The pretence of invincibility
“Life is lumpy.” Robert Fulgrum’s words, not mine. But truer words have not been spoken.
Acknowledging the lumpiness and unpredictability of life is not about imparting wisdom by the way. Far from it. Rather it’s about reminding everyone what game we are playing. What we all signed up for. In life and business.
Life is lumpy. The middle is messy.
Things will break. Things will go wrong.
We will make mistakes.
We will do everything right and somehow it won’t work out but the thing we didn’t pay attention to or spectacularly messed up will. That’s how it goes. Them are the rules. That is the way.
It is frustrating. And glorious.
And anyone who tells you their success is bound to faithfully working to a plan is lying.
And anyone who asks you to devise such a plan to and for success is delusional.
And yet that is how we have been running transformation work in banks for 15 years and, to my unsurprised dismay, it is how banks are approaching their mid COVID-19 “take stock” sessions: treat the global pandemic as an unforeseen delaying factor so replan, log, deliver.
In short it’s back to normal: set a goal, make a plan, treat the plan as gospel and if anything doesn’t go according to plan… well… we either work through the night and weekend to close the gap, ignore it, whitewash it, chastise the project manager or, if it’s too big for any of those remedies, if it’s COVID big, just replan as if it was just a blip in the matrix.
So much for agility
Agile is not a software development methodology, boys and girls. It is a software development methodology that allows us to not try and answer all the questions when we know the least about everything and encourages us to learn each day, together, and apply our learnings immediately because that is what they are for.
Repeat after me.
That is what learning is for: to be used. Ideally immediately.
If you find out the building materials you are using when building your house are highly flammable, you don’t carry on building because you committed, while the rooms you just completed smoulder. You adapt. You learned a thing. And now you are doing better as a result.
Only, not in banks.
And why not?
We have some of the smartest people, we have some of the best kit. Why can we not do this thing that preschoolers learn?
Because banking decision-makers – and, sadly, decision-makers in a lot of other industries – have somehow learned that big girls don’t cry, boys of any sizes don’t cry, plans need to be infallible and approvals are invincible.
Am I exaggerating?
But not much.
In banks we submit a plan. We get approval. We agree on KPIs. And then the KPIs become our gods. The RAID logs, RAG statuses and updates. The things we measure. The things we agreed on. Right or wrong. And the assumptions we made are no longer allowed to be fungible as the things we were trying to achieve become secondary to The Plan. The projects we committed to pre-COVID more important than the business we were trying to deliver. The projects we can still deliver post-COVID more urgent as a question than the world that needs our service, how it has changed and how we need to change with it. And for it.
God forbid we remember that the game we entered was not static.
It was always lumpy and messy. Much as we tried to order and control it.
The banks’ pretence of invincibility has worked well enough, long enough, don’t get me wrong.
But have you ever wondered what isn’t happening while bank decision-makers are busy pretending it’s all in hand?
What you are not doing while you are busy looking like you are in control
The first thing that isn’t happening is active learning. Because learning is vulnerable work. It starts with not knowing (on a good day) or being wrong (on a bad one). Neither of those things plays well inside a bank hierarchy on any given day. Even less so during times of stress (bad quarterly results), strain (a plan not going to plan) or full blown crisis (enter left COVID).
It is not unreasonable.
Confident leadership is important. We all know that.
And banking is an industry where careers are built on expertise and authority.
Marry the two and you have folks looking in control even when they are not. And it can be reassuring. But it is also highly likely to blinker a lot of the learning, change the questions away from what we should be answering (How do we serve a changing economy? How do we retain relevance? How do we safeguard agility in a world that may hit us with another COVID-sized puzzle before long?) to the questions we feel comfortable answering (How many committed projects can still be delivered in 2020? Should we review our offshoring strategy? Should we revise our budgets in line with the loss of income the last few weeks experienced?).
The first set of questions is baffling. Scary. They are the problems you need to stay with before you answer them.
Instead we make them the problems we live with while asking questions we know we can answer. And now we look and feel in control.
The second thing that is happening while we are pretending to be in control and acting like the Process is our Shield of Invincibility (yes, the caps are meant to make it sound silly. And yet you know it’s true.) is that we start believing our own storylines. We start believing that the game is to answer some questions. And if you answer them well and deliver against the tasks you set yourselves all will be well. That is the ballgame. That is the test. That is what being in control looks like.
Only saying it doesn’t make it so.
Choosing happy doesn’t guarantee you a happy ending. It is just a statement of intent about how you live despite what the world throws at you.
As an organisation, we pah-pah happy and try to Gantt-chart our way to the happy ending.
Doesn’t work that way.
Everything we do in business is in pursuit of relevance.
Revenue, profit and return on equity is how we measure that relevance. But the ballgame is relevance. The things customers come back to you for. And believe it or not, being in control is not it. It’s a hygiene factor. But it is not all that you think it is. And being invincible isn’t even on the board.
Relevance is what business is about.
Relevance is what the digital transformation journeys we started were about.
It was not and is not about the digital capabilities themselves but about what they enable us to do in terms of building and asserting business relevance in a changing world.
Relevance is what the conversation should be in boardrooms the world over as we come up for air post the first wave of COVID-19.
Relevance is the ball game, as the goalposts just moved on us again.
And you don’t get to play the game you were playing before, just because you want to.
And you don’t get to fast forward to the end by changing the size of the task to something you feel fit to face.
And you most definitely don’t get to win because you found the courage to play.
But unless you do find the courage to play, learn, adapt and answer the question actually being asked rather than the one you are happy answering, then you don’t stand a chance of winning at all.
And that is exactly what you are not doing while you are busy looking in control.
About the author
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!