Writing

Fintech Chatter Podcast

NAB Outside-In Conference Podcast on Fintech Chatter

A great conversation with Stevie-Ann Dovico, Dexter Cousins and I to discuss what makes great product teams in fintechs and larger financial services organisations. I share some of the experience of bringing LanternPay into HICAPS and how we are delivering to customer opportunities and leveraging the best of both worlds.

Little Gestures

The hundreds of little things
Which beat against the heart,
Were meant so. Like the tapping of spring rain, They batter us down gently
With their music

Nancy Flowers, Little Things

We love to celebrate the grand gestures, but success in life is made up of thousand of little gestures executed over years.

Last week someone shared that I had inspired their career choice over a decade ago. When they saw me talk with passion about the work I was doing, they wanted to give it a try and they have done so ever since. Importantly that wasn’t a speech or a sales pitch, some grand gesture. The conversation was an everyday work meeting. Small gestures have big ripples.

As we go about our careers, we obsess about the big gestures – promotions, speeches, awards, deals won. However, our reputations and are social capital are built on the little gestures – everyday conversations, acts of help, how we behave when things are tough, how we treat people in the little moments. These small gestures have an outsize impact because they matter less. Everyone knows people can put on a show for the big moments but what you do i. little moments says far more about who you are.

Little change repeated daily as a practice is far more likely to generate sustainable change and at greater scale than any big shift. Celebrate the little gestures of others to give them encouragement. Put your own into practice.

those delicious possibilities
sweeten each small
gesture of goodbye. Each anonymous, misplaced smile.

Elizabeth Libbey, The Gesture

This Strange Intimacy

With hearts good and happy, making
Life’s old hurt leave off its aching-

Hearts that crave no other’s pleasure,
But the days by duties measure;

Antonio Nicos Blanco, Intimate Prayer

Pervasive social media can generate a strange intimacy. Without any effort, as simply as opening an app, we can be thrust into participants in the daily adventures of others. We know and follow the daily duties of strangers. We share their meals, the adventures and their emotions for better and for worse.

This intimacy makes us more vulnerable to the intrusions of trolls, the obsessive and the vexatious. The sharing we experience as a deepening of connections can be weaponised against us. Intimacy can be turned to make barbs cut deeper. This intimacy can also be used to spread mis-information and suck the unwary into frauds, manipulation, and conspiracy theories.

The profound intimacy of lyric poetry makes it perilous because it gets so far under the skin, into the skin.

Edward Hirsch, The Immense Intimacy, The Intimate Immensity

Social media’s intimacy is getting deep under our skin. Linkedin hacks our perceptions of careers and success. Instagram hacks perceptions of lifestyles, fashions, food, imagery and body image. Tiktok plays with music, dance and trends. Twitter and Facebook manipulate stories, images, information, relationships and politics.

We can use social media to find our unique tribe. To find people who speak so to our heart that we clasp near strangers to our chests as long lost companions. We can find people with whom we share an unbelievable intimacy because of unity of mindset, interests, networks, and passions. We can deepen ourselves into the intimacy of our own unique bubble.

Whether this intimacy is good or bad is not determined by the platform. The choices and outcomes depend on us. We can use social media to find collaborators who will help us change the world, people to work with or to find partners for the adventures of life.

Intimacy unhinged, unpaddocked me. I didn’t want it.

Diane Seuss,

Social media can be a tool of engagement and communication. It can also be a vicious hack of our attention for advertising revenue, a manipulation of endorphins for addiction, and a simulation of friendship with artificial connection. The owners of these platforms will continue to invest to make them more engaging, addictive and intimate (Metaverse anyone?). They are far less concerned with their impact on social fabric.

The challenge we face is to be discriminating users mitigating both the ego returns and the need with the perspective that life goes on best off these platforms. Use social media to find your community and then engage them on and off your platforms of choice.

Communication is NOT Collaboration

We are deep enough into the wide scale adoption of hybrid-working, chat tools and video conferencing to draw some conclusions. One thing is now becoming abundantly clear: 24×7 access to high-bandwidth and high velocity communication is not going to deliver collaboration.

Two and a half years on from the beginnings of the Covid pandemic, our workplaces are multi-dimensional hybrids – days, hours, locations, working styles and more. The tools of digital work that had long existed are now in widespread adoption with most organisations combining the traditional email and telephony with chat, video and other tools of digital work. Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Slack have been household names and there is a long list of competitors in use, but little revolutionary.

Before the pandemic, it was important to remind organisations looking at a digital workplace project that there was a difference between communication tools and effective collaboration between employees. The last two years have confirmed this experience. The rush to supply tools to meet, to stay connected and to do work does not guarantee collaboration.

There are many reasons why complaints about colleagues and collaboration in organisations are on the rise. We have lost some social muscles in the last years and the fragmentation, smaller bubbles and algorithmic information mean connection is harder. There are also real stress, trauma and mental health issues flowing from our recent experiences.

