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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.

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.

Buzzwords

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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.

Agile is not comfortable

An excellent article written recently about how we must stop thinking of Agile as software delivery and understand it as the new way of thinking that it is, was referencing the fact that one of the major complaints practitioners of Agile have is that nothing is “ever DONE” and that developers and managers alike yearn for their post waterfall project completion downtime. This is true and very interesting.

It’s interesting because in just one symptom it exposes a systemic issue we have in our work places today: an ingrained expectation of things working a certain kind of way. That way sadly revolves around organisational ills and ailments as much as it does around structures and processes we no longer need.

Concepts such as 9-5 work days, hierarchies and the resulting monkey throwing games as well as the detailed and extreme planning before any execution, are deeply seated into the mentality of just about any professional in the work force today. We are now asking them to do things differently. If we want them (and ourselves) to succeed, we have to be honest and explore how extremely different this is from their habits and expectations.

In a corporate environment most people are stripped of individuality. This is true across the board. Even at executive level, personal responsibility, ownership and courage are far from given. Once you step inside the organisation you feel like you are a clog in a big mechanical organism and therefore you find ways to be human in between mandated processes and directives.

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When a long, often times harrowing, incomprehensible and frustratingly slow project is done in a big organisation, that is the time for employees to breath in a huge sigh of relief and wait for the next un-relatable task to be bestowed upon them. Usually, they failed to understand why they were doing this in the first place, why they were doing it in what seemed to be the most painful way imaginable, and certainly, why it had to take twice as long and have everyone fear for their lives. The end of a classic waterfall project is like the end of an initial scene of horror movie sprint away from the imminent threat when the movie-makers still want us to believe they stand a chance, with characters on the ground, panting, filled with loathing and dread but pleased they survived. For now. It’s done. It’s trauma over they can begin to heal.

In Agile practices that moment never comes. But neither did the trauma. This isn’t the ordeal a waterfall project is. This is another way of seeing what all needs doing the fastest, to keep making cool things for the end consumer.  Developers and managers alike can’t rely on the downtime coming from the delivery sign-off anymore, they need to instead learn to be adults and get their own ways to decompress when they know they need them, to keep going and be sustainable in lieu of waiting for the flaws of the system and process to offer them.

In corporations, we not only fall down flat at the end of a project race but take any process or tool flaw or misgiving, as an opportunity to take a breather. The missing license, the machine that broke, the colleague who “has the ball”, the impediment that hasn’t cleared, the approval not having come through, the other guys not answering, etc. All of them breathers. Times to dissociate and wait while someone else has the monkey. Of course humans have to rest. In the old way of work, this rest comes when the system lets them down.

Sometimes the system fallacies even give way to another intensely human behaviour. Moaning about things not working. It has become the only humanity moment in a work life where we repeat acronyms and platitudes ad nausea. We need the stuff that goes wrong because then we can do the complaining that unites us.

This is the most vicious of circles we will have to break to truly become Agile in big organisations: in the waterfall old ways of work, the system relentlessly reinforces processes and ideas that are fundamentally broken and to survive it, employees reinforce the usage of the broken bits themselves. That’s why we need to hit the big “reset” button. That’s why we can’t “introduce Agile in parallel” as a hobby or a side project.

With that said, one fallacy I see a lot of these days, is the presumption that the tension between waterfall versus agile is perfectly resolved in start-ups (and implicitly in our industry, in challenger banks). Much as they would like to have you believe they are intensely nimble, new outfits sometimes struggle too.

Let’s be honest: Agile doesn’t come easily and naturally – in particular to consummate professions who have spent many years in corporate environments before starting on their own and have to show investors they have all the answers.

I say this often but Agile is not for IT. It’s for the whole organisation. Every department everywhere will work this way. It’s not for “the new kids” – it’s too beneficial to wait for a change of guard so anyone with as much as 5 years left before retirement had better learn how to become a practitioner or prepare to fail.

Truth be told, we like Agile on paper but in practice, it’s hard and seemingly counter-intuitive for anyone who has worked in the old style of work across the board not only in corporations but in start-ups too.

Agile is asking people to:

Be ballsy – this can go wrong in so many ways, there’s so much unknown and scary “what-ifs” we have little to no experience in dealing with.

Be “always on” – no backlog item can be left un-debated, nothing can be done on automatic pilot with no thought invested.

