It’s people, stupid
This is most unusual and irritating.
Normally, when I start writing, I get in the zone and the main body of my story emerges whole, like Athena leaping from Zeus’s head – pristine, belligerent, fully formed.
Not so with this one.
I have had four false starts in telling this story.
Last week, I completely forgot it was Thursday. (Yes, yes, I know you noticed I was late in reposting my article, and no I didn’t sleep in… I had not realised that my inability to get the story on paper had gotten me past my deadline for filing copy for the first time in years.)
The FinTech Futures team is too nice to tell me I am going senile. We actually had another piece ready to go (and one I had enjoyed writing the usual way to boot), so the embarrassment of… crickets on a Thursday… was avoided and that gave me another week to deal with the novelty of writer’s block.
Only it wasn’t writer’s block… because any attempt to write about something else went fine. It was writing this blasted thing that was proving elusive.
On Tuesday of this week, I woke up with a thought: have I done it again? Have I missed my deadline?
I had not.
But I had no more time to faff.
This story had to be told or I had to admit defeat and write about something else. And since I don’t like admitting defeat, here I am. Telling you about everything but the thing.
And I will get to it, of course I will. But indulge me for a moment longer.
I went all psychoanalytical on myself. Why am I struggling to tell this story?
The answer wasn’t hard. I am struggling to tell it because I am stumped when it comes to finding its silver lining. The chink of hope. The actionable insight.
This story is bleak. It has no silver lining.
And it goes like this.
The biggest disservice and most commonly accepted insult we inflict upon each other is treating our time as more valuable than that of the person across the table from us.
The procurement team that asks you to provide 80% more information than they need because it’s easier (for them) than checking what they actually need and thinking it through.
The compliance team that responds to your question only after you have asked it three times and then responds by copy and pasting their original email. The one that you are asking for clarifications on.
The HR team that cancels an interview five minutes before it was due to start due to diary conflicts.
The VC firm that puts ‘my way or the highway’ in all its documentation, creating liability pitfalls when none were needed.
The industry bodies that ask for a favour of your time and then throw you to the wolves of bureaucratic existentialism.
Now… it is easy to say that what loosely unites these stories is people being prisoners of their own organisational foibles, such as poor and ageing systems and convoluted regulatory and compliance checklists that have evolved independently of each other and have never been streamlined, so the art of knowing what is needed is arcane.
You could say that the stories are united in being examples of our dysfunctional relationship with time, the rigidity of ‘protective barricades’ companies of all sizes create through their processes, compliance checklists and engagement letters. And if the lawyers said the only way to play ball is to have these specific liability clauses in the contract, who are you to say no, right?
You could say all that and you would not be wrong.
And yet you would not be right either.
Because implicit in all of these examples and many more like them is a tacit decision that the time of the person holding the information is more important than the time of the person needing the information. And therefore, when in doubt, we will preserve effort over here and put the onus on you over there.
The time of the person inside the citadel is more important than the time of the person outside the citadel.
Regardless of who they are or why they are trying to engage with you.
Regardless of whether you need them more than they need you… whether they are friend, foe or a colleague from another department.
There is power asymmetry there anyway. I have the answer to the question you are asking. Or the power to say ‘you shall not pass’.
You want to do business with me? You need to submit all this information onto a portal that doesn’t always work and where fields are marked as essential that surely can’t be.
You want to work with me? You need to make yourself flexible and available and show willing.
You want to collaborate with me? You need to engage just so. Them are the rules.
You want to get to the next step? You will do as you are told, when you are told.
And if you have questions, you will have to wait. And if you ask me to double-check if the things I asked of you are right… you will be made to wait.
And if we discover that I asked for the wrong thing, gave you the wrong information, made a mistake or dropped the ball… you will have to repeat the process from scratch as if you are the one who messed it all up, and thank you for your understanding.
That is not a systems thing. That is not an organisational thing. That is a people thing.
That is a culture thing.
And it says, ‘my time is more important than yours, me not doing anything more than the absolute minimum and possibly less than that is more important than getting you onboarded, accredited, approved, hired, allowed to continue on your way’.
There is usually someone who appears during these processes like a Deus ex Machina, by the way, and they find a way forward.
These saviours are rarely senior enough to fix the issue at its core. But they get you past the Blair Witch Project territory of repeating unhelpfulness. And you are through, until the next time. And nothing changes for either your next time or the next guy.
And nothing will change even when the systems change. And little will change when the regulation changes.
For the person who copy and pastes their original answer or a full list of requirements for a subset question, systems are decorative. The systems were never the problem. They were just the excuse. And for people like us, who like fixing problems, this is not a happy realisation.
If you manage to get through this phase, by the way, you now work with this firm: these people are now your colleagues or your client or your boss.
People who love information asymmetry and believe it translates to ‘my time is more valuable than your time’. People who don’t come to the table with respect.
They are now your colleagues. Which means they are now your problem.
And, sure, they are working with poor systems and inadequate processes. By all means change both. But no amount of tech transformation will help you here.
You need to work on the humans. The humans that are now your humans by dint of having survived their process, whatever it was.
The humans that think their time is more important than the time of others.
When you put it like that, it doesn’t read like it’s the thing that should destroy my ability to write any more than it should be the thing that stumps your digital strategy.
Come back to me after dealing with a situation like this and tell me that I am not right to feel despair at the face of this behaviour.
I once had to lose three months of productive work because of a known system bug that the IT teams provided workarounds for (problem number one, right there), and you needed a ticket raised for your workaround squad to be alerted (problem number two), only nobody told us that you needed to raise an HR ticket, not an IT ticket (different system, you see, and problem number three) and the only way to check on a ticket was to raise another ticket (make that problem number four).
So I eventually marched down to their office… got an explanation… and was told to go back to my desk and start again. Now with the right system… to request the workaround… for the known bug… to get going with the piece of work that was being held back while we were playing at Kafka.
Now look me in the eye and tell me this is just a systems issue.
Look me in the eye and tell me this wasn’t a person not willing to help me and enabled by the systems to do just that.
Which by extension is a person who values their time more than mine but also more than their organisations’ time. Because time ticks for us all.
No amount of digital transformation strategies will fix this for you.
And maybe you don’t care that the people inside the citadel treat the time of those outside it as expendable… and let it pass… and waste it by not answering questions, repeating processes, over-producing, sending people back to square one rather than offering an explanation.
Maybe you don’t care about the people outside. The baseline of respect absent in those interactions.
But they don’t just waste my time. They waste yours too.
The candidate that wasn’t confirmed for weeks because your HR team went through the old Right to Work process got frustrated and now works with a competitor. The partner that took six months to onboard because your system wasn’t working and teams were unresponsive could have solved six months’ worth of problems for you by now. The team that waited for approvals for four weeks for a green light can no longer progress because they missed their testing window… or lost their client who got tired of waiting… or were beaten to the market by someone else.
And frustration and anger and disappointment saturate your halls.
And you know it.
But you wait for the system overhaul. Like systems ever taught humans how to be decent to each other and treat everyone’s time with respect.
Such a small thing.
Not acting like your time is more important than other people’s.
Such a huge thing.
Not acting like your time is more important than other people’s.
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem.
Leda is also a published author – her first book, Bankers Like Us: Dispatches from an Industry in Transition, is available to order here.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!