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.


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.


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