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Agile in Financial Services: Don’t meow at dogs

For banks, clear use of language is not a minor detail – it’s crucial to achieving simplicity and agility.

As any dog knows, it can be hard to learn new tricks. And it’s even harder without clear instructions.

What’s true for dogs is also true for banks. Large banks face significant internal barriers as they seek to become more agile and responsive. And in our experience there’s one particular obstacle that is easy to overlook: The importance of clear, accurate language.

The banking industry is full of arcane terminology, jargon and acronyms. That’s a natural result of its complicated history and regulatory environment. But when that language collides with Agile terminology – which makes little allowance for the quirks of different industries – it can lead to trouble.

If you think that sounds like a minor point, then think again. There isn’t an organisation in the world where language doesn’t play a central role in establishing culture, priorities and a sense of ‘how we do things’. And that attachment to traditional terminology is particularly strong in banking. Shared understanding is vital to banks’ ability to manage complex issues across a diverse range of locations, functions and markets.

That means that the inaccurate and inconsistent use of Agile terminology can have a significant impact on banks’ ability to quickly achieve transformation at scale.

(To be clear, I’m talking about Agile in the purest sense – as a method of delivering technology change that originated as an approach to software development. At PA, we also help our clients become more agile across their entire organisation. In fact, our research shows that agile organisations are also more financially successful organisations).

Did you know the top 10% of financial performers are 30% more agile than the rest?

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  • At a minimum, inconsistent terminology makes every interaction slower and every team less effective. That quickly undermines the simplicity and co-operation that should be at the heart of Agile. This has a real, cumulative impact on banks’ ability to deliver rapid, responsive technological change.
  • Verbal confusion can lead teams to fall back on familiar terms. For example, it may seem harmless for staff to refer to scrum masters as project managers, but in my experience this kind of re-labelling often reflects a return to traditional thinking. 
  • In some cases, the inaccurate use of language can be a sign that people are simply ‘talking the talk’ in order to conceal a degree of scepticism, or even resistance, to the adoption of Agile.

In short, language really does matter to successfully implementing rapid transformation in banking. That’s particularly true for incumbents, since new entrants and challenger banks are more likely to have an instinctive understanding of Agile methods. They are also less likely to be attached to legacy language.

So what can big banks do to get their communication right? 

First, they need to recognise the importance of language, and of using it appropriately. The primary goal should be to use Agile terminology accurately and consistently. But that does not mean it should be rigidly imposed. If Agile language is to be relevant and valuable to teams, it must also take account of each bank’s existing processes and culture.

Second, banks must ensure all staff have clear expectations about Agile. This is about more than teaching them a few terms and definitions. Banks need to coach their staff on the underlying concepts and why they can be so valuable. Staff will be much readier to embrace Agile terminology if they understand it and believe it will make their everyday work easier and more effective.

In short, banks need to understand that people are as important to successful transformation as technology and processes. That makes clear communication vital to banks’ ability to set out a clear vision, manage expectations, achieve quick wins and unite employees around an agile vision for the future.

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