“Active sponsors” and other mythical creatures of banking innovation: a survival guide
Sponsorship is an active condition. I remember the first time some leadership training or other gave me that little gem. And I was suspended half way between “mind blown” territory and “what planet did they come from” disbelief.
That feeling has only intensified since digitisation, innovation, fear of missing out (FOMO) or whatever you want to call the roller coaster we live in has meant that people like me spend most of our working lives doing things for which organisations that love predictability have no templates.
Sponsorship is doubly essential for people like me.
It is also a double edged sword.
Without a sponsor nothing happens in banking. But very often nothing happens anyway, no matter how mighty your sponsor. Because although sponsorship is an essential condition it is not, in itself, adequate.
With the best sponsor in the world, you still need to put in the hard work of working things out and getting things built. With a less than perfect sponsor, you will need to sneak and strive, rally and toil. You will need to use your sponsor’s name in vain and break all the rules when they are not looking.
One way or another, perfect sponsor or not, you will make this happen. Not your sponsor. But you still need them. And they can be the key to your success or your undoing so managing them needs to be top of mind at all times.
The battle of the dads
In an ideal world, your sponsor resembles how you saw your dad when you were 5: strong, calm, wise, able to fix what is broken and smooth what is ruffled. Able to understand complexity and guide through adversity. Such a sponsor is an incredible resource for any project, for the team and the strategic vision we all serve. Plus that sponsor becomes an incredible and not so secret weapon when it comes to funding and executive approvals. My dad is bigger than your dad is how you win budget allocation battles.
Sure you should have a business case, and robust ROI projections, and an insightful analysis of untapped value pools and the competitive landscape. But unless your dad is bigger than the other guy’s dad your project won’t get funded and that’s that.
So when setting about to get your work approved see how much leeway you have to choose your sponsor, to put yourself out for adoption and not just go with the obvious (your boss, your reporting executive, the business owner).
If you have the luxury to choose your sponsor, don’t just look at functional fit. Look at the most powerful – politically or organisationally – player who cares about what you are doing. You are asking them to go out of their way and use political capital. You are asking them to stand in the middle of the playground and be bigger than the other guys’ dad. So choose the one who has the clout and cares to use it.
Care being the operative word.
The executive floors of banks are teeming with important people. People with clout. People who would definitely be bigger than the other guy’s dad. But do they care? Do they have the curiosity, the passion, the compassion, the geekery to care about defending the weird and wonderful thing you are trying to nurture in the most inhospitable of environments: a bank?
If you can’t choose your sponsor, or if you choose unwisely (no beating yourself up about it, we’ve all done it and will be doing it again without a doubt), or if the mythical creature I just described doesn’t exist in your organisation and you have to make do, you need to figure out what beast you are dealing with. And fast. Because you still need to use your sponsor, where you can. And you also need to manage this precious and volatile resource lest it turns against you.
So while you are on the lookout for the unicorn that is the active sponsor, there are some rather more commonplace varieties to be encountered in the wild.
DIY: don’t involve yourself. The art of managing from high atop a mountain.
This is the most commonly encountered variety of the sponsor species.
They will vaguely care about the framing document, they will be extremely busy throughout the build phase and will be interested in the last mile. That may manifest itself in a variety of ways.
There is the benign version, that lets you get on with the hard slog but stays uninvolved and uninterested until things have a recognisable shape, like a parent that only cares to engage with their kids when they are capable of sustained conversation, not caring how that miracle actually happened.
And there is the less benign version, those who don’t care about the hard slog and somehow want you to magic it away, get them from conception to delivery by getting nine women pregnant in one month, rather than waiting for a normal gestation period. And with no reference to biology or procreation in the process.
There is a hybrid version as well, these may randomly appear with demands for updates, not having read any document you sent them, not having accepted any meeting invitation you sent. They may swoop in out of nowhere wanting to make themselves useful because someone asked them how things were going and caught them unawares, or because they don’t know or care what it takes to get something done, they want to be given something to do that makes them feel like they are helping accelerate towards the finish line.
Beware of the sponsor’s need for escalation. This sponsor who cares not about the work and just wants you to finish is the species most likely to demand you escalate any delays or bottlenecks. With inadequate information on the project, your efforts or the nuance of what is going wrong and what needs to be calibrated, they will pick fights in your name, leave you to clean up the mess and then turn on you and demand why you can’t just bloody finish, when they did everything you needed to clear your path.
They will demand you tell them what is slowing you down so they can fix it when you futilely explain you are not actually delayed. This is how long it takes. If you don’t have a wand.
Serving different masters
Another mutation of the common sponsor, that may appear combined with the above but also exists as a stand-alone species, is the reporting fiend. This sponsor seems great at the beginning as they may barely look at your delivery schedule but seem keen to agree a communications schedule. When they get to hear, what and by whom.
