Let’s be honest with ourselves, innovation in banking is a drama in three parts. Sure we have amazing successes, heady highs, accomplishments and some very, very good days, but looking back, the journey for all of us has gone a bit like this:
Act I …
… where the innovation hero gets appointed, anointed and released into the wild. We go on a quest during which we hear all the reasons why nothing will ever work. It’s the regulator, it’s the boss, it’s the complexity of the business and the fact that we once tried something like this and it didn’t work, and the politics, and the egos, and the budget cuts, and the legacy infrastructure. And it’s always unique, special, needing to be understood, assumed not to have been seen before. This is where our hero, the innovation person, is nodding and being understanding, sharing anecdotes and evidence that no, I have seen it before and you’re not as special as you think you are. We can actually do this.
Act II …
… where we get to the heart of the matter: fear. The dragons and witches of the corporate ecosystem are as diverse as they are mundane. People fear for their jobs, they fear to put their head above the parapet and take a risk because the consequence of failure could be redundancy. They fear making decisions with fluid and insufficient information. They fear how much stuff they don’t know and fear the vulnerability of learning.
In this act, our hero can have some success. This is no way for people to live – fear can be conquered, fear can be proved to be unfounded. Our hero can work with individual departments to grant permission to people; permission to leave their desks and stand in front of whiteboards; permission to leave the silo and go to a different part of the organisation to lend help, knowledge and the most valuable resource of all, time. Permission is important, and our hero soon finds out that lip service to permission is like a witch’s spell: it turns nasty by sunset and you’re in a worse place from where you started.
Yet, our hero fights on. Education, tools, comfort with learning are small hillocks our hero can conquer on the way to the goal. However, very soon, towards the end of Act II, the realisation will dawn that some of the fear is justified. The structure of the organisation is a bit like the dark forest around the enchanted castle. It’s meant to instil fear. It’s meant to protect the castle. Bureaucratic stability is based on people keeping their head down, on control, on hierarchy, on rules.
Pulling down the dark forest will take more than one innovation knight hacking a path through the darkness, saying do your job, of course, but don’t just do your job: think of the big picture, be a decent colleague, think of the client, take in the changing world, THINK, don’t live with problems, stay with them. Don’t just do your job, because you won’t have one to do, if you don’t think beyond it. So this brings us to …
Act III …
… where the innovation hero is fighting the fear demons only to realise that there’s a bigger monster lurking beneath this all: a changing economic model rendering what we do as bankers, and how we do it, why we do it, and what we expect to make doing it if not redundant then most definitely uncertain. And people are so caught up in the so-complicated job they do, and the fear of their boss (and the hierarchy that the majority don’t even know to fear) that changing value chain that will devour them all. So the innovation hero is trying to open a clearing in the forest of fear, trying to sort out which rules are needed and which ones don’t have a purpose – serve the client, deliver value, be compliant, stay in business. Which rules serve today’s world but will stop us from entering tomorrow’s?
Our heroes are doing this mostly alone. Despite the PR, the hype, the success stories, the fraternity of fellow innovation heroes, the quest is a lonely one. Our hero is vastly outnumbered. Halfway through Act III, the innovation hero can be seen with big, black bags under their eyes, fighting fires right left and centre, trying desperately to get people to see the big picture that we thought we were hired to navigate towards. The hero is trying to drag the organisation towards management based on competence and autonomy, and on community building – not because it feels good, but because it builds a safe space for experimentation and collaboration. Perseverance is important, not because it’s OK for the boss to say no the first 11 times, but because it takes time to iterate and figure out what the answer is (and if we were asking the right question in the first place).
This is where our hero needs to eat their own dog food:
- call it out
- get help
- pick your battles.
So which is the battle worth picking in this context? (And given that no matter how big your innovation team, it’s dwarfed compared to the size of the beast you’re trying to change.) It’s the one you care about.
Forget the tectonic plates of the global value chain realignment now, and the crushing weight of tens of thousands of people who are too scared or too disinterested. Forget the angst of the art of the possible leapfrogging itself every five minutes, with voice-activated TVs on your Twitter feed and technology older than you in the office. Forget that for a second and think back to why you got into this game in the first place. Is it service alignment? Is it fresh, relevant data to inform decisions? Is it client-centric responsive service? Is it the joy of helping people solve a problem at last?
Whatever it is, go back to it. If you have to fight endless battles and massive monsters in an ever-shifting terrain, you may as well turn it into a crusade; focus on what you care most about. Since the fire in your belly is what keeps the flag flying anyway, use it to your advantage. Make this the fourth act, and bring your whole self to work.
Image by rudall30, Shutterstock.com