Be creative – things they’ve known and tried may well not work again. Everything is changing and that’s disconcerting and scary but once they see the value of spotting the new way, having a crazy thought or trying out a new path, everything is easier.

Be “owner” – once they move that ticket on the board (or get their name against it in Jira or Trello) they must feel like that were the most crucial task of an imaginary start-up they are the CEO of.

Be open minded – don’t take it personally, be prepared to be challenged, questioned and second-guessed whether you’re a product owner or one of the team. By others and yourself.

None of those asks have ever been asked of our workers before, and none of them come naturally. No one can blend in as a clog in a big organisation and wait for the blessed relief of the end of the horror movie chase. It’s not easy. It’s not comfortable.

Things to try in order to manage the uncomfortable:

Celebrate small victories. From doing an internal happy dance when something is moved to the “Done” column to having team beers after a velocity win, every time we achieve something we should take stock and take pride. It’s a hard lesson to learn as compared to the annual stakeholder meeting or the yearly performance review but Agile gives us reason for often, incremental joy and we should use it.

Take breaks, work at your own pace. Teaching people to respect themselves enough to learn and stand up for their own rhythm is paramount. Don’t let people yearn for the waterfall delivery point. Is it a sprint? Yes but sometimes picking up just the one ticket is judicious and wise and the team needs to see it that way and support it. There’s no risk of that opening the door for anyone taking advantage because the size of the team would quickly expose that. Can we afford to let people have their own pace when the very reason we do Agile is to be fast to market? Absolutely – you can only win the collective race if every player is irreplaceable so they each took their own marathon seriously.

Keep the heart. Always go back to “religion”. Why are we doing this? What are we making here? How will the end user feel when they get their hands on this? True customer centricity is building something you intensely believe will make your end users happy and then reminding your team and more importantly, reminding yourself of that on a sprint basis.

Remember the alternative. Keep comparing. If you were to ADDIE this when would you be done and when would your competitors be out?

Praise as a practice. Teams who learn the value of praise end up turning the criticism in retrospects and evaluations into positives – because identifying what went South and talking about it is a major win that deserves smiles.

Don’t punish but shoot straight. Organisations that change the culture of sanction and create psychological safety win. When something goes wrong it just ticks off a bad-turn off the list. This is a tricky one though because in this day and age of Political Correctness craze, many outfits confuse psychological safety with non-straight-forward communication. Agile is nothing if not honest, open hearted dialogue. Hiding behind being PC language is fear, speaking from the heart but knowing it lands well and it’s well received and constructive to the team is the courage we need in Agile.

The last one is not an immediate fix but one that I believe we need either way. It won’t help replace old ways of work with the WoW du jour but it’s the only succession planning we should spend time thinking of – mentality and how our next generations, unblemished by corporatitis and competing with automation can make themselves indispensable.

Pre-load Agile into our kids. We need to catch ourselves before our understanding of hierarchy and the value of extreme and complete planning sip into the new generations. They are the tabula rasa that will succeed if we instil the right way of thinking.

No Timmy, you can’t start on this science project before you’ve written down the plan for building it in detail, laid out all your utensils and ensured you have the time and tools to build your helicopter.

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A helicopter sounds cool. Which bits of it do you already have or can you make right now as we’re discussing it? Here, I’ll draw a helipad on this piece of paper and if you can tie those pencils together you have the propeller. If you list all the bits in this Backlog column you can already move “helipad” and “propeller” to the “Done” column and pick another part.

Fast forward 3-40 years and hopefully the educational system would have caught up too and the few humans still employed would have had their formal thinking processes structured around these new values but for now, we should all roll our sleeves, interact openly and teach each other.

This is not an exhaustive and immutable list of invaluable advice. Just some idea-cards from the “Change antiquated way of work” board moved from the “Stuff that may make transition easier“column, into the “Currently trying out” column that you can click “Duplicate” on.

Dear Banker – Check Yoself…

“Leadership Checklists” – yesterday at a bank, an exec asked me if we have any of those in the programs we offer to banks. We don’t. We possibly should do although one would argue leaders are (highly skilled professional) adults who ought to have at least a version of an informal one in the back of their heads. So what should it contain? And if it’s such common sense, do we have one ourselves? Turns out we do.

