The Bank and the Forgotten Heroes

For all the commotion, there hasn’t been anything in the way of Human Centered First-Principles Design and major Innovation in either traditional banking or challengers in the past 3 years. We are still being served the same banking products in pretty much the same ways.

By virtue of the fact that we are all consumers of banking, we can all tell that’s the case and pointing to this, which is ultimately a consumer tragedy, is common in the discourse around the industry, but then most authors prefer to veer to the tried and tested themes of “innovate or die”; “banks need to use data in X way”; “AI will save the world”; “let’s get you a flanker brand digital bank”; or “we need more Blockchain”.

The reality is that once more, the consumer tragedy has little to do with those tangible themes and a lot more to do with the dreaded, immaterial topic of People. Bankers, if you will.

If it was hard for bankers before, it’s harder now. The pressure just mounted from having to deliver a delightful digital experience to monetising on data, changing rails and dreaming up new business models as well, when all while keeping the ship afloat has increased in difficulty.

Working with a bank on organising an internal “Bank X’s next Banking Superhero Superstar” I got to thinking about these heroes past and present. Who they were and where they are.

It used to be that in the industry, we’d meet the bank’s token innovation manager (or later, “Head of”) and getting to know them, we’d want nothing more than to give them a hug and a pint, in awe of their resilience knowing all the things they did about what should be done, and seeing none of that happen on the inside.

It looked heartbreaking and it truly was that, all of us around for long enough know at least 20 hug-and-pint worthy name off the top of our heads and some we can proudly call friends today.

I’ve often written about Banking Superheroes – the guys who made some of the digital magic happen or offered us our first signs of customer experience normality whether they were at the top or in the very middle. These ex-knowledge-pioneers that I’m thinking of today, they are Semi-Heroes, rarely having been the same people that were given the key to the kingdom of “tangible” and “making” in a bank and perhaps as a result, most are not with that bank anymore. Whether it’s because they lost patience too soon, or were simply not well equipped for politics, these warriors are not running a bank today. While some, (very, very, few) are “still on the inside”, most are consultants, and one would think that’s lucrative and joyful, but in an industry as overcrowded as ours, it’s hard to truly monetise on knowledge and make a real difference.

Which brings us to what making a difference actually means.

To the consumer it would mean having reliable, lighting fast, contextual, pleasant, emotionally connected experiences that flow in and out of their lives seemingly powering them with money and even –ideally- bettering them. If we apply that measurement, we can’t find any banker at all that can write that as their LinkedIn achievement. Not one.

If we lower the post and assume it means incrementally improving some significant part of a process or product that consumers come in contact with when they interact with their money, such as quicker on-boarding or video banking or offering a prettier online banking experience, then the Banking Superheroes can claim that.

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What of our Banking Semi-Heroes, the ex-innovation managers, the analysts, the advisors, the initial FinTech entrepreneurs? What can they put under “real difference”?

I think they should take heed in the answer being: A lot.

A host of intangible micro-interactions that may have shaped minds. The myriad of times when they gave yet another presentation on cool new things to a completely dead-pan room. The hundreds of things they’ve written or explained in an article on the intranet, a memo, an email, or down the pub to colleagues repeating over and again what good looks like in digital, what the art of possible is elsewhere in China or what designing around First Principles brings. It may have felt like death by a thousands cuts to them when it all seemed to fall on deaf ears, but if even a fraction landed as a seed in the right minds, then that’s true influence and that’s a real difference in a more significant fashion than what anyone else could claim.

It may seem like little consolation when so much knowledge is wasted, so much enthusiasm is shelved, and so much potential lost by these amazing minds either no longer being around, or –worst still- no longer really being engaged, but I think it counts a lot and they should be very proud of themselves indeed.

The message today may seem a little grim but really it’s an ode to unsung heroes and how much they’ve done for us whether they know it or not, and a plea to those running banks today, to empower their next batch with enough bravery, know-how and heart to ensure they all end-up Real Difference Making Superheroes not undervalued, forgotten and wasted Semi-heroes and to diligently look for their remaining ones and give them the reigns.

And to the two or three still on the inside – hang in there, you have your lever long enough, demand a fulcrum and if they’re honest about wanting to see the Earth moved, they’ll give it to you.

 

What Banks and Apple don’t have in common: an Innovation epic

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It’s easy to understand why, while we all understand innovating is necessary in theory, we struggle to execute it in practice. Across the board, irrespective of the size of the company or the industry they are in, we all believe in the famed “innovate or die” adage in the same way that we instinctively know that moving forward in lieu of standing still is necessary, but we still struggle with the imperative.

