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Organisational Behaviour: Synchronised Swimming Versus Football Teams

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In another guest post related to industry versus digital banking Marko Wenthin, co-founder of solarisBank, sent this insight into my discussion of FinTech banks last week.

Organisational behaviour – synchronised swimming versus football teams

I read the post of my friend Chris today about how a FinTech bank embraces IT rather than have it as a separated monolith. Only if you are able to bring business, operations and IT together you’ll be able to answer to the challenges ahead in a timely fashion.

I agree that in a traditional organisation this will be hard to achieve as the organisational structure is just not prepared to cope with the demands of an ever-changing world.

The traditional org chart with vertical reporting lines into line managers is all very well but it basically prevents such organisation to work quickly, agilely and coping with market requirements. Old technology obviously being a major impact factor too.

But let’s not talk about old and new technology now, just let us have a look how from the organisational perspective the ground rules have to be rewritten.

In a traditional organisation you would have your business departments such as Sales, Marketing, Customer Support and the like standing next to typical banking departments such as Compliance, Legal, Risk Management etc. Yet another pillar would be the technical part, such as IT development, IT Management and Operations. And then you have your financial Management departments such as accounting, regulatory reporting and so on. There are obviously much more but it suffices to highlight the main parts of a bank.

We all always work towards a team spirit in order to achieve the best results. The problem only being, if the Sales team or the Legal or the Tech team is a real team the typical human nature kicks in. The better a team functions the more the people identify themselves with their group and their peers. Which per se is not a bad thing indeed. Yet, as a side effect you get competition. Everybody not in your inner circle suddenly becomes a threat from outside. The terms “We” and “Them” get imbedded in way people communicate and work. Even if they are all part of one company.

The issue with that being that instead of pulling at the same side of the rope there are company internal struggles and the greater good of a company becomes a secondary if not a tertiary goal. The end result being that the company slows down on every aspect of the business.

Indubitably, engineers are different from marketeers are different from lawyers or compliance folks are different from operations staff and so on. If they all play in their own-peer-only-field the dynamics become frightening and dangerous for the company. The larger a firm gets the bigger the effects of that become. Why are startups with 10 people getting stuff done faster than larger organisations? Well here you have one possible answer. We often talk about speed boats and large tankers.

How can a larger or growing company embrace these challenges? Well, let’s look into sports. When you are in synchronised swimming what you want to achieve is a starling like choreography where everybody moves absolutely in sync with all the rest. You would get this in a traditional organisation where everybody in one department is both from the education as well as from personal behaviour very similar.

But it is not the similarities which bring things forward but the differences. Because you want to achieve goals for your company, not your department. What good is it to have the best performing sales team, if products cannot be delivered. Or the best developers’ team if the products created cannot be sold or are sanctioned by the legals.

In football you bring people together who are different and have different skill sets. A goalie, a striker and a midfielder have their own specific peculiarities. But the sum of those differences brought towards a common goal makes a great team. The common goal being to win the match, the league or the tournament.

What can we learn from that in business? Bring the specialists of their own fields (legal, product, IT dev, sales, operations) into one smaller unit or cluster and buy that virtue split the company horizontally rather than vertically, for instance by products.

You create your own speed boats within the larger organisation with a full set of skills and full P&L responsibility in their domain.

Naturally they will form a real team for the success of that one product A-Z. The product owner makes a brilliant midfield director and keeps operations and IT dev in the position to provide the right things (products) the strikers (Sales and Marketing) can transform into success (goals). The legal or compliance colleagues (defense and goalie) keep you from getting into trouble. Your Management or C-Level Sponsor changes his or her position into the one with oversight from the sideline keeping the market and the respective unit response at all times sharp. If you go the extra mile and have Agile Coaches to help to work agilely at designing great products you will soon realise that a seemingly heterogenous unit suddenly becomes your well synchronised successful speed boat.

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