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Change the Bank by Importing StartUp Culture

Last week I wrote about how Banks could change the model of financing Fintech innovation through an intrapreneurial process. A few people pointed out how hard this is to do well. They are right:

Creating a great start-up is incredibly hard, but it is easy compared to fundamentally transforming a big business.

It is incredibly hard, but not totally impossible and this is the mission of “change the bank” initiatives. Banks are trying to do this, so it is worth looking at examples of how this kind of transformation has been done well.

There are no case studies of banks doing this kind of transformation, for the reason is simply that, to date, there has not been any need for Banks to transform themselves.

So we have to look to the technology industry to find success stories to emulate. Technology companies face disruption regularly, when some new wave of technology makes the old way no longer competitive. If you work in the technology business, this is just business as usual. In fact, my research shows that the Competitive Advantage Period (CAP, when the dominant company reigns) is halving with each technology wave:

  • Wave # 1: IBM, mainframes = 25 years from 1965 to 1990.
  • Wave # 2: Microsoft, PCs = 12 years from 1988 to 2000.
  • Wave # 3: Google, Web = 6 years from 2004 to 2010.
  • Wave # 4: Apple, Mobile = 2010 to ???

These eras do not start and end on schedule and they overlap. We still have mainframes and PCs obviously. The incubation period, when little money is being made, but when the innovation is happening, occurs a few years before the CAP years. For example, the incubation period for PCs started in 1975. The point is simply that technology companies have been through the kind of wrenching change that banks are facing today and that one can therefore look to the technology industry to study the strategies that worked.

One can make a really long list of tech companies that failed to make the transformation; their names have gone into the dustbin of history (Wang, Digital Equipment Corp, Univac, to name a few). More recently one can witness a few transformations being attempted where the jury (the market) is still out (AOL, Yahoo, HP).

The one great example is IBM, which faced disruption and existential threat from PCs in the early 1990s and emerged stronger and is still a thriving company. Luckily, the person who led that transformation, Lou Gerstner, wrote a book that is the closest that business literature has to a thriller (Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance).

At the end of the book, Gerstner writes that he knew before he started that a big challenge would be changing the culture. At the end he writes that changing culture was not one of many challenges, it was THE challenge. In other words:

“It’s the culture, Stupid!”

Gerstner changed the culture by doing two things:

  • First, he focused everybody’s attention on customer needs. When Gerstner took over the reins at IBM, skeptics pointed out that he had never run a technology business (he came from RJR Nabisco). That was his big advantage. He brought the customer’s perspective into IBM and changed the culture to institutionalize that perspective. That sounds obvious, but IBM had become inward looking and bureaucratic (some people working in Banks might be nodding in recognition right now).
  • Second, he created a sense of urgency. When you own a market – as IBM did before PCs – the market only moves when you move. If you don’t own the market, you have to innovate at the speed of your most agile competitor. That can be a simple concept to understand, but getting people to “feel it in their bones” so that it changes how they act is a difficult cultural transformation.

Banks use to own the market. That is why, in the two earlier eras of Fintech, the only game in town was selling technology to banks. The idea of consumers and businesses buying financial services from tech companies was inconceivable.

However Banks no longer own the market. The Lending Club IPO was the wake up call. There will be many more wake up calls in 2015, with IPOs, big trade sales and funding rounds at nose-bleed valuations as momentum investors clamber to get on board before the exit. So, now it is essential for Banks to change their culture to a) focus on the customer and b) move at a faster pace.

Lou Gerstner had one big advantage when he took over in 1993 – a real and obvious crisis.

It is difficult to get people to change until they have to change. Without that motivating crisis, you have the problem of frogs in water that is gradually getting hotter but has not yet reached boiling point. Banks are in that position today. Many people at all levels in the banks recognize that they face an existential threat from the digitization of finance, but it is a bit like the threat of global warming where it is hard to find evidence that it is causing real pain today.

Startups have that customer orientation and urgency. If they don’t, you won’t hear about them. So, Banks could learn a thing or two about culture from startups.

Building a startup is a really stupid thing to do – like creating art, climbing a mountain or going into a downhill ski race is a really stupid thing to do.

It is stupid because of the 90:90 rule – 90% of startups fail and most founders dilute their equity by 90% (down to about 10%) before exit.

Las Vegas sounds more sensible.

Las Vegas also sounds more boring.

Working in a great startup is “being in the zone” or “being in flow”. It is a great experience that is life-changing and addictive.

Flow as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in this engaging Ted Talk is a solitary pleasure that is enjoyed by creative people. He describes it as the secret of happiness. This is the artist in the garret or programmer at home. Athletes often have this same experience, where it is called being “in the zone”.

Yet some people also describe the pleasure of being in a great team, of being surrounded by great peers and with coaches who help you achieve your potential. A great soccer team creates that experience. A game like American Football or Cricket is more structured where the captain “calls the shots” and this is what most business is like. A soccer game is more fluid and emergent. There is a Captain but the players work out their moves by taking their cues from their peers. In musical terms, this is jazz improvisation rather than classical music with a conductor.

Yet, jazz bands and soccer teams have leaders. Great culture requires that mysterious and much analyzed thing called leadership.

The thing that these all have in common is that they have found out how to institutionalize flow. They have taken that solitary creative secret of happiness that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes and turned it into a team.

