This thing we call fintech – it’s not actually a thing. It’s a moment in time, and the moment will pass. And once it passes, financial services won’t be as you know them: infrastructure, products and distribution channels will all be so deeply and radically transformed that our world will look new. In some places, you can already see the new reality emerging. When this journey is complete, we will all then agree: fintech isn’t a thing. It was a moment in time: a moment of profound and radical transformation; a glorious and heady moment. And like all moments, it will pass.
Stay with me. We all know what we mean when we say fintech. We mean startups, new tech, digitisation, good UX, user-centricity, alternative business models, three kinds of sprints and all kinds of new tools. This umbrella space houses techies, designers, bankers, ‘ecosystem’ people, speakers and professional influencers. People who do and people who explain. And somewhere in the middle of all this, often containing a healthy sprinkling of all the profiles above, you have the permanently exhausted innovation folk trying to square circles and tame dragons.
We are all signs of the time. Yet, despite what the speakers choose to focus on and despite when your favourite influencer believes blockchain will go mainstream, the truth is that when fintech is no longer a thing, we will all be out of a job (or at least this job). That is as it should be, and it will be partly of our own making, which is the whole point of this thing we call fintech: to transform the industry we all inhabit. The day will come, but until that day comes – and despite what our banker colleagues and proud parents tend to think – our success isn’t about imagination, creativity and talent. It’s about guts and gumption.
All of my good ideas started life in someone else’s head. Admittedly, the thing I ended up building or doing was never recognisable as the original thought, but I know where it came from and I make sure the people who gave me inspiration know it too. I’m liberal with praise and recognition because I want more “this is the right thing but it could never fly” thoughts. The things that transformed my career were throwaway comments a subject matter expert made in the form of a lament or idle speculation. And when I said “Hey, let’s do that, let’s actually do that!”, they invariably laughed, called me crazy or said, “You take that to management and when you get it signed off, we talk”. So I did. And although I’m always attributing the spark that started the idea – I want more, I need you to know how your spark started a fire – I’m conscious that the idea I ended up with, negotiated, re-negotiated, iterated a million times and then iterated some more to plug into whatever legacy infrastructure, process or person we needed to appease, that thing that came to life wasn’t ever exactly what they were talking about. For one, they never thought it could happen. If they had faith, their solution might have been better than mine. If they had guts, they may have ended up with something slicker.
And before I move on, when I say guts I don’t mean to demean people’s integrity. I’m speaking about a very particular personality trait that propels you to stand up and say things nobody expects, continue standing when you’re mocked and insulted because it’s cheaper to demean than engage, and carry on standing for as long at it takes for the organisation to listen. And then continue standing while the slow process of working things out gets into motion. I call it guts, but I would be with you if you called it a peculiar version of self-harm. And that’s not even enough.
Because after all the standing and the proofing and the arguing, after all the battles have been had – you never quite win, and when you lose you don’t leave the battlefield, so you never quite lose either. After all that, the work begins. Negotiating, socialising, fighting tangential political battles, horse trading, doing mental acrobatics to make big things seem less scary and small things not appear insignificant. Working against the tide to keep people focused on what only the committed few know is both important and urgent, operating on a different time horizon to most of your organisation and asking overworked people who have just had to rationalise their teams, let go of folks and slash budgets to give you time, energy, commitment and resources. And at each turn, you have to have the conversations again, having to justify the why, the what, the now and the who even at the eleventh hour. Knowing that the plug can be pulled any minute.
Is it worth it? Hell yes. It never feels like you’re getting anywhere, but then you look back and here it is: progress, better solutions for your customers, better processes and tools for your colleagues, new ideas coming to life. Things that “could never happen” do actually happen every day. Even though each day feels like a lot of running to stay put, over time it’s there in black and white: progress. Is it your work? No. It’s other people’s business solutions. It’s other people’s code. It’s other people’s product genius. Would it exist without you? We will never know.
But we do know this: when we no longer need so much explaining, and so much ecosystem activation on the outside, the job of the innovation folks will get easier. And when the innovation folks need to brush up CVs and start drifting into pure delivery roles, then we will know, without a doubt, that the fintech thing is over; the time when fintech and all that goes with it was a thing is over. And we will know, at last, that the time has come to get stuff done, not through guts and gumption, but with imagination and talent. Oh, and hard work. That bit never actually goes away.
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