Over the past weeks I've had the pleasure of catching up with leaders from two prominent (digital) start-up banks – Alex Letts who founded Ffrees, and Tom Blomfield whose new proposition is Mondo. I’ve also spent time with the project teams of some of the world’s most innovative tech firms, who are doing some terrific work with payments, rewards and loyalty.
Given my day job, you may wonder why I spend time with the competition. You might think they are motivated to put people like me out of a job, or “eat my lunch”, but nobody I know in these communities speaks like this. Instead, they talk about their products and services. They have a glint in their eye, and are intently focussed on creating banking experiences that “just work”, and “will change everything”.
These are the people in banking who are “moving fast and building things” – or, in corporate terms, are agile.
The curse of the committee
We have all been to energy-sapping meetings – running through roadmaps, looking five or ten years into the future, discussing where we want to be and how we might want to get there, but not really producing anything (besides paperwork) with any sense of urgency. Look back at your meeting notes from five years ago and challenge yourself to be honest about your progress. A lot of big, long-term corporate projects fail in one way or another – they are “de-scoped” so much that they lose their uniqueness and value-add, or as I hear all too often, are renamed and reworked, or simply lost in corporate restructures and strategy changes (often to resurface months later under a new name). I often wonder if more of those projects talked about so intently would live to see the light of day if everyone had just been able to move forward faster.
We know the ability to respond to market changes and differences in customer requirements are essential to exploiting a competitive advantage. Whilst an organisation’s history and experience can enhance reputation and trust, their past can also be as much as a hindrance when responding to change. Through authoritarian leadership styles clinging on from the past, many companies have experienced a lockdown of individuality and empowerment – replaced by quality management systems with exacting processes and procedures dictating how things should be done. These systems often take years to produce, requiring specific infrastructure projects just to store and maintain them, but often offer little in the way of practicalities for dealing at speed with an ever-changing marketplace.
The influx of internet-based businesses in the late nineties made a significant impact on the landscape of many organisations, with established brands taking an unanticipated hit. Over the following years Britain lost well-respected names from the high street, such as Borders and Woolworths, who were unable to respond to the trend for digital services in time. Now the Internet of Everything is re-shaping the world all over again, and it will be equally crucial this time around for businesses to respond in time. The economy is emerging out of recession, entrepreneurs are willing to take risks, and financial backers are prepared to fund them – in these conditions, the influx of new market-changing services will be quicker than ever. Now is a time for businesses to be truly agile.
Agile needn’t mean fragile
The Agile Future Forum, comprising of leading employers including Lloyds Banking Group, Cisco, Microsoft and Ford, recognises the potential of an agile workflow for economic benefit. KPMG, also a member of the Forum, compared organisations’ ability to be agile using the four areas of Skill, Leadership & Management, Systems & Processes and Capacity. Analysing fellow members of the Forum, they discovered that many were on the cusp of exploiting the benefits. They reported that empowering people to make change, a culture of listening to ideas, and the ability to monitor performance en route, were all aiding agility. But for most, there was still a way to go. Disparity between teams, incumbent technology, and a lack of follow-through on plans held back the rewards of agile thinking.
Empower employees so their skills make an impact
True agility requires an entirely new mind-set for organisational culture, one where employees are empowered to use their intuition to make changes. There are no half measures for this approach. In an agile workforce, it is understood that the consequence of not making change is more costly than the fear of making change. In an empowered agile culture, employees do not fear change but are supported through it, and are able to take responsibility for their actions. This requires a shift in management focus, from input and presence towards recognising the value and impact of the output and facilitating a culture of trust, honesty and individual performance.
Managing this way requires a great level of trust. Employees may be working remotely or implementing strategies using new technologies and procedures. And there certainly will not be the same level of risk avoidance as most managers are used to. But the rewards are great – empowered teams and individuals who “own” their work and have the ability (and motivation) to move fast and build things.
Organisations that have embraced a more flexible approach to working have also found they are better placed to respond to their customers’ needs. The introduction of Annualised Hours in KPMG’s Office of Tax Excellence, for instance, has enabled employees to be rewarded with flexibility in the quieter times of the year (sometimes taking months off work at a time), in return for working extended hours at peak periods, such as January when returns are due.
Introduce systems that support the strategy
Empowered employees need to be supported with the systems that will enable them to maintain this working style – from mobile devices that allow flexible working, to Cloud-based remote file storage and sharing. Bring Your Own Device is another opportunity, enabling employees to use the systems and devices they choose in their personal lives at work. The devices’ familiarity, along with the personal learning that employees have already invested into these personal devices, yields greater productivity. Enabling employees to avoid fruitless attempts to find their “IT Administrator” and spending hours stuck in the corporate IT service desk loop can only be a good thing.
A strategy of getting things done
The Internet of Everything is changing the markets we work in daily. Responding to this change by replacing bureaucracy with agility requires a co-ordinated and efficient approach, and commitment from absolutely everyone in an organisation. In return, agility enables teams to focus their energies on activities that support the future of the organisation. It makes every project count, and helps every individual to feel empowered and responsible. Organisations that embrace change and seek out how to use it to their advantage, rather than responding and adapting, have the best chance of success.
Put simply, agility will drive customer advantage for the long term, and make responding to change easier for all. I spend time with the disruptors from the FinTech community because it reminds me, and inspires me, to hold to a strategy of getting things done.