The better business as usual is, the harder it is to comprehend we ought to “mess with it”. Naturally, no one wants to destroy a good run, so changing anything of a seemingly successful status quo is counterintuitive.

Business history is littered with examples of companies which had leaders slow to comprehend they need to embrace and dictate progress and swift change, and without going through the obligatory Kodak examples, most of those companies are no longer around so innovation has made its way on the top of every agenda a few years back.

In banking, we talk a lot about innovation but arguably, we action vey little. More worryingly for us PPPs (PracticingProgressPushers (pending-TM), the chatter around innovation has diminished over the last 2 years and sadly, it isn’t because so much has been done it’s no longer terribly urgent.

There’s a fascinating collective fatigue that has set in around the term in the industry. It’s undoubtedly bad news but it’s nonetheless worth investigating how it has set in, as it would explain many other herd behaviours we witness in the field -amongst which, where the panic about PSD2 and OpenBanking vanished-.

One theory could be, that the explanation lies with the tightly-knit community around financial services which is in a constant digital dialogue on social media.

While this community is comprised of bankers, consultants, technology makers, journalists, users and -rarely- people from other industries too and it was formed around a common interest in FinTech and its cure-all promise a few years ago, the total amount of people involved in this online conversation today is probably no larger than a few tens of thousands world wide and it’s nucleus is no larger than a few thousands of people. (This is of course based on personal observation as no real stats exist, and I would welcome the debate on the numbers so please leave comments below.)

Heavily empirical as the hypothesis is, it would suggest that, given the reduced numbers involved in the discourse, theme fatigue is understandable. It gets tiring pushing the same boulder up the hill. Should this be true it would redefine what we postulate to be influence today and while individual effects on the industry are hard to come by no matter what the influencer lists will have you believe, collective imprints of the entire community do make a difference in what gets pushed at the top of the agenda in various boardrooms.

This theory would account for the lack of industry pressure to innovate. What about another type of external pressure? The consumer.

In the past few years it seems the consumer has given up as well. As if peak dissatisfaction has passed. A few years back, users of the newly born online and mobile banks were extremely vocal when the experience let them down. These days? Not so much. It is as if, the more time passes, the wider the gap between what we are offered in digital from other service providers to what our banks give us in terms of both speed, usability and enjoyment and the less willing we are to demand that gap be filled.

So in the absence of industry pressure and consumer pressure, it almost makes sense that banks seem to have hang their Innovator’s hat with the closing down of the last Innovation Labs.

Except it doesn’t make sense at all.

External pressure shouldn’t have been an impetus to begin with, but instead, as is the case in every other industry, banks ought to feel tremendous internal pressure to come up with new things to serve and delight their consumer.

Last week we had the yearly Apple show. Whether they brought anything revolutionary to the table or not or indeed, whether they are under any obligation to do so simply because they have set up an expectation, is debatable, but what can not be disputed is the existence of that event. Their yearly goal post.

The reason many of us in the Financial Services industry used to be madly in love with Finovate, is because it provided such a goal post for our industry. Yearly innovation. 99% of it was coming from FinTech companies and not incumbent banks,  which meant there was only an indirect effect – as seeing innovative ideas and features shown on the Finovate stage took years to trickle down to consumers in washed-out incarnations in digital banking offerings, but an effect nonetheless. It kept the FinTech companies honest in terms of always innovating and their work in turn, kept banks in good supply of large backlogs. Yearly goal posts.

Finovate is no longer that and with it, yet another innovation source and imperative has left banking so what goal post do they have? When do they unveil to the consumer what they owe them? Why don’t they have a yearly show to parade what they’ve been doing? Who are they accountable to outside of boardrooms and dry shareholder annual reports?

Undoubtedly there are good reasons and explanations as to why the enthusiasm for digital newness has quieted down in banking in the last few years: a lot is brewing and in the works; business models had to be re-examined and that’s no easy feat and, chief among them, most big banks are “closed for refurbishment” –  their backend systems were in no shape to carry all this digital experience magic and are being either replaced or covered up with other layers and a few very smart ones are also orchestrating cultural transformation behind those closed doors and that is a sine qua non condition to progress.

With that said, these objective reasons are nothing but excuses when in 2018, the consumer gets near-mind-readingly-helpful-level-AI in one app and the same lack of clarity as to what they can really afford to spend as they did in 2011, once they fire up their mobile bank.

