The Bold War

Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls

In business we all know there is a very fine line between success and failure.  An organisations ability to deliver is often the one crucial difference between the two spectrums.  With project delays being such a common occurrence in the banking industry, why do most banks persist with sticking to a standard waterfall delivery methodology?  Waterfall has long passed its use-by date and it’s time for the industry to start evolving its approach to projects.  With the pace of change increasing exponentially, the need to try something different is more crucial than ever.

Isn’t it ironic that someone decided to name the methodology ‘waterfall’?  Have they actually seen a waterfall in real life? It is not structured and rigid.  The only comparison that I can see between a real waterfall and the methodology is the crashing sound it makes when a project lands.  During my time in the industry I have heard of endless cases of banks delivering strategic projects late and over budget.  It has got so bad in some organisations that marketing managers refuse to plan launch activity until at least a few weeks after the expected go live date.  Yes, you heard right.  They actually plan for delays to happen…

The impact of delayed projects is often misunderstood.  Sure it is a drain on resources, but there are a multitude of ‘silent’ downstream impacts (pun intended). More money is required, which is generally reallocated from pending projects. Rework is created for the project team, its stakeholders and its dependencies.  This often causes other hold ups.  Staff on the project can’t be reallocated and utilised to start the next phase, or a different initiative.  Worst of all, your demanding customer base can’t use the great new service you planned on launching.  All of this leads to frustration that impacts the morale of the entire project team. 

When projects invariably fail in banks, senior management reaction can vary significantly.  Some dive into the project, believing that their ‘leadership and management skills’ can solve the problem.  Some start playing the blame game or go into supplier bullying mode.  Some accept excuses about unexpected complexity.  Whilst some just choose to ignore the issue altogether and accept that delays are just part and parcel of the delivery lifecycle.  All however choose to ignore the underlying issue - the methodology being used doesn’t suit the projects it is being used for. 

For some reason banking remains one of the few industries to have avoided the mass adoption of agile delivery methodologies. Every bank seems to have one team doing it but not much else.  I do not propose to go into detail about the different forms of agile delivery, there is a wide range of them, and they all have their own little intricacies.  The key to all agile projects however is a strong focus on the end consumer, close collaboration, and team empowerment.  This type of practice and behaviour is not only useful for delivering projects.  It is also a great microcosm of the cultural shift that most banks require across the board. 

An added benefit of agile methodologies is that it can be especially useful in online and mobile related projects.  It is a great approach for ensuring that the customer is at the heart of the decision making process.  It also allows for the natural evolution of a user interface to take place.  You need to remember that when online banking was launched roughly 12 years ago, it was the first time banks had to design a proper user interface (ATM screens don’t count).  As banks mature their models for user centred design, and budget for online and mobile projects increase, the move to agile only becomes a more natural fit.

For banks willing to go on the journey to agile it is important that they understand it will not happen overnight.  There will be a transition period for the project team, its stakeholders and leaders.  People will need time to adjust to a collaborative and empowered approach to work.   Some projects may fail along the way but it is worth the small amount of pain.  The worst thing you can do is stick your head in the sand and ignore the issue.   As banks continue to launch similar services in the online and mobile space, the best way to differentiate will be to deliver and maintain the best user experience.  The best way to do that is by using agile.

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