconnected, disenchanted units of people who are functioning on automated pilot.

While dissolving these centres of mediocrity is immensely important to the health of the organisation, the discourse in the community with voices calling for the juxtaposition of “silos busting” with “Agile” strikes me as disingenuous.

There’s no either/or here. In fact, the new ways of work taken as a real change in mentality, are the only vehicle through which we can reframe the structure and allow people to leave the perceived safety of their silos cocoon.

He couldn’t have Googled that.

Last week we got asked a very good question by a very wise bank CEO: “What can I do so that we get an organisational culture just like Google’s (but with better regard for international tax law)?“. It’s a good question for many reasons including how it’s not immediately evident why that is desirable. Is Google the absolute best model of a successful big tech with impeccable internal culture? Maybe, maybe not, but it is a great deal more successful than the bank ran by this Banking Superhero.

It’s also a good question because it forces us to look at the differences. At a first glance many of them look procedural and replicable. Anyone can implement OKRs and become agile. However, when you pop the hood and really start getting to the heart of what makes them immensely functional very little is easily replicable and almost none of it is about the process or the tech.

“Ethos”; “Personal motivation”, “Obsessions”; “Psychological Safety” are all concepts Google places at their very core and why they have so much success. In principle they seem to map to “Purpose”, “Professional Development”; “Customer Centricity” and “Workplace policies” but in practice they absolutely don’t, because Google was built on good, sturdy foundations of human values and designed with these ideas at its very core and isn’t just borrowing words and trying to replicate successful models.image00-300x223

To quickly point out but one example of the ones above: the concept of “Workplace Psychological Safety” that Google has first drawn attention to, has very little to do with its application to the fervent zero-bullying snow-flake-creation campaigns that put political correctness before humanity, which many organisations are policing these days and, almost on the contrary, everything to do with empowering gifted individuals to feel supported, respected and appreciated enough that they feel they can and “ought to” experiment and grow both individually and in ever-changing teams.

So the only way to answer the CEO’s question is with another question “How badly do you want it? – Do you have the courage and ability to do a real tabula rasa exercise at least in terms of principles if not people or is this a chipping at the edges incremental change exercise?

K.I.S.S – Keep It “Spade is Spade”

The imperative of change is so great that I feel tempted to abandon my obsession for correct terms and concepts and calling a spade a spade as pedantic, but that would be a mistake.

In our practice we used to have “Language” as one of our core values complete with workshops and programs to stimulate honesty and usage of real vernacular but then we realised that’s wrong as it’s a sine qua non condition to everything else so we now have it as a mandatory part of all our “Spark!” workshops.

“Employee branding and engagement”, “Ethos”, “Purpose”, “Goals” – that’s Passion. Better yet, it’s Heart.

“Training and development”, “Professional growth”, “Technology Know-How” – that’s Knowledge.

“Ways of Work”, “Innovation appetite”, “Transformation” – it’s all about the Courage.

We collectively spend too much time playing with words be they buzzwords or consulting jargon and that painfully detracts from rolling our sleeves and making real change.

Let’s change that.

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