Banks Won’t Eat Challengers’ Dog Food But That’s Not Who’s Coming For Their Lunch

<Reproduced with kind permission from Forbes>

The Bubble of Banking

“Get out of the building” was such trendy advice a few years ago and now everyone is barricaded in their building.

Being told to look at other industries elicited many a gratuitous Silicon Valley excursions from bankers around the world which were invariably sprung on by lofty aspirations of doing the same things as the champions only to be drowned by seemingly reassuring remarks on how that simply doesn’t apply to banking. 

These days those trips are rarer and rarer which is a blessing and a curse.

Is it maybe that we don’t get out so that we don’t see how far behind we are digital user experience wise?

What’s most concerning is that traditional banks are not the only ones inside the bubble anymore but challengers are heading that was as well.

It’s nothing short of tragic to see some of them having but moments ago left their privileged first-principles design position and having now gotten utterly stuck in whatever they produced, often so blinded by the reality of day-to-day operations that instead of their current offering being a first pit stop at the end of a design sprint it becomes their main offering.

There is no doubt that it’s understandable – for challengers day-to-day doesn’t only involve running a bank which is what incumbents cite doing with such sacrifice but running a small business that needs to show its worth under extreme scrutiny as well. It’s tough.

A tale of two different tragedies – the challengers having to make a start-up thrive and the bankers having to budge an almost impenetrable mass of legacy tech and legacy culture. None an enviable position. None poised to build any lasting wins for the consumer.

Where are my MoneyMomentsTM

No one wanted challengers in the UK to succeed more than me. Over the years I’ve penned a couple of open letters which aimed to keep the snark level low and the constructive advice level high. Granted, a lofty goal for me, but my delivery shouldn’t have obscured the main message a plea for them to build solid technology pillars, take aggregation seriously, buy or build extremely capable categorization and data capabilities and above all, forget about banking products as they know them and design from scratch for addictive money moments.

Needless to say and not to burst the bubble of our newly enthused American friends who celebrate the announced imminent import of some of those propositions this week, none of that happened.

If you unpack most challengers today, they are rapidly building legacy of their own both in technology and in the way they are building the organization, having skipped steps and cut corners in their hurry to put out an app with some pleasing design accompanied by the best looking card they can think of and greater a sin still, with the exception of the unrealised promise of the budding challengers who aspire to become platforms, gave us precisely the same thing high street banks did.

Not a MoneyMoment in sight. How do l know they aren’t building any? Well ask yourself, with all the permissions every app ever asks for, why hasn’t any challenger asked to read your health data or at least your Calendar or your TripIt information? How are they to build integrated, contextual experienced when their transactional data is largely untouched and unaugmented with meaning and their data from other sources inexistent?

They aren’t. Truth is it’s not necessarily more likely that they will start doing so any sooner than the next NatWest app update. 

License to snooze

It’s a lot grimmer for the success of the challengers than we have collectively hoped for in the industry with advocates faith diminishing and mass adoption lacking but does that mean that incumbents should breathe a sigh of relief and carry on with JP Nicols’ trademarked “innovation theaters” and ever stronger “business prevention” departments?

Only if they’re ready to be out of the game because the extinction threat doesn’t come from colorful cards and incrementally better digital apps but entirely new ways of interacting with finances that will insidiously and mercifully insert themselves in our every day digital lives through buying behaviour and relevant advice and the guys who can and will provide this only have to click to make it happen.

Amazon Is Not Too Big To Fail And Neither Are You

<Reproduced with kind permission from Forbes>

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Self-awareness or sensationalism?

It’s not the first time he says it but last week Jeff Bezos has reiterated that he is convinced Amazon can and indeed will, fail.

“One day, Amazon will fail,” he said, “…we have to delay that day for as long as possible”. Framed this way, this is no longer a case of “IF” but of “WHEN”.

The metrics that show how the company founded in 1994 is now perhaps the best example of success in growing with a purpose and making money while at it, are impossible to doubt. Amazon is winning today by any measurement, its ascension the stuff of dreams not only for budding entrepreneurs but many of its competitors.

Why does it need to then concern itself with this impending death talk?

