Hi there. I'm a Partner at Undercurrent, where I lead a team focused on helping ambitious organizations operate in ways that are beneficial to all their users.


The Recession Generation’s Impact on Finance

I’m really interested in finance, lately, if you hadn’t noticed.

I’m particularly interested in the way new consumer behaviors, and decades of implicit training, are pushing people who could be well-served by banks either away from using banks or to start their own competitive products.

A question I posed on Twitter: in a year, why keep money in a bank – why not just keep it in an Amazon account?

To wit, here’s a few choice quotes from a Forbes article about “The Recession Generation.”

Betterment, with $45 million raised so far, has a more authentic pedigree for its audience: It was launched in 2008 by two twentysomething New York buddies with their own savings. CEO and cofounder Jon Stein is a Harvard economics graduate with a Columbia M.B.A., who says he became disillusioned by his four years as a New York banking consultant. “We never, in meetings, talked about: ‘Who is the end customer.’ We talked about: ‘How do we optimize this product for profitability? What fees can we add on?’ ” says the 35-year-old.

This, ultimately, is something that we’re hoping to change with our clients. I’m happy to report that it’s having some traction, particularly at higher levels.

One thing that shapes almost all of these [unbundlers]: They’re practical. They emphasize stewardship, long-term appreciation and using technology to cut costs.

Two things here. First: these new companies are focused on building products for an era where revenue expectations will be inherently smaller, business-by-business, product-by-product.

Second: for consumers, if interest rates take a while to come back, the smart money is to use something like Digit to quickly move money from spending accounts to investment accounts that get smarter over time.

The stakes are huge. For all the public focus on twentysomethings moving back with their parents or Lena Dunham and her underemployed friends carping about their lot on HBO’s Girls, Millennials, roughly defined as young adults born after 1980, control maybe $2 trillion in liquid assets, Wealthfront says. By the end of the decade that number is expected to surge to $7 trillion. And that will get vastly bigger as Millennials enter their prime earning years and then a massive wealth transfer from their Boomer parents begins.

The most important thing for a large financial institution, as far as I can tell, is getting prepped to receive an influx of funds from the next generation of workers just as interest rates return to form.

Fidelity, for its part, seems further behind: For now it’s focusing on content, through a new website, www.moneyfirsts.com, that includes tools and education articles (partly from LearnVest) and a link to a Fidelity Facebook planning app. The company also brags about the kind of basics–depositing checks via smartphone and eliminating ATM fees–that hardly seem revolutionary.

This is a major bummer.

Anyway, worth a read!

Read more: The Recession Generation’s Impact on Finance

The Iterating Organization

This is a great story from The Next Big Sound – an analytics platform for the music industry – on their transition from legacy to modern ways of working.

First, we agreed to do away with strictly product-focused teams, and instead introduced project-focused teams. We defined a “project” as 2-4 weeks of focused work, and agreed that there would only be one project at a time per team. We also encouraged everyone to keep the teams small, in order to minimize communication overhead and maximize speed, and independent, in order to minimize external dependencies.

To me, the stabilization of rhythm is the most important thing to get right – predictability makes every other change easier.

Instead of top-down management, teams would self-organize and self-manage, with everyone was encouraged to take on the team lead role. (In fact, as of today, everyone at the company has served as a team lead on at least one project). We offered some loose guidelines, but each team had the choice to follow, not follow, or amend them.

Love this. One of my mistakes early on in Undercurrent’s transition to new ways of working was to try to force it on people. When they didn’t want it, found the change odd, or just preferred a slightly different version of what I was preaching, I was put out. Lots of wasted energy and emotion for everyone involved. Do not force teams to work in a certain way. Invite them to it.

At the time, we thought that the most significant difference from prior iterations is that teams will now self-organize to complete specific projects. That is, people can join or ask others to join a team at any time, not just at the beginning of a project.

In retrospect, the more important change that we agreed to try was a new method of working that we later started calling “self-selection”. A year later, it is still a cornerstone of the way that we work at Next Big Sound: you get to pick what you work on, whom you work with, and where you work.

