You cut me deep big bank, but I got you

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Simon Taylor Co-founder 11:FS & CPO 11:FS Foundry
5min read

There’s an old saying: The reason God was able to create the earth in 6 days and rest on the 7th is because they didn’t have millions of customers and legacy systems. That said, millions of customers and legacy systems can lead to some odd practices that never get questioned.

I hear it a lot from people who work at big banks; change is hard, change takes time and getting something delivered no matter how small is a giant victory. This is what inspired our listicle last week. Many of us at 11:FS have been there one way or another, and we’re inspired by the fact that there’s so much to do in digital banking (It is still only 1% finished after all).

So this blog post is a love letter, to those of you in the big organisations, trying to get shit done but feeling hamstrung.

Why are these processes so hard?

Firstly, diligence is good! There are good reasons why you want a bank to have stringent processes before they change a product that affects the ability to access money for millions of customers. Just look at the headlines and fall out if a bank does make a mistake. A short ATM outage can cause misery for millions. Access to banking is part of critical national infrastructure in the same way access to clean water is. Secondly, since the 1980s banks have been moving from a branch centric operating model to a ‘head office’ centric operating model. ‘Centres of excellence’ appear for things like cheque clearing, anti money laundering, fraud prevention, cyber security etc... It makes little economic sense to have a cyber security expert in every single branch and they may not always want to live in remote branch locations (although I imagine some do!). These centres of excellence make sense in the first instance, but they were built on top of systems built for a world of branches. Like sedimentary rock, processes get built on processes, IT Systems on old IT Systems and that paper form may be a PDF now, but it's built for a world of branches and not a world of digital. Thirdly, it isn’t what you do, it's the way you do it. Put another way, how banks "change" hasn't changed. If that sounds ironic it is. Having a group wide, top down program to do "agile at scale" isn't doing agile. Big change programs are very effective at making sure the service keeps running, and that large scale change happens. In the same way conventional armies are great if you have a lot of hand to hand combat to do. The problem is, in the digital age, small teams of highly motivated professionals are what we need. Digital is fundamentally a small team sport.

Is all hope lost?

Not at all. I might be being contrarian here, but can we just take a moment to thank banks for functioning. We're optimists at 11:FS, and we just want to push the boundaries. So let’s take the three points I made earlier and offer a perspective on how you get the best of digital without losing that - banks just have to work juice.

Delivering at pace without wrecking the place - Risk Management

On one of the earliest episodes of Fintech Insider I talked about the 3 V's that help you manage most transactional risk in banking
  • Value (The value of the transaction e.g. £1, £100, £1000). Higher = potentially higher risk
  • Volume (The amount of transactions e.g. 1, 100, 1000). Higher = potentially higher risk
  • Velocity (The speed of the transactions e.g. 1 per day, 1 per hour, 1 per second). Higher = you guessed it...
If it sounds obvious that's because it is. But big banks tend to do ‘small scale pilots’ using the same sign off processes (and centres of excellence) that they use for mainstream products. So if I wanted to test with 100 customers, I have pretty much the same people and process I would have with 10 million. Some banks have clever sandboxes and innovation centers - but they have the opposite problem, they almost never see a real customer. Getting the best of both means: being laser focused on delivery, working with real customers and real product, but questioning everything else. Does this need a letter? There's only 100 customers making 10 transactions per day. Does this need a call center script or can we try a wholly digital servicing model? To get agile, you need to get out of the processes that just keep the lights on, and get into the ways of working that a start-up would have. That's why we often say “we don't do projects, we build businesses".

Delivering at pace without wrecking the place - Team Organisation

Some banks actually do design sprints and run agile *really well* in small pockets. The challenge is getting this "back into the bank" (or insurer, or asset manager), because someone not connected to the project has to come along and fit it into their process. This isn't what you'd do if you were building a business. You'd have someone in that small, highly skilled, multi disciplinary team who could answer that challenge. How do you create small truly autonomous teams, who can manage the breadth and depth of risks? See #1 Risk Management, and then, think about how you break out of the norms. People sitting on different floors, in different geographies aren't ideally suited to building a business. Start-ups have a short window of cash and opportunity before they have to close the doors. Creating that sense of urgency with time boxed delivery, that's manages arguably the biggest risk any ‘project’ (business) has. You might even find yourself asking - ‘will anyone even care if we build this?’

Delivering at pace without wrecking the place - Processes

Our CEO David Brear was once asked “how the hell do you deliver so much so fast"? His response was glib but accurate:
Smart people, making shit up - David M. Brear
I'm gonna let that hang for a second... The emphasis there is on the *smart people*. Small, multi disciplinary teams that are highly motivated can solve problems at pace, but creating the environment to do so is key. If it takes 2 weeks to get a laptop, you can't solve problems at pace. So, they need a budget. If you can't use modern tools (e.g. Slack) you can't solve problems at pace etc... Often our clients ask for detailed plans. I remember years ago blogging about the 'need for false certainty'. This idea that if the plan has lots and lots of detail, senior management feels better about signing a large cheque. The problem is, the idea more planning can help you navigate the future in digital is straight bullshit. Digital is fast moving and chaotic. It may seem uncontrolled, but empowered teams that can build and rebuild processes as needed are now more crucial than ever. (It's also fair to say, we have a fairly good idea how our team delivers as a methodology, but we're not wedded to those techniques - and never want to lose that flexibility). So there you have it. We’re building propositions for organisations big and small to take advantage of all of this opportunity. Join us, or get in touch at