Many years ago (well four years ago) the braver Fintech-y conferences would invite speakers from the ‘innovation world’. Gurus and thought leaders and (my favourite job title of all time) futurists, who would venture onto the stage to give a talk or sit on a panel.
These folks were meant to scare the dark suited audience with talk of digital natives, augmented reality, holograms and the connected society. The tech geeks were coming to inherit the earth and if you weren’t ready – banker, insurer, big tech guy – prepare to be destroyed!
These people grabbed ties off of mild mannered men and made middle aged women sit on bean bags. They worshipped at the icon of Steve Jobs. They claimed that we now live in a world where there are more mobile phones than toothbrushes! (I feel entitled to taking some of the credit for killing that particular bon mot from the conference circuit.)
However…I am feeling a tad nostalgic for those days. Those simple times when merely suggesting a bank explore the use of cloud technology could get you would be labelled a futurist or innovative Fintech guru. Because today we are inundated with the fully grown graduates of what I am calling the ‘Innovation Re-Education (RED) Centre’.
These guys have been in the business for quite some time. They’ve had an iPhone for years. They know clouds don’t only reside in the sky. They have heard all the talk from tech gurus and startups and lean coaches. However, they work a large multi-national corporation. So, they understand that for their firms to start on the journey of innovation and digital transformation they will need to use language that is sober, grounded and reassuring.
Scaring the dark suited audience is not their intent. (not actually saying anything transformative or concrete is their consequence).
Let me give you an example of the words of wisdom that emerge from the Innovation RED grads at any given Fintech stage.
‘Technology is just an enabler, what we really need to do is to put the customer at the centre of what we do.’
Now I don’t disagree with the above. I have often said that technology, on its own, serves no purpose. It is only when tech is fulfilling either a personal or business need that it become relevant.
But the above is not said by one person, at one event, making a specific point – followed by provable examples. This phrase, almost verbatim, is repeated time and time again, over and over again, by the same 40-something, salt and pepper haired, no tie wearing man as a sort of innovation ‘get out of jail card.’ This phrase is meant to settle the risk adverse, planning types who fear that the innovation lab (if it has any power at all) won’t start ripping up infrastructure and make everyone learn a programming language that sounds like a Pokémon character.
‘We’re not just chasing technology for technology-sake’
This is often used as a reason why the firm isn’t experimenting with blockchain (BTW – I mean publicly experimenting with blockchain – trust me, they are. This is an actual quote from a bank: “I mean we are piloting a blockchain solution, but we can’t say we are, I mean just saying we are would be a problem, so we aren’t OK? I mean we are, but we aren’t officially.” :-|)
Basically, they don’t want to field calls from journalists asking to find out if the experiment failed or succeeded. If an experiment failed in the forest and no one recorded it – did it even happen at all? Corporate communication professional say, ‘no’.
‘We always ask, what is the business problem we need solving’.
Translation – we don’t invest any budget in research and development – so we need our business units to fund any innovation product. <==Which basically disproves the ‘we’re not product siloed, we’re customer-centric’ myth’ in one fell swoop. ‘We work to partner with startups, but only those who meet our business needs.’
The ‘Kodak story’ gets trotted out every so often at events. Let me tell you one thing. Kodak knew all about the digital camera – they invented it. However, at the time there was no spreadsheet, no prediction model, no current business reason to cannibalise their celluloid film business to focus on digital. None whatsoever. They did what any business person worth their MBA (stop, now) does and focused on the ‘business problem at hand.’
What Kodak didn’t do was to focus on a business problem they couldn’t predict. One that would never appear in a forecasting spreadsheet. Namely, how customers would react and use a digital camera – and later how they would use the cameras on their phones. Those predictions were only realiSed by watching how customers behaved. That way of doing business requires a brand-new culture. Most banks don’t operate that type of ‘experiment, don’t predict‘ business culture.
‘We now all work in an agile way, we have rolled out agile across the organisation’
No one ever goes into detail exactly how their working day has changed or what benefits their organisation has seen from this ‘change’. I am by no means an agile expert or lean startup coach. But I do know banks and large financial firms very well. I am extremely suspicious of any large, complex, and often regulated, organisation claiming to have ‘rolled out agile‘ to their teams. What I suspect they have done is let a few of their managers go on a ‘lean startup workshop’ where they get to play around with pasta and marshmallows and now everyone at the office has to hot-desk and the supply cabinet is over run with multi coloured Post-it notes and unusable dry erase markers.
‘This technology is interesting, and we are looking at it, but really this industry will not see any impact for at least 10 years.’
Please let us know when that ’10 year’ countdown starts? I will mark the date in my diary.
In the age of fake news and style over substance – Fintech is important, it should be real, it should be provable, and it should have an impact. A week at the Innovation RED centre will give you talking points on a panel – but it will not change the industry.
BTW – If I ever heard anyone say: ‘The phone in my pocket has more computing power that the ones that put a man on the moon!’ I am not responsible for what my thumbs do with Twitter – it will be involuntary. You have been warned.