When you fail you learn – Money 2020

I am sitting in an airport lounge in Amsterdam airport, drinking a Bloody Mary (much needed) after the 2018 Money 2020. I had a good week. I hung out with the FinTech Family, met some new friends IRL, interviewed two high flyers working on digital and cultural transformation at HSBC and did an old school Twitter Q&A with Verifone. But this isn’t about my exhausting, but productive week at a trade show. (or as Ali Paterson calls it ‘Comic-Con for FinTech’) This blog is about what I didn’t hear.

There was intimate roundtable held at the end of the show asking exactly this question. What did we not see at this year’s Money 2020 show? Some of the feedback was that Money 2020 is just that – a show. It isn’t a working group or a think tank or a chance to discuss, deconstruct and develop new strategies for change and innovation in our industry. Money 2020 is a showcase, it is theatre. And that’s OK. After 25 years in FinTech, I know that this strange little corner of financial services – filled with the world weary plumbers, tech nerds and regulation geeks – is important. We deserve a little razzle dazzle, spotlights and a sit down with Steve Wozniak.

But there is something that I feel we will never hear at an event like Money 2020 (or any other large, buzzy, event, which offers a public stage) And that is failure. Or what I like to call ‘the times when we fuck up’.

I have attended my fair share of hard core banking events in my time, where 90% of the delegates are suited out with the best of the men’s department of Marks and Spencer. I have also attended ‘tech’ events aimed at, not the corporate warrior, but the entrepreneur. Without fail, at the startup events, you will get at least three or four presentations, where a serial entrepreneur will give a talk about how their development team made a complete balls up of their beta product, or how plans for expansion misjudged a new market completely, or the time their entire team fell apart.

The times they had failed and learned.

From the first time you fall off your bike as a child, or fantasise that a home perm will make you look like Pre-Raphaelite painting, or think that dating that guy who plays drums in a band is a good idea – it is then you realise you learn your most valuable lessons when you fail the hardest.

Large banks and corporate institutions are competing with new entrants to this market who want to disrupt their products and business model. The answer to all of these threats has been to seek to transform the corporate. Hence we see people on stage at Money 2020 talking about ‘digital transformation’ and cultural change, empowering employees and encouraging an ‘entrepreneurial mindset’. However, despite these phrases being said over and over again on stage, I have a sinking feeling that it’s all really bullshit.

Don’t get me wrong, if you have been hired to ‘change the culture’ at ‘large, multinational universal bank’ I am sure that is exactly what you are trying to do. (I don’t think you’re playing Candy Crush or Fortnite all day). But is it even possible for a working process – lean, agile, fail fast, etc… that was developed within a startup environment to actually work at a place where you are not allowed to ‘move fast and break things’? (Seriously, the FCA takes a very dim view of when banks ‘break things’ – RIP TSB 😦 )

Whenever I interview or sit down for a ‘fireside chat’ with a big bank person who is overseeing ‘digital transformation’ I always ask ‘What was the first thing you fucked up?’*

Not one person from a bank has ever, actually answered that question.

Banks aren’t allowed to ‘fuck up’. When they do experiments, those experiments are not supposed to fail. (which kind of defeats the purpose of an experiment). I once worked with a bank on developing a set of ‘experiments’. The project fell apart because I could  not give them a rock solid guarantee that these ‘experiments’ would be successful. <==true story.

Experiments, by their very nature, at times need to fail. Because that my dear friends, is where the learning happens. (cue Mr. Rogers music now.)

The futurist Mike Walsh once said: “The future is not an upgrade to the present, it is an invitation to think in an entirely new way.” 

That ‘entirely new way of thinking‘ has no historical data. Its risk assessment sets off alarm bells that can be seen from space. An entirely new way can only be achieved by experiments, by trying and by failing and learning.

If you work in innovation or digital transformation or cultural change at a big bank or financial institution and you can not tell me ‘when you’ve fucked up’ then I will never believe you when you tell me ‘what success looks like’ and how you are on your way to achieve it.

*I actually, don’t say fuck up (even though I want to). I know I am a badass on my blog and on Twitter, but I have been dealing with big bank PR for 25 years, I tend to phrase it as ‘What was your first challenge? What was the biggest lesson you learned? Don’t worry abt Lizzie.



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