The answer lies in the myriad of examples of recent history to show that not thinking under those terms is a mortal sin. Giants that thought their size is protection enough against any type of failure have perished in many industries, most succumbing to the pressure of new consumer demands and digitization.

One could fill books with quotes from press releases and shareholder meetings from CEOs that spoke of their confidence in the future right before falling on their sword. Whatever you think of Bezos at the very least, he can always claim this monumental “I told you so” should he have prevented Amazon’s heralded demise. But how will he do so?

Amazon’s Knowledge, Passion, and Courage

Moving away from analyzing why big companies are afraid to look death straight into its hollow eyes we should instead look at what Amazon has put in place thanks to this self-awareness to prevent it.

Amazon values knowledge.

It doesn’t only meticulously insist on the highest caliber of people when bringing in each and every of its now 600,000 employees but encourages them to keep learning and demands continuous proof of critical thinking.

“Memos over PowerPoint”

It’s wildly reported but surprisingly un-mimicked in other boardrooms that Amazon prefers memos over PowerPoint. Every meeting starts with a period of silence where effectively everyone studies the problem at hand by reading a verbose, descriptive and hopefully succinctly all-encompassing memo about the topic at hand instead of looking at a series of slides with bullet points.

“Full sentences are harder to write. There is no way to write a six-page narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.” and having that clear thinking and presentation of the knowledge puts everyone on the same page from the start.

When it comes to passion it’s undeniable that Bezos thinks Amazon needs to have it as a sine-qua-non condition of success.

“Obsess over Customers”  

Reminding his employees that they have more in the way of a higher purpose than their tech giants competitors is a Bezos trademark.

“We have a good story to tell – we Improve the lives of consumers”. He bundles that with the need to elevate the concern for the consumer to obsession level as a basic survival technique and every executive in a large corporation around the world would do well to truly take that message to heart past the mere “customer centricity” empty promises to shareholders.

“There is no work-life balance”

“It’s not a balance, it’s a circle” he argued bemoaning that the idea of balance is debilitating because it involves a strict demarcation that shouldn’t be there. Going against the school of thought that advocates that employees must protect the sanctity of some extreme imaginary boundaries between work and life, what Bezos is advocating is not a state of perpetual work and no relaxation as his critics would like to claim but instead a blend between the two that brings true contentment to a passionate employee.

Finally, let’s look at how Amazon values Courage

“Every day at Amazon is Day 1”

What time in a company’s life better encompasses both enthusiasm and immeasurable courage than the day it starts? Bezos is so insistent that “Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance and painful decline. Followed by death” that he does all he can to remind his people to stay in the mental space of Day 1 and even went as far as to rename the building on campus where he works “Day 1” and reportedly when he changed buildings he had the name follow.

It would behoove executives of large organizations to even imagine “day 1” of their company’s life and role play reliving it by vividly and regularly imagining what it would be like to start from scratch – what grit and bravery it would require.


“Disagree and Commit”

Having the courage to make decisions is the cornerstone of innovation and the foundation of speed for companies that want to keep moving ahead.

At Amazon, the focus is intentionally shifted from how correct a decision is,  to how fast it can be achieved and so velocity becomes a key success indicator that is handsomely rewarded.

“If you’re good at course correcting, being wrong may be less costly thank you think whereas being slow is going to be expensive for sure,” Bezos writes in support of the speed demand.

Nothing better signals to employees that there is enough trust invested in them and enough Google-coined workplace “psychological safety” than the expectation of decisions being achieved with speed and in the absence of all the data that would have removed risk.

Decisions are seen as being either “Type 1 – non-reversible” or “Type 2 – reversible” and a balance between the two is encouraged with velocity still being praised in lieu of proportion with passionate debate highly encouraged but cut-off points in the decision making process are encouraged early. It just means “Look, we disagree on this, but will you gamble with me on it?” asking everyone to be brave and invested.

Having the knowledge to frame a problem with considered, literate wording, the need to continuously and incessantly think of the consumers and ways to make their lives better and do so as if you’re just starting out, with the passion of a start-up founder and the courage of a rapid decision maker is what will delay Amazon’s death not its balance sheet and we can seek to stay alive by religiously applying their lessons in winning.

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.


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.