Contrary to what your mother told you: banking reality checks and other fables
Once upon a time you were little.
Once upon a time you were anything-and-everything-in-waiting. And your mama told you, you could be anything you put your mind to. Because you are special. And although your mama didn’t lie to you, what she told you doesn’t actually bind the world. It doesn’t create a cosmic obligation that it should be so. You are not that special. You are not that different. You can’t be everything. And although you can still be anything, time is running out and the way there is neither simple nor linear.
Mama didn’t say it would be this way, perhaps, but there you have it.
You are not that special
Of course this is a piece about digitisation.
And it came to be because I was at an event recently and three people came up to me separately after my talk to tell me how brilliant I was but how none of it applied to them. One felt they were exempt from disruption because they were in investment banking, the fluffy fears of retail did not touch them. One because they operated in a country where the regulator still raised barriers to entry. And one because he would retire soon. None of them were the first of their kind, to tell me how they were different. How their situation was special.
To all I say: pah.
You are not that special.
You are not exempt.
It is coming for everyone so it is coming for you. And if you see other people’s disruption as other people’s problems because you are special and different then you are just like the proverbial man in the flood who berated god for not giving a sign after news crews had beamed and rescue crews had knocked on the door. No said the man. I am special. My faith will save me from the flood. Missing every warning sign and opportunity to be indeed both special and safe.
So if you think you and your sliver of the industry are special and different because of complexity, the price tag of previous IT investment or the greyness of your suits; if you think your special status means you are blissfully exempt from the onslaught of change, I’m afraid I have bad news for you. Mama didn’t lie exactly. You are special. But special is as special does. It wasn’t a hall pass. It was a call to action.
You can’t be everything
We like optionality. We like knowing we are not trapped. We like knowing we have options and choices and avenues ahead. And when it came to digital transformation we, as an industry, did everything in our power to retain the option of being everything and doing everything… potentially… perhaps. Pilots and POCs running in parallel with no market-readiness roadmap or intention. Conferences attended with the fierceness of an addict.
Events hosted. Small investments made. Research commissioned on what technology we should be looking at. Not what business opportunities, no. What tools, what tech, what stuff so that we can at all times be there, ready and informed, triumphant against the most basic form of corporate FOMO.
But as you are signing off on the travel expenses of an army of team members boarding planes for events the world over, as you are signing off on an AI pilot, the latest blockchain pilot, a machine learning pilot on top of your chatbot and an RPA implementation for cost reduction; as you hire design thinking coaches and agile coaches and UX folks to sit alongside the newly-arrived Kafka team, surely you are registering that it’s all getting rather expensive. Expensive and exhausting as more activity doesn’t translate to more progress. And with no focus, the attempt at being everything leaves you exactly nowhere, compromising business drivers and creating an army of people who are de-skilling themselves while playing with the coolest stuff.
You can’t be everything. Your mama didn’t lie exactly. She thought you would take it in the spirit in which it was intended: don’t feel that you have to make a certain choice. Choose anything. But choose, already.
You can be anything. But it will get messy.
Making choices in a changing environment is hard. There are no guarantees. There are no fail-safes. Plus the rules of the game are also changing.
In banking, authority was historically tied to experience and expertise. With new things coming at us at an unprecedented pace, what we know is fast going out of date. We have the choice to become enthusiastic polymaths, curious amateurs soaking up new knowledge but mostly we allow our executives to react to new stuff on the basis of feeling and instinct. What I know and how I feel are the proverbial rock and the hard place.
Between them lies the only place that matters. The place where you start not knowing but resolutely don’t want to stay there. The learning place. The awkward phase of a wallflower learning to dance.
Be it someone reflecting on their behaviour for the first time, a dev team trying to capture requirements for the first time or a bank trying to launch its first data-driven product. You will mess it up. You are meant to.
Until we accept that, we don’t stand a chance.
I know banking executives are shocked at how chaotic and disorganised some design phases feel, how many times you scrap stuff and go back to the beginning. So we tend to conceal that from view. For their peace of mind and ours.
It’s time we stopped.
If we all agree we want to dance, then learning to dance is essential. You can do it with a teacher or in front of your bathroom mirror. You can trial and error behind closed doors or iterate with your customers. You can reflect on your own or get reality checks from friends.
Whatever you do, your software and your character will improve if you accept that learning is essential and while it takes place it is awkward, messy and non linear.
That’s what your mother was talking about. When she said you were special. That you could make it through the messy phase and do and be anything you like, on the other side. So get going.
By Leda Glyptis
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
Leda is a lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem, inhabiting both start-ups and banks over the years. She is a roaming banker and all-weather geek.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!