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We do a lot of own dog food eating at Emotional Banking. It wasn’t even a conscious, culture preserving and brand furthering decision but an accidental but very important fact.

We tell some of the leaders and employees of hugely successful international organisations that they need to cut the BS and they *must* become obsessed with Passion, Knowledge and Courage. Every day. In every way. So we must do so ourselves.

The passion bit is simple. As a small boutique consultancy, everyone new who comes into the team must be all heart just as us founders.

Should they be lacking on knowledge we put them through the same program we do our top bankers in our Build-a-Voice program, where we lead them to what is known as The-Fountain-of-Eternal-FinTech-Knowledge, aka reading the right outlets and being in the right social media conversations. Only the leading (and habit formation) are necessary. Once there, as the banking execs that we work with do, they become entranced – FinTech is addictive. The complexity is fascinating, the topics are both seemingly theoretical and intensely personal once you apply a CX lens to them, and the community is feisty and active.

For us founders staying engaged and curious is not as natural. For one thing, objectivity favoured and modesty aside, we know a whole lot – so to find topics that are utterly new and challenging requires a lot more work. For another, curiosity can sometimes feel like quite the luxury when you’re running a busy practice and trying to change the world, but we work at it and we got disciplined enough to institute a “Curiosity Day” – no emails, no conference calls, no day-to-day operations – just reading all the things we’ve bookmarked over the week and nevergot the time to return to again and being submerged in the conversation. It makes going down the rabbit hole from link to link fully justified and never has it passed without a few “OMG!!! moments” coming out of it.

It’s tempting to schedule anything of the sort as a weekend or evening activity. I think that’s a mistake. It gives it an air of illicit extracurricular activity when it is the opposite. I often tell banks who think it’s a good idea and they would also like to implement a “Curiosity Day” to go to great lengths to police that people don’t just fall into familiar habits of endless meetings and snoozing conference calls on that day, and to keep an eye on their news consumption.

It doesn’t come natural, in today’s work environment, it’s counter-intuitive that your employer would pay you “to do nothing” that day and we spend so much time feeling guilty in our work lives, that the last thing we need is another reason to do so.  What employee must understand and believe is that this is not “nothing” though. This is “THE THING”, the very thing your employer needs you for. Because you know and because you care.

The third pillar we constructed our methods on, is Courage. We spend a lot of time thinking how that applies to organisations and how it applies to people. We debate whether it’s more or less valuable depending on various factors such as the position someone has, the project they are in charge of, the composition of the team, their personality, their performance expectation, the industry they are in.

Of all those, seniority is the most likely correlation – on first examination it stands to reason that the higher up in the hierarchy someone is, the more likely it is that they need to have the courage to make big decisions, with ample implications. Therefore the “Courage Works” workshops we roll out should really just be Leadership Development work.

This isn’t strictly true. Lower echelons need as much -if not more, in some cases- bravery to accomplish tasks that are uncomfortable but worthwhile to themselves. Considering they have a lot less practice putting themselves out there, and that reporting to shareholders is a bit less clear and present danger than “what will my boss Bill say when he seems me speak out in this email thread?!”, the workshops should ideally be rolled out for everyone in the organisation.

When it comes to us, this dog food is the one that fascinates me the most, because it shows me every day that the limits and application of courage are elastic.

One would argue I’m one of the most irreverent, direct and outspoken people in the industry, but I still strictly refer to an internal courage check-list. I ask myself if I was 110% honest every time. I wonder if I should have spoken up and stopped that banker or pushed the other one. I worry that I was too soft or not soft enough and whether that was out of lack of bravery.  I always check if my execution was as courageous as the plan.

Then I learned that courage is personal too once you have a constant foundation of it. You have to ensure you have it there, always ready as a stepping stone and then refine it so that it fits who you are and what you are accomplishing. For me, the older I get (and this week is the last in my 30s!:() and the more I surround myself with people who are good counterbalances to my impulsivity and I learn more and more about “judicious courage” – the kind that is wise and purposeful and not gratuitous. Being courageous for the sake of it is reckless, always having the courageous action on the barrel but stopping to a second to consider it again, not out of fear but out of wisdom, is magic.

So we do have a check-list and you are welcome to it. A very short one.

Have I learned anything new and valuable this week?

Have I always had courage on the barrel?

Do I still believe in this with all my heart?

Wishing you all a 3-yes’s week.