Here are some user stories for the Innovation Epic – let’s stick them back on the backlog and prioritise them hard:

“As a consultant I want to stop being a demagogue, and give up using wooden language and business jargon bingo and instead be real and helpful so that I help banks progress”

“As an industry practitioner involved in the FinTech conversation I want to push the innovation agenda again with all my might so that we can all see real digital magic as the consumer deserves happen and bridge the gap between the offerings of technology giants and banks”

“As an innovative bank, I want to build delightful MoneyMoments instead of banking products so that my consumers can lead a better financial life”

“As a consumer of digital banking I want to have as simple, useful, satisfying, awesome experiences every time I interact with my bank as when I order something online so that I stay with them”

Agile – You’re doing it wrong

Thankfully, in our team, we have to waste no sleep on wondering if any organisation that has a software-connected output needs to do it any other way than by becoming intensely Agile fast.

Even more thankfully, the banks we work with, are crystal clear on that too. They are of course a small minority if we look at all the banks in the world and the only ones poised to develop true competitive advantage by using FinTech and delivering addictive propositions while their competitors still try to work out the connection.

Where we differ, even with these courageous visionaries is the definition of “becoming Agile”.

To some, as I’ve deplored many a times before, it’s a restructuring organisational effort or worse, a PR exercise, whereas the companies who really reap benefits from it in the Valley and elsewhere in the world, live and breath it.

If we imagine a continuum starting at “lip service” and ending in “religion” successful software houses are invariably closer to the latter than the former. And make no mistake about it, anyone who writes and manages even as much as a line of code in their organisation with the intention of making money is a software house. Furthermore, should your organisation be the elusive unicorn that has outsourced its every breath and is not a software house, you should still be Agile.

Nobody argues that fundamentally changing is easy or pleasant so there’s natural resistance even in these shops of best intentions.

Leadership says: “We already approved this Agile thing, it’s being done by HR and IT, we don’t need to know what it is”.

HR mutters: “We already reorganised the teams – isn’t that it?”

The former Prince certificate holders project management and development teams say: “We have a kanban board in the office/we do stand-ups/we have a Scrum master/someone is Product Owner/we are called a ‘tribe” – we’re clearly doing this”

The strategists theorise: “Why are we insisting on all these rules and processes, wasn’t Agile was about being on your toes and winging it”

At every level of the organisation there’s resistance and most of it is perfectly natural.

We are, after all,  asking professionals with years of education and experience to disregard it and go with their hearts and their guts instead. We are asking them to shake every learned habit and form new ones where they have to constantly be on their toes, constantly be curious, constantly dare and constantly and intensely dare. It’s by no means an easy ask, on the contrary it’s hard and exhausting and for now ingrate and we salute the ones who take the challenge on fully and forge ahead.

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For these cool pioneers who truly want to get it done – here’s a list of what to beware of in Agile transformations, in order to get it so right that it starts paying dividends faster

If you find yourself spending on armies of Agile coaches and Agile Enterprise Coaches – you’re doing it wrong. You’re only creating a shadow organisation with little chance of it ever dissolving to see yours stand on its own.

If only “some parts of the organisation” are Agile with no plan to roll it out overall – you’re doing it wrong. As we said time and again, Agile is a frame of mind not a software project delivery method, and it’s not only beneficial, but painfully needed at every level of the organisation.

If anyone is the “Still-guy” i.e. “still has a dual role”; “is still expected to be involved in regular projects” or “still works in the old way too” – you’re doing it wrong. This is not a special interest hobby or like that time when you had some office volunteers organise the annual Christmas party.

If you find yourself ever saying “we can’t go ahead with X, the budget for Agile stuff is finished” – you’re doing it wrong. Does that mean the budget for operating is out? Should you close doors? It’s simply a sign that Agile is a thing some department does with some money thrown its direction and not the real change it has to be in the minds of your leadership team.

If anyone is uncomfortable around topics and wording such as “heart/passion”, “purpose”, “courage/bravery” and finds them to be to be fluffy and un-corporate; if you never discuss whether or not your people are trained and willing to take personal responsibility and redefine ownership; if you spent no time on the WOT (Way of Thinking) to get the WOW (Way of Working)  – you’re doing it stupendously wrong.

If you scrolled past this post and thought “not for me, I have nothing to do with Agile” – you’re likely not doing much of anything right.