A few big companies have attempted to institutionalize flow. The founder of Sony, described the founding mission in this way:

“If it were possible to establish conditions where persons could become united with a firm spirit of teamwork, and exercise to their heart’s desire their technological capacity … then such an organization could bring untold pleasure and untold benefits … Those of like minds have naturally come together to embark on these ideals.


To establish a place of work where engineers can feel the joy of technological innovation, be aware of their mission to society, and work to their heart’s content.

To pursue dynamic activities in technology and production for the reconstruction of Japan and the elevation of the nation’s culture.

To apply advanced technology to the life of the general public.


We shall eliminate any unfair profit-seeking, persistently emphasize substantial and essential work, and not merely pursue growth.

We shall welcome technical difficulties and focus on highly sophisticated technical products that have great usefulness in society, regardless of the quantity involved.

We shall place our main emphasis on ability, performance, and personal character, so that each individual can show the best in ability and skill.”


Sadly, few companies can do this on a large-scale and on a sustainable basis. It does not seem like Sony operates according to those founding principles today. Maybe it is something to do with Dunbars Law, meaning that Team Flow must mean small teams. Maybe those small teams can be incorporated into multiple teams with a single shareholding structure. The big technology companies competing for talent such as Google and Facebook, are clearly trying to do this by institutionalizing the founder’s vision of a great work environment. That is hard, but it easy compared to changing the culture of a big company that has been around for “forever” and that grew used to owning the market.

Banks, faced with disruption from digitization, have two main options:

  • Option # 1: Pretend that it is still business as usual until it is no longer possible to do that. As long as this quarter is not impacted, who cares? That is what IBM did and that is why when the crisis hit it was an existential threat. This is the default choice, because the other option is worse.
  • Option # 2: Do a dramatic transformation now. This means cannibalizing existing profits, which means shareholders will be annoyed and you may not get a chance to complete the transformation.

Option # 1 is pain later (probably) and pleasure now. Option # 2 is pain now (and maybe, pleasure later). You can see why Option # 1 is a lot more popular.

So, the question is whether it is possible to do things now that will avoid the kind of existential threat that IBM faced in 1993, without doing real damage to today’s business. For strategies like that we have to again look at the technology industry, but move on past the PC era, to when Google woke up to the disruption coming from mobile and acquired Android.

Google acquired Android in 2005 for $50m. This seemed like a ridiculously high price at the time, but it now looks like an incredibly prescient move. In 2005, it was no secret that mobile was the future, but nor was it accepted wisdom yet. Thanks to that $50m, Google is a player in mobile.

The key is that Google acquired Android during the incubation period for mobile, not during the CAP.

Facebook waited until later and had to spend $20bn ($1bn on Instagram and $19bn on WhatsApp) to become a player in mobile and avoid being disrupted.

Of course, it was not as simple as writing a check for $50m. Look at how many other Mobile companies Google acquired (click on the Business column to sort).

The Google transformation for mobile was a Buy & Build and then Buy & Build again success story.

They did not rely on one blockbuster acquisition. Nor did they wait until something was proven until acquiring. They built the Google mobile engine from multiple parts with a clear vision of the end result, which was to dominate search based advertising on mobile.

Contrast how Google became a player in mobile with how IBM fluffed their PC strategy in 1981:

  • Technical vision. IBM let Microsoft and Intel take the market because they did not have a clear vision of where the value was going to be in the PC ecosystem. Google had a clear vision of where the value would be in mobile.
  • Culture. IBM was not a culture that would appeal to the people in Silicon Valley who were creating the PC ecosystem. Somehow Google retained and motivated the key talent that was innovating in mobile.

The two are related. You cannot build a great culture without technical vision.

Banks have the opportunity to emulate what Google did with Android. They don’t need to transform now. Google kept their pre-mobile cash machine generating a full blast while they quietly built the mobile engine. All the run-the-bank initiatives are valuable in this context of making the existing business more efficient, but they are quite separate from the change-the-bank initiatives.

It is harder for a Bank to do this. This would be like IBM making the right decisions about the value creation in the PC ecosystem in 1981 (when it was in its incubation period) by buying and building the equivalent of the Wintel stack in house. That would have required giving that team a lot of autonomy.

Again, we can look to the technology industry for guidance, to when Steve Jobs built the first Mac. This article in Fast Company about “skunkworks” projects has the story (as well as another one about Lockheed Martin):

“Jobs cherry-picked a team of about 20 “pirates,” as he referred to them, and seceded from the Apple main campus. He relocated the team to a small building three blocks away, next to a Texaco station. The two-story brown-shingled building became known as Texaco Towers.

Jobs kept the renegade spirit alive with his maxim “it’s better to be a pirate than join the navy.” Jobs actively recruited rebels and swashbucklers—talented but audacious individuals who could move fast and get things done.”

Banks that look to engage with and maybe acquire Fintech startups must know that one of the things they are acquiring is the knowledge of how to create a winning culture. If Banks think that they are only acquiring technology and customers and can force the startup team to work in the Bank culture they will be making a common mistake that many technology companies have also made (Yahoo has been notorious for acquiring and then destroying innovation). The startup founding team will work their earn-out period and then leave.

However, Banks don’t need to change the whole Bank’s culture overnight. All they have to is not to kill the startup culture, by giving it the quiet, protected space to grow. Once it is grown, then it can become an internal success story, that the rest of the Bank can emulate.

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  1. […] Bernard Lunn Creating a great start-up is incredibly hard, but it is easy compared to fundamentally transforming […]