The problem with global banks and how they stifle true innovation

By Jonathan Farina, Chief Technology Officer, WCKD RZR


I’ve spent my career in the financial services sector but don’t be fooled that the following exposé is unique to banks. I have come across the attitudes, behaviours and misguided logic across different companies in different sectors, in various guises.

A large bank, or any other organisation, struggles with a lack of product leadership, accountability, and responsibility.

As part of a small company, everything you do has an impact, good or bad. Even salary is a drain on its limited resources and it’s a function of whether you are adding more value that you cost?

So, it’s very important in the small company that everyone has clear direction, outcomes, accountability and responsibility. Fundamentally – can I fire you if you don’t deliver a tangible outcome (defined as moving our company forward)?

Therefore, small companies are very clearly set up. As head of X you are responsible for delivery of X. There are (generally) no cross vertical dependencies, there is clear budget control and clear responsibility for creation and delivery.  The company is small, so processes are less bureaucratic, and you often hold the authority to execute.

Jonathan Farina

You’ll have noticed the same words cropping up – accountability, responsibility, and authority.  These are key for success, and this is where large companies, such as banks, fall down badly.

I work in Technology with a focus on Software Engineering. To build a successful team, a hiring manager must hire the right people and get them through the door asap to enable them to deliver. Simple?  Wrong! This almost never happens, and here’s an egregious example from my past….

Our HR partners decided that we in the ‘business’ weren’t hiring properly and, in an effort, to ‘speed up’ our processes decided to centralise it all.  So, a new policy was instigated. From then on, only HR could hire. We the hiring managers would do all the admin, raise the Job Request, create the job description and (once approved by HR obviously) would be ‘allowed’ to have the role go live.

HR did the screening for candidates. So we found ourselves in a laughable state where we were being fed candidates who were deemed suitable for our role by a central team who knew nothing of what we did nor the technology requirements we had.

Obviously, this didn’t work. Candidates were terribly suited and rejection rates went off the charts. When the policy was introduced, average hiring times were 6-8 weeks (plus approx. 4 weeks’ notice) so that’s about 3 months end to end.  That’s tough when you must commit to delivery of something, and it takes ¼ of a year to hire to meet the demand!

However, after 12 weeks of the policy, hiring rates had fallen so far that almost no one was being hired in Technology. No hiring into £2bn part of your organisation. So, what happened? After 12 weeks, the “hiring project” was deemed such a complete “success” that it was cancelled with immediate effect and the previous processes reinstated.

What do we learn from this example? The person who created this process had a misguided belief they were going to make things better. They demonstrably failed.  They didn’t get fired nor sanctioned yet the reputational damage to the organisation was massive and the ability for teams like mine to meet our deliverables were derailed by ¼ of a year.

This brings me back to my three words – accountability, responsibility, and authority.

HR had no responsibility but had taken the accountability and authority to perform the process.

I challenge you to think of some crazy policy or idea in your organisation. I bet it lacks one or more of these 3 key attributes? And this is the fundamental point.

Companies that succeed are set up in the right way to encourage people to deliver and to ensure they hold these three attributes. This was what Steve Jobs did when he returned to Apple. I suspect this is what Elon Musk thinks he is currently doing at Twitter. And it’s what all small companies naturally do due to their size.  Some call it “giving you enough rope” but when you hold the keys and the levers, you can either stand or fall without any excuses.

Large financial organisations are a matrix of responsibility, accountability, and authority (often for perceived good reasons) and this stifles the creativity and risk taking and instead promotes safety and risk avoidance.

So, what to do? It’s very simple. Rip it all up. Break up cartels, central teams, streamline and hand power to those you expect to deliver your product. Give them the authority, accountability, and responsibility – exactly as you would in a small company.

Remove cross vertical dependencies, align your verticals with the customer – it’s the reason you’re in business in the first place! Ensure you are focused on the customer, not the financials, board, market analysts or the shareholders. Again, Steve Jobs famously said: “If I build the best products, customers will buy them or they won’t, and the profits will follow”.

Innovation is key to creating something amazing. By giving your product people the accountability, responsibility, and authority, you will encourage innovation, or at the very least be able to fire those who aren’t delivering.

However, people cannot innovate without a vision. This is final piece missing from large organisations, so focused on protecting existing profits, they are scared to deliver the “new”.  This is how disruption happens.

Its why companies like Monzo, Revolute and Starling exist.  If the banks were truly innovating, these companies wouldn’t.  So, part of driving a true delivery organisation is to provide the signposts for where you are going. If your vision includes the words “billion pounds” and “grow market share” then it’s not a vision, try again.

But there are vested interests everywhere. The organisational “blob” can’t feed itself and must protect itself, so you may be maligned, laughed at, and told you will fail. Until you don’t of course…then you will be told, it was so ‘obvious’ and everyone one would have done what you did…

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