Bank X Series – The One with the Flip-Flop Banker

We’re sitting in a painfully bare conference room. A few of us and two of the banking Superheroes at the very top. He’s IT. She’s HR. They want so badly to see change happen, it’s both hopeful and cringeworthy to watch. We’ve known the bank and its fabric years but we’ve been talking for a few weeks intently and have a plan on what the levers are to see lasting change that preps them for all the promise of Open Banking and new customers paradigms starting with an organisation redesign around Agile. Today’s conversation is rehashing it and ensuring alignment. Just as we’re about to wrap up she says:

“But wait. What do we do about the other main priority?”

“Huh?”

“You know, the one saying we have trouble finding the right talent.”

Our hearts sink.

“It’s all connected, remember? You won’t be able to attract real talent -never mind keep them- if we don’t change the fundamentals of this culture that’s fearful, stifled and toxic.”

“Yeah…”

“This is why we have to quickly better the people you already have and give them the foundations to fall in love with this place and the consumer all over again.”

“Yeah no, of course, but it’s just that yesterday we lost our COO and there was an email right after reminding us of the recruitment objective…”

“Yup, we’re not ignoring that, just preparing for it. If we don’t do this ground work even if we find them they won’t stay any longer than the COO. Otherwise, and you said this yourself last week, it’s like inviting guests over without cleaning the house.”

“Yes, no, sure, just wondering if we can put a program in motion to review our current recruitment policies and show we’re working on that OKR, my P&L review is coming up soon…”

I’d be lying if I said this was surprising or singular.

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When you fight for significant, meaningful change in our industry it becomes the norm for bankers to alternate between incommensurably excited and heartbreakingly despondent on an hourly basis. The concepts that link it all at a strategic level are nebulous because even at the top of banks, helicopter view and an understanding of the whole organism, is neither required nor encouraged.

This is at the heart of what creates the insidious silos. It’s tempting to think they are just an organisational issue. That, if we magically did away with hierarchies, departments, teams and P&Ls as we know them, then the segregation of thought and purpose would cease. It wouldn’t. The tendency to not see further than one’s own KPIs is now so deeply seated into the banks’ leaders, that these silos live within them.

In our practice we constantly wonder no only what we can do best to see deep change, but most efficiently, fastest. We’re likely a lot more aware of the time imperative of the transformation than the bankers themselves, and while we found it frustrating at first, we now know that a lack of understanding of urgency, along with the lack of comprehension about the overall picture, are nothing but defence mechanisms bankers employ.

Last year in “The Banker and the Sour Grapes” I spoke about this cognitive dissonance that I have observed in bankers.

” [..] the banker may think “I believe I am a good at my job, surrounded by good people and knowledgeable enough about FinTech that I accept fast changes need to occur in our digital proposition so I am working hard to ensure we make them fast enough to keep our customers happy.” BUT they also say to themselves “I know that I am part of a nearly paralysed monolithic structure that is slow to come up with newness and implement it, and that all the agile new challengers will bypass us on the race to the consumer no matter what I do.

In this instance the discrepancy between cerebral and emotional and between hopeful and desperate that I was witnessing, was centred around the customer-facing proposition, but it’s no different when it comes to the banking leaders’ views about their organisation.

They both “get it” and “don’t”. They both dearly want progress and crave the status quo. They are simultaneously (if sequentially) courageous and utterly stuck – frozen not only by the organisation but their own thought patterns.

This dissociation is necessary for survival. Constantly keeping their eye on the ball and understanding the soul of the problem in a place that’s as slow as banking is, would be too painful so it’s no surprise bankers eschew it.

If we consider the enormity of the task at hand – “Understand and employ technology, while you simultaneously understand and better your people to create amazing experiences for the consumer and do it NOW” in an environment that is not only ingrate but possibly punitive when anything threatens the de facto status quo, it’s no surprise few put their hands up to do it. It’s even less surprising that when they do, they need constant reminding of the bigger picture, cheerleading and reassurance.

Personally, I have learned so many lessons on this quest for banking better.

I’ve learned that just because something is common sense it doesn’t mean it counts as self-evident and doable.

I’ve discovered that just because we all get intensely excited about the same fundamental truths about the organisation or the consumer, it doesn’t immediately follow we’re equally willing to do something about either.

Frustratingly, nay painfully, I now know that just because someone is the brave warrior type, it doesn’t mean they won’t have moments when the spark in their eyes vanishes and leaves way to the glazed look of “I only have 2 more years in this role, how many hours till 5pm?”.

Most importantly, my “festina lente” lesson – I’ve learned to replace my “Oh FFS!!!” exasperated eye-rolls with a half-patient “Right, let’s look at this again” then go back to helping them shake the dissonance.