Are you really agile, or are you playing at agile while diluting people’s creativity, innovation and expertise for the sake of legacy KPIs and fluffy targets? Story by Leda Glyptis.

It’s that time of year. Performance reviews were loaded onto the system before year-end, the ‘conversation’ is about to be had. Bonus and pay reviews, KPIs and targets for next year. Performance monitoring and redundancies. Pats on the back, tears before bedtime, frustration and the underwhelming feeling of going through the motions and missing out on the substance. Unless your bonus was epic. It matters less then (for at least a day or two).

Still, it’s all happening now: it’s glum, it’s tense, and it’s not constructive. And if you’re a techie in banking, it really makes you reflect on your life choices.

Love songs for the shy and cynical: agreeing what doing a good job looks like before any ‘doing’ takes place

If you’re a banker, I don’t need to describe how dull and detailed the performance management parameter setting process is, nor how elaborate the SMART goals, nor how granular the deliverables articulation. Goals need to be specific and measurable, we were told, so they are. We articulate goals and associated KPIs that are clear and non-qualitative. Do three projects. Run 30 pilots. Hold 300 hours of training. We all know what the business goals are, so the team and individual goals are derived from those, adjusted to the appropriate span of control and made actionable and time-boxed (not to mention measurable).

If acquiring new skill sets is part of our long-term strategy, then delivering training is essential. But we won’t be able to ascertain whether building up our own skill set was a better bet than acquisition for a while, and we won’t even know how effective the training itself was until the learning has bedded in, so let’s measure the amount of training given, rather than the amount of learning done, or whether this is moving us towards our intended place in a changing economy.

And in a year’s time, let’s check overall progress against our intended destination. Only we don’t. Because by then small fights and big fires have gotten us well and truly into the weeds, and we’re working to our targets, not the strategy. And the targets acquire a life of their own. And in the name of meeting the KPI for the business, the learning and development centre will put your request for a new programming language training module on an 18-month waiting list (for the next budget and target-setting cycle).

And IT will de-prioritise your experiment because they’re measured on how quickly they close their Jira tickets, not how much they help their colleagues from Product when they have a wacky idea. So the wacky idea needs to be built into a project proposal that will be aligned to everyone’s KPIs, and tracked by the appropriate authorities and signed off at the right levels so that the people working on it get the recognition, after the people they work for get to decide whether this is a good use of their time.

To get sign-off, you need to build a business case, taking three times as long as the experiment would have taken, therefore invalidating your ROI before you started. Meanwhile, you need to articulate what you wish to achieve and, in order to get sign-off, you turn your gaze towards what you expect to find, not what you hope to learn. We call it ‘incremental innovation’. We call it death by a thousand cuts.

If I had a million dollars, I’d be rich

Measuring innovation is one of the industry’s most delightfully circular conversations. Some advocate that the innovation team should be given a free pass for 1-4 years. It soon becomes apparent, though, that without a place in the performance measurement dance, people would be left out of the promotion and bonus ball. Ain’t nobody got time for that, so folks started to measure the ‘doing’, but leaving the outcome open for innovation magic to take place. So innovation departments who want a promotion as bad as the next guy, hold events and hackathons and run endless pilots that they have no intention of commercialising, because they have targets to meet. Because they want to keep their job. Because they want the next job. And so we create the Blair Witch Project of software development: individuals can do well in this game, but ideas can’t, as it’s a perfect circle on perennial repeat, constantly validating itself, but not moving the conversation along.

Plus, saying ‘if I had a million dollars I’d be rich’, is both a tautology and an anachronism. How far would a million dollars get you in this day and age? Just as far as your current way of doing things will. Not very far at all.

The pumpkin at midnight

Some banks are digitising. Many are using new technology and playing with new partners. Some are even changing the way they work, using (among other methodologies) scrum. I was part of agile rollouts in three banks over the past decade. Resistance never came from where we expected – we never quite managed to shield the engineers from all other meetings and side shows, and our burndown charts always somehow ended up embedded in entirely redundant MIS and project-tracking decks the thickness of a small family encyclopaedia.

No matter. Our stand-ups were working, our velocity was steady, our time to market kept the wolves at bay and – proof of the change in culture actual practice can bring – our retrospectives were increasingly open, honest and true to their purpose. Yet, agile never really became the Tao of any of those banks (even though they will tell you it has), because around about this time of year, we would sit with bosses and HR, CAOs and corporate planning heads and would lock horns, despair in the unsuitability of the language they demanded for the work we did. We would explain the magic of agile, the agility of the thing, the ability to focus on substance and delivery rather than predetermined, rigid metrics subservience which never fails to derail projects that come up against unexpected client behaviours or code glitches. (Which is all projects.)

But faced with accusations that only people who have something to hide refuse to be tracked, we always foiled and compromised and ended up committing to something entirely pointless to end the conversation and the pain of incomprehension. Try explaining to the ‘Guardians of the Process’ that in an agile environment we estimate effort on a story by story basis, not on a programme by programme basis. We review our backlog regularly and adjust as needed, not once a year. We test with the client every chance we get, not at the end of the journey, and a change of course is expected even if not always welcome.

Try explaining that the deliverable is the working code, not the quarterly management update deck. Deaf ears. So we horse-trade. We agree to have a KPI on number of sprints committed to for the year, because the powers that be don’t understand how to measure our performance, looking at our velocity or the quality of the product we ship. We ‘pad’ our estimations with time for ‘teddy bear tea parties’ (that’s what developers think of the governance meetings, deal with it). We assign fewer stories to each sprint because we don’t control access to the client. In other words, we dilute our chosen discipline in the name of your process, and we limit the possible outcome to give you the metric that will get you off our backs, so that we can do as much of this work as you will let us.

Condemned to be doing less of the actual work in order to spend the time persuading you that the work you hired us to do (and the manner you decided to let us do it in) are actually still work.

It’s that time of year again. When banks get to set another year of ambitious targets on agility and innovation, and the scrum team gets to glumly reflect on our life choices.

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Image by Sentavio,

About the author

Leda Glyptis

Leda Glyptis is a lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem, inhabiting both startups and banks over the years. She leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption. She is a roaming banker and all-weather geek. All opinions her own. You can't have them.


  • It’s all rather depressing and I don’t see many bright lights at the end of the tunnel that might not also be the 5:10pm Eurostar service from Brussels in the form of more well-intentioned regulation. PSD3 anyone?

    I think I’ll wander off to watch Brazil (the movie) with a few large whiskies and silently anguish about the futility of it all.

  • Really good post. Salient and oh so cynical. As a natural optimist in the financial industry I refuse to give up. Let’s go above the heads of those driven by process and metrics to the leaders that *actually* want the end goal: a product that our customers want.

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