Three issues are most problematic in my experience:

  • Clarity: Are your teams really aligned to the same goals? Do they express those goals in measures and rich stories that everyone understands? You can’t collaborate without shared or aligned goals at least in part. Minor misalignments where people think they understand fast moving communication are far too common
  • Context: Do your teams share the same context of information in their work? In the volume of communication, it is easy to lose the context of information. For example, I was invited to join a regular meeting, there was a clear logic to each meeting but I couldn’t ever quite predict it. It took far too long for me to realise an agenda and documents were shared in a Team in Microsoft Team that nobody ever mentioned. Lacking context can mean you cannot understand other’s work or communications. Context was always going to be an issue at this time.
  • Cohesion: Relationships and moods post pandemic are brittle. Bringing people together, holding people together and striking compromises is harder than it seemed before. We have lost social muscles.
  • Complexity: Agile, iterative, parallel, hybrid, distributed, global, connected, faster, more data-driven, digital, automated – all the adjectives we use to describe our world of work make it more complex, not less. These elements can make even the simplest collaboration into a complex systemic change exercise.

Communication is the vehicle. Collaboration is the work. Don’t confuse the two. The first is possible if you have the right media. The second depends on culture, people and practices. The reason organisations consistently need change and adoption to support their collaboration goals is not because the communication tech is hard. The hard but most rewarding part is always the people in the teams.

No Heroes

Change initiatives of any scale are hard work. We make them harder when we decide to be heroes.

Repeat after me:

  • The System is working perfectly as intended
  • The System is designed to beat any individual, however heroic.
  • You don’t always need to change the System. You might just need wiggle room.
  • Change in the System takes a team, stakeholders and influencers. You cannot succeed alone.

Be clear on what your goals are in seeking change. Don’t assume the system is broken or that others share your goals. Build a coalition of supporters and teammates. Seek only the change you need for your goal. Be kind to yourself.

You need a change. Nobody needs heroes. Nobody wants to become a martyr to their change.

Distance

The true artist is not proud. He unfortunately sees that art has no limits; he feels darkly how far he is from the goal; and though he may be admired by others, he is sad not to have reached that point to which his better genius appears as a distant guiding sun.

Beethoven, letter to a young pianist, 17 July 1812

No matter how hard we work the distance to our potential remains. Mastery is not the pursuit of an end but merely a race after an ever vanishing star.

There is an old joke of a man who stops a stranger in New York and asks ‘How do I get to Carnegie Hall?’ The stranger’s reply is ‘Practice. Practice. Practice.’ However, it is often the case that even with carefully considered practice we never reach our destination.

Practice reveals new levels of performance, artistry and mastery that are yet to be attained. Ancient cultures, religions and professional guilds often work on opening up new levels of knowledge to practitioners as expertise developed. Reaching too far ahead could become daunting or dangerous by not having built the right experiences or foundations. The learning experience was mediated through a gradual opening of knowledge and practice.

In our modern impatience, we may have jettisoned the idea that all knowledge and experience must come in time through practice. Aren’t we just one Youtube video away from perfection? Yet, knowledge and experience is not all transferred digitally and instantly. Mastery demands practice and experiential learning. New levels of practice still open new vistas of potential.

We may not all have the genius of Beethoven. We can share and recognise his frustrations. We can all pursue that ever-distant guiding sun.

Negative Self-talk

Talking yourself out of success is easy. We have thousands of thoughts of our shortcomings ready for the purpose. Talking yourself into action on the key steps to your goals is much harder.

Shifting from self-talk to friend-talk

As we go about our days, we think about our work and judge our actions. At times this can be part of a constructive and reinforcing learning dialogue. Too often though we are lost in negative self-talk. In an increasingly digital world we can get lost in our own heads.

We project how hard things are or will be. We turn out behaviours, changeable on a whim, and make them immutable characteristics that mean we cannot succeed – cautious consideration becomes a lack of ambition, a reticence to promote oneself becomes shyness, a lack of energy becomes laziness and so on.

Our self-talk shapes our efforts and our resilience in pursuing success. I have talked myself out of great opportunities because self-talk shattered my confidence. Knowing how to pick the moments that you are undermining yourself and change the dialogue is key. Friends and colleagues play a key role in helping us test our self-talk against reality and in resetting our efforts.

Nobody needs a permanent critic that they can’t shake. Self-criticism can be a healthy part of learning. Make sure it is measured and that you are providing yourself with constructive and realistic feedback.

Accountability, Responsibility, Ownership, & More

Great organisations align responsibilities, accountabilities and outcomes. Your issues with accountability might be about lack of clarity of responsibility and lack of alignment to outcomes instead.

Every time I see a RACI matrix, that artefact of complicated organisations, i have to remind myself the difference between Responsibility (who does the work) and Accountability (who is on the hook and makes the decisions) in those tables. One reason that these concepts sit poorly with me is that they don’t seem to make sense. Why don’t the people doing the work get to make the decisions? Hang on we usually hold the people doing the work to account.

