A dose of Hegel, banking edition
In Hegel’s view, the essence of tragedy is conflict.
Not a moral conflict between right and wrong. But conflict between right and right.
A bit heavy for a Thursday morning?
It sums up our lives and it’s time we face up to what it means in order to move forward.
A decade of false dichotomies
Those of us who have been in the game long enough, have been playing around with false dichotomies for what feels like a lifetime or two – either fighting them or succumbing to them to get things moving, things done, to get people on the same page.
Bank vs start-up.
Agility vs stability.
Scale vs flexibility.
Any techie would tell you the last two are nonsense and any business major would tell you the former is not useful as a heuristic tool. And yet. We have tried to find the differences between what we know, have and are and what is coming down the pipe. And for a very long time we tried desperately to vilify the new stuff as unstable, naive, non-scalable, not secure. Some time with reason. Mostly not. And always with the ulterior motive of securing for ourselves the comfort of the moral high ground.
It didn’t work.
The world changed anyway. New technologies have completely removed the tension between scale, stability and security on the one side and agility, speed and modularity on the other.
As for the bank vs start-up malarkey, the startups who made it have achieved scale and now play a very different game, making the juxtaposition as laughable as it was redundant.
Zero sum games and unicorns
So what? I hear you ask.
We’ve been doing this wrong so far, that’s what.
We have been hoping to find winners. Be it finding winning strategies for our institutions at the expense of the “other” coming our way, or at least finding winning bets to back in order to hedge in the face of so much uncertainty. And there have been some victories. A few unicorns. Some amazing investments. The odd differentiating implementation. Some money has been made. Strides have been made.
Even for the winners, the game is not over and that is the point.
The winning bet was not a forever story. It was not a happily ever after, at the macro business level (for the individual millionaire it may well be a case of namaste and off to a tropical paradise, but that’s not the story I am interested in, much as I wish them well). There were no silver bullets, boys and girls. Even for those who found a unicorn, the story continues.
They scored a victory but they haven’t won in a way that means the effort is over. They haven’t triumphed. The ball is still in play.
In defence of bankers
Bear with me.
I am a recovering banker (14 months clean) and it is no secret that I have often defended the indecisiveness, the false starts, the hedging. Not because I think it’s a good idea but because I realise what we are trying to do, as an industry.
Hell, as a society.
It is hard.
What we are trying to do is hard.
People making mistakes, losing heart, seeking comfort and reassurance is normal.
However, in light of the above, I am reflecting that, actually, bankers deserve a bit of a defence because they are not trying to pick their way between right and wrong any more like we thought a few years ago. They are trying to balance right and right (your pension today; their survival tomorrow); they are trying to choose between many seemingly right options. They know they have to change. But which direction will best serve them is unknowable. The various paths and investments that present themselves are all potentially viable. All potentially meaningful. But at odds with each other.
Strategically (their monetisation models clash) or tactically (you can’t do everything at once).
And as time drags out and big bets are yet to come, people are polarising. People are becoming entrenched. “This thing”, whatever it may be, becomes the only thing that will solve everything.
Whatever it is.
And it becomes an internal battle for resources and mind share inside the bank.
A battle for a single winner.
A battle between right and right.
But no less brutal for it.
Two wrongs don’t make a right. Neither do two rights.
I am not building up to a simple crisp answer here.
If one exists, I don’t have it.
I am just stating the obvious, as always, because I do feel that the industry is at a tipping point. We have done a lot. Learned a lot. Made some mistakes – not enough if you ask me, caution has been the byword of the last decade, but no matter, some mistakes are better than none.
We have moved forward. But not far enough and not fast enough. And now there is so much to learn. So much to digest. So much to grapple with.
Of money. Time. Mindshare.
Changing regulations and changing business viability.
How do you make money? How do you stay afloat? What do you do first? What do you do next?
We have learned that entrenchment and holding onto to the past and the way things used to be and trying to kill change is the two wrongs that didn’t make a right.
So we are changing our tune. We are looking for the Truth. The Answer. The Right that makes itself.
And we are looking for it with the same fervour we had when we thought it was Them and Us.
But it doesn’t work.
So as we look for the right thing for our organisation, let’s make it a lower case “r”.
One right thing among many.
One right thing among many that could work. That will work. That will need to be done. There are some wrong answers but we won’t know what they are until we make some more mistakes. And there are many right answers.
And the less entrenched we are, the faster we will move forward. The easier it will be to learn. The better it will be for everyone.
A bit heavy for a Thursday morning, perhaps.
But not as heavy as carrying this tension in every meeting and every email, every project and every budget conversation, every day. For ten years.
We are presented with choices between many potential right answers. It is our choice to treat them as choices with unknowable outcomes. Or to treat them as rival choices, in fundamental conflict with each other. A conflict that has to be resolved before we can actually make a choice.
Hegel may be heavy for a Thursday morning. But not as heavy as living out his definition of tragedy, day in day out, and thinking it’s the only way to be.
By Leda Glyptis
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption as CEO of 11:FS Foundry.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!