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.

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.

You can’t have WOW without the WOT

I know few people more in love with the principles behind Agile and Lean than yours truly. I’m sure more exist, but in our side of the woods, where we do banking, (some would add: “by the numbers”), we think of Agile as just another method conveniently confined to IT and the way they make software.

In reality it’s immensely far from that confined definition and it means much more than that.

Agile is not only for IT

In fact, our beloved “growth” is heavily contingent on agility across the board and the ability to use data and technology to quickly and flexibly respond to new market reactions.

Countless figures support the fact that businesses who use agile in every type of endeavour set themselves up for being on the right growth path, and that is no different for a bank.

There is no reason why every project in a bank be it regulatory, operational, digital proposition or the annual BBQ can’t be run on a Kanban board. Banks who can’t see that as at least a goal, are not only missing on the possible results, but containing the practice to only one part of the organisation which is simultaneously a pity and a signal that they think of it in isolation and on a small scale.

Agile is not project management or software development, agile is a transformative new way of looking at how we do things. All the things.

Agile is not reorg

While good for business for us in Emotional Banking, the number of de-facto air quotes around various transformation efforts by some of the banks we work with, is nothing short of staggering.

Invariably the story is the same. A couple of years ago, the bank has bought into some consultancy’s pack and decided to “become Agile” and within months has let people know they no longer belong to the existent structures such as departments and groups but are now part of tribes, own products or are all “engineers” -at least two examples come to mind where banks are mighty insistent on the blanket title change-.

Armed with courses to become Scrum masters, YouTube videos on XP and a Jira corporate license, armies of people now pray for the daily stand-ups to wrap up already so that they can go back to business as usual.

Agile is not a set of practices

This bit should be immensely self explanatory considering the Agile manifesto but all too often it isn’t. Using the supporting software and practices that Agile uses simply for the sake of ticking a box, in lieu as a means to support a thought pattern, is ludicrous but sadly widely spread.

Tools and processes in the absence of a strong purpose foundation are dangerous indeed as they tend to take over and guide how people do their work in all aspects, in an inertia of practice that ultimately accomplishes nothing.

In one bank we work with who is particularly implements heavy and practice light, we’re messaging around “You can be Agile with just pen, paper and good will” hoping to reset their people’s mindets.

Agile is a religion

If we stop and break down what the ideas behind these methodologies are, we inevitably find they hinge on people. Collaboration, empathy, good will, purpose, they are all in-built in understanding that to make all the intended greatness happen, this is the fastest and most organised way.

That principle must be sacrosanct for Agile to work. One must believe strongly in the possibility and desirability of accomplishing things faster by working together, staying alert and responsible, and driving forward with emotional investment.

Organisations that don’t and implement it as a meaningless fad, inevitably fail to see results. Banks that have their people lead tribes as a second job, those that think of the agile practice as a hobby or extracurricular activity, while expecting everyone to still function as usual will have sorely missed on the promise.

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Agile is a way of thinking and a state of mind

One of the things I say to the new people in my team as well as to bankers is that “unless you have a Trello board for your house chores you don’t get Agile”.

Having an intensely personally relevant A-ha! moment where the advantages of doing things in this new way are glaringly obvious, is a sine qua non condition to making the most of it.

Which is why, organisations that simply mandate it and do nothing to elicit those moments in each and every participant end up having massive Agile shadow organisations composed of armies of consultants and coaches to help them go through meaningless motions and wonder why they can’t accomplish Google velocity.

In a way, Agile is like Yoga (I recognise this comparison will lose you burly, weight-lifting types but stick with it) – it doesn’t change who you are, it places you into new positions where you take shapes you didn’t know you could, in order to access the parts of you that were great to begin with, but have been encumbered with dogma and process. Furthermore, just like Yoga does with timing, breathing and movement, Agile too involves continuous intentionality and affirmation.

To push the comparison even further, doing a spot of Yoga by the sea on the beach of your all-inclusive hotel on vacation while waiting for the others to wake up, doesn’t mean you have a practice and the flexibility and results that come with having one.

Let’s go back to basics, the Agile Manifesto’s values are:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools AKA “People First”
Working software over comprehensive documentation AKA “Making things”
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation AKA “Empathy and Purpose”
Responding to change over following a plan AKA “Flexibility and Acuity”

All the goodness that banks have chased for so long: software delivery that supports customer centricity in a timely manner by using the human capital, AKA making things that clients love, fast, by using their people, is contained in this manifesto. And it’s not a new fangled thing we’re only trying out in banking either, it has served everyone from tech giants to big organisations in other industries immensely well for years, with mind blowing results.

For all my eternal moaning against acronyms these are two I hold dear- WOT – Way of Thinking and the sine qua non condition to the WOW – Way of Work that Agile heralds. Having seen the wasted potential that comes from trying to gain one without altering the other, we’re adamant “You can’t have WOW without the WOT” and we repeat this ad nausea to bank execs on a daily basis together with the coveted velocity, RTF, NPS and proposition ROI metrics. We do this because we need them to “get it” – truly, genuinely, get it. Use it. Practice it. Trust it.

Which brings us to the crux of the issue. TRUST.

Can banks trust Agile to be one of the few silver bullets to give them a shortcut to a competitive consumer proposition that ensures they retain the relationship in a time where they are under attack by other proposition makers who are more nimble and willing?

Can banks trust their own people to undertake the hardest task given to them in their professional career and send them a message to:

“Please embrace this, stop waterfalling in your head to pass the time in the stand-up meeting, stop wondering whose departmental P&L this is, throw away what you know of this organisation and start taking personal responsibility, act with purpose as if this is your own shop, keep an eye on the helicopter view, you’re part of it, rely on others, make things fast, be willing to take risk and fail, believe that you will not be held back or punished for it, have passion for what you make, understand how every item on the backlog translates to real life goodness for the consumer and above all keep practicing courage“?

More importantly, can bankers trust their bank to mean it?