Nice. You think. Sponsor cares to hear from us frequently. That can only be a good thing, right? Wrong.
The most common malady of the banking project, across all disciplines, is that things fast become victims of their own implementation discipline. Reporting becomes a deliverable and stakeholder management becomes more important that the code you are trying to ship or the hypothesis you are trying to test.
Beware of this species of sponsor as they serve different masters and sponsoring your effort fits into a world view where “doing” and “delivering” are interchangeable and boil down to endless PowerPoint slides and committee meetings.
This sponsor will have you managing leading indicators as if they were gospel and they will never ask, nor let you discuss with them: What is this for and how do we know it worked? For them it is about managing senior expectation and it worked if your report was on time. Irrespective of what was in it. This sponsor will kill scope in the name of your RAG status and will refrain from the ambitious in the name of the manageable.
It’s all about the progress report, you see.
The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference
A sponsor who cares about you, your team, the department, the geekery you bring, the client you serve is like balm on a wound. Sponsorship is an act of love and demands nurturing instincts and concern. The sponsor needs to care. That’s the only way you make time, find energy, justify the effort.
In the absence of this, we languish in indifference, especially as most of our projects on the digital/innovation/new tech side are aspirational and nice to have. They are reversible, if we get them wrong, and nobody will go to jail or directly lose revenue if we don’t do them at all.
So they are the first ones to suffer when time becomes a scarce commodity and tempers heat up. When the sponsor isn’t driven by love, your meetings get rescheduled, you get dropped off the ExCo agenda for this quarter, your budget request gets tabled. And you get to hear the dreaded words that make us the Oliver Twist of the corporate world: i am sorry but this is the last thing on my mind right now.
As if the innovation teams wondered in from the street and made themselves comfortable uninvited. As if the future will wait for your convenience.
The medium is the message
Whichever species of sponsor you catch, or get caught by, you have a choice to make early on. You need to strike early, strike first and hold fast. You have the option to say hey mr sponsor we are doing X, in the name of future profitability and your greater glory. We are running standup meetings and empathy mapping workshops, we write software, we run experiments, we use paper prototypes and minimum viable products. You are sponsoring a change in the way we, as a company, approach the client, each other, our work and the future. You are sponsoring something bigger than the project itself. Let our conversation be reflective of that.
We will brief and report, we will share and explain but let the way we say things be part of the way we work. Let us shape the conversation with you in a way that shows you more, not less, of what it is you are supporting us to do.
Let’s face is, your sponsor will expect PowerPoint and inputs into the PMO weekly tracker and you can, of course, give them that.
And spend precious time turning your work into this unwieldy foreign language meant to inform your sponsor but actually succeeding in isolating you, your work and your team, by accepting implicitly that the language you speak in your batcave is not fit for executive consumption.
Which may be true. But isn’t that the battle to end all battles?
Protect the human
Whichever way this plays out, unless you live in a dreamscape of unicorns, wise sponsors and entirely bug-free software, you will have days when you will walk back from the sponsor’s office to where your team are, and you will feel crushed. You will be deflated, tired of talking at cross purposes with the people who hired you to do the things they don’t let you do, demoralised because you are forced to justify your very existence as if they didn’t hunt you down, they didn’t brag for your latest release, as if your entire team were tolerated out of some corporate magnanimity that is being stretched by your rebellious ways. You will find yourself in a corridor feeling utterly flat. You will feel fatigue at having to say the same things again and again and anger that even when you are proven right, your organisation doesn’t let you bank that and move on but forces you to start from scratch each time, forcing you to fight the same circular battles each day.
Your team will be sitting in the batcave. Lab or normal office, makes no difference, the kind of team we are talking about has a magical effect on space, they will make the corporate wasteland of beige carpet and ergonomic grey chairs feel alive.
Your team will be waiting to hear how the meeting went. Or they will be getting on with the work, happy it’s you and not them fighting that fight. Or they will be passionately debating a formula, a line of code, the inherent superiority of batman vs superman.
Before you go through the door to join them again you have a choice to make.
You have a responsibility to the organisation to deliver. And to your colleagues to be truthful. If the meeting sucked, tell them. They are part of the solution.
But as you walk towards them reflect: a sponsor is essential but not adequate. The team on the other hand… The team is everything. They are the bringers of magic, the dreamers of dreams, the builders of things and the crackers of jokes. Without them there is no transformation, no innovation, no hope of change. They are enough.
So if you can’t bring them the sponsor they need, maybe that’s your cue to become the sponsor they deserve.
Bringing in love what you may lack in political clout.
By Leda Glyptis
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ new resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
Leda is a lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem, inhabiting both start-ups and banks over the years. She is a roaming banker and all-weather geek.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!