Great work occurs when responsibility and accountability are aligned and when the teams doing the work take ownership of not just the work but the outcomes. Great work occurs when people care.

For years, I resisted ownership as a concept at work because I had seen the concept abused far too often. Ownership of customers does not exist. Ownership of resources should not be used to block others. Ownership of projects must not used to resist collaboration and stakeholder inputs to the detriment of the work. However, a sense of deep commitment and ownership of the outcomes of work, lightly held to allow for changes, is a much more important part of success.

Organisations love accountability. Usually, in the manner of pushing accountability down the hierarchy. They hold those responsible for the work accountable while letting those accountable escape review. Power is like that. Uniting accountability and responsibility lays the foundation for genuine mutual accountability, not as parent-child in a hierarchy of power but as peers.

When organisations describe their accountability problem, it usually traces back to a few causes. Many can’t move passed an unwillingness to have hard conversations, an all too common problem. Much more commonly what is described as an accountability is a lack of clarity and alignment between accountability and responsibility and a genuine alignment to outcomes.

Procedure

Bureaucracy was the solution to an evil. The Bureau was a procedural solution to the untrammelled corruption and abuses of the autocratic state. We have restrained the world with prolicy, process and procedure. We have also created a new evil to fight, particularly as we enter more procedures into digital systems.

Kamil Galeev, a commentator on Russia recently posted a thread on the procedural nature of the Russian state. The key takeaway of the thread is that as a fully bureaucratic state what matters in Russia is not legality or even sense, what matters is following the procedures.

This procedural mindset is not constrained to renegade pariah states like Russia. A key message of the Australian Institute of Company Directors in recent years after many corporate scandals has been to remind boards that the critical question is not ‘what can we do?’. The key question is ‘What should we do?’. Too many organisations have so deified procedure that they lose the ethics of the actions in rote following of procedure. We need to act with greater care.

As we moving into an increasingly digital economy, the danger of pure proceduralism is something all organisations must consider. Just because you can build a purely digital exception free process does not mean that it is wise or ethical. Examples abound where such processes either fail customers completely, fail to provide equality of access or produce absurd and inequitable results.

Digital systems are not always as transparent as they should be and without human feedback poor interactions can continue endlessly. I tire of websites that force logins but don’t realise their login procedures don’t always work. These sites get in their own way ejecting eager customers and mostly seem unmoved by the ongoing poor experience. They clearly aren’t aware of what their data could tell them.

This digital bureaucracy is particularly the case in organisations where policy and procedure has accumulated over generations in response to breakdowns and exceptions. The byzantine nature of these processes makes any human progress nearly impossible and create huge costs for digital systems and their users. Far better to provide a human with discretion to apply sense in pursuit of sensible goals.

Bureaucracy is a human tool. Bureaucracy is a tool we should deploy to human ends. When it breaks down we should allow ways to fix it or improve it or stop all together. Keeping sight of our goals and choosing the right amount of policy and procedure is an important management task. More policy and procedure is not always the best option.

Care

Add yourself

to yourself.

Now you have someone.

Rae Armantrout, Care

Care. It is a simple admonition. One that may seem odd to need to reinforce. However the nature of our work and our organisations have so many ways to erode our care and concern for ourselves, our work and others. We need to engage the heart again and care.

At the easy end of the spectrum is caring for others. Organisational processes and policies have a habit of generalising people, de-individualising them and alienating us from the specific human colleague. This mechanical processing that treats people like widgets is an outcome of our bureaucratic preferences. Bringing care to each individual interaction, each decision and each action is a start of allowing the human back into our lives. We need to see the individual and address the individual needs to truly care for others.

At the mid point of difficulty is retaining care for our goals, purposes and concerns. These goals must be to deliver for others to have enduring meaning and to reinforce our concern for others. Building this intrinsic motivation is far more powerful than external rewards. Organisations put so many barriers and distractions between us and our concern to make a difference for others. We need to strip back our concerns and focus our care for what we can collectively achieve for others.

So many people to whom I speak are exhausted. We need to care for ourselves. I have listed this last because it is what we think of last, but it should come first. To be of value and care for others, we need to ‘put on our own mask first, before attending to others’ in the words of the inflight warning. Taking time to assess, understand and address our concerns must be part of our everyday routine.

Care often feels like the part of our working life that is easiest to let go. Great teams work to care for themselves, own their goals to benefit others and show deep care for all around them in every interaction. Letting go of care when things get difficult is a mistake. We are better to double down on our care and concern and work through that to better times.

And none could say what difference it made
that she came lacy-aproned every day
to raise a pale arm and wand away
those unseen motes from a window shade,
or stroke the rigid backs of certain books
with a soft cloth, and others with soft looks.

Don Barker, The Caretakers