This is the principle of “Pull work” brought to life. Teams pull ways of working and things to work on, rather than have those things pushed upon them by management. We still haven’t gotten this right at Undercurrent, but I like to think we’re making steps.

Lots of learning within.

Read more: The Iterating Organization

Working Principles

Working Principles

The following principles provide guidance for all work; by applying them, especially when combined with processing and deciding methods, teams and organizations are able to become self-organizing quickly and without significant retraining. While they’re somewhat difficult to adopt (some elements run counter to “normal” corporate behavior), they’re designed to be simple and to inspire complex behavior inside teams and within organizations. Crucially, they’re written for humans. In building this list, we’re inspired by what’s stuck most at Undercurrent and by what’s been most powerful for client teams transitioning to a new way of working.

  1. Standard cycles: Define short rhythms for work (week-long sprints, say), for meeting about work, and for longer periods of emphasis. Hold these rhythms as sacred.
  2. Dynamic steering: Make small, frequently revised, iterative moves. Instead of killing ideas before they have a chance to prove themselves, just make them small enough so that they’re safe-to-try.
  3. Pull work: Inside of a clearly defined purpose and scope, teams choose their own work, way of working, and structure needed to get the job done.
  4. Double-linking: Teams have a leader and a representative. The leader has the responsibility to allocate resources and is ultimately accountable for results. The representative has the duty to surface issues at the next level above the team.
  5. Work in public: Deliver work into open spaces. Use group chat and blogposts to keep team members in the loop. Avoid closed, single-tenant platforms like email.
  6. Facilitation: All meetings are run by facilitators who have been selected by the group – and that facilitator mustn’t be the “boss”.
  7. Adaptive agendas: Agendas are built on-the-fly, prepared by the members of the team that are present, and are based on current issues.
  8. Simplification: Use the deciding method to kill unnecessary structure and simplify what’s needed. Keep only that which is necessary to reduce cognitive load.
  9. Record-keeping: Only the essentials are recorded, but they’re recorded thoroughly by a secretary selected by the group. Records are public by default and changes are made clear.
  10. Check in and out: Meetings are bookended by checkins and checkouts to create focus. Facilitated methods and meetings are respected by calling for “time” whenever it’s needed.

Guidelines & Tips

  • Pushing ideas toward “safety” (principle 2) feels counter to what conditioning, particularly for marketing organizations that want to make big plays. It’s uncomfortable, but stick with it
  • Teams that hold true to the principles are able to eliminate two behaviors that slow down progress: consensus-building and management, as iteration and leadership take hold. This takes months of experience for new players to grok. Patience!
  • Multi-tenant, connected software is an absolute requirement here. Doing work around the work – like updating a system that tells your colleagues that you did a task – isn’t something that any worker should live with. Our systems are smarter than that. Demand Google Docs or similar.

At Undercurrent over the past several months, I’ve been working with a few folks on the team toward an open-source, decompiled version of our operating system(s) that can be individually adopted, and improved in parallel (hopefully) by a large group of users. These are my notes. Comments open!
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Stellar, Yett

Stellar won’t be a transformative protocol when speculators start hedge funds to bet billions on its rising value, or when 1 Stellar becomes as valuable as 1 BTC. Stellar will be transformative when a migrant worker in California sends money home to his family without losing money to check cashing fees, bank fees, wire fees, and currency conversion fees. It will be transformative when a citizen in an authoritarian country can transact freely and safely with their peers around the world.

Other early adopters will build what look like toys, as the ability of anyone to create a gateway and trade in arbitrary currencies leads to a flowering of new ideas on what it means to be a bank or create a currency.

Yett is exciting. Short story: Stellar is a protocol that allows transactions between two currencies. Yett will be a platform that makes it easy for anyone to use Stellar. Here’s a fun list of things people hope to build with Stellar.

Read more: Stellar, Yett

Umpqua Bank – Responsive Example

The bank prides itself on doing everything differently. Instead of sending out junk mail offering consumer loans, Umpqua employees attached small flyers to potted plants and placed them on 1,700 doorsteps in the neighbourhood they were targeting. Every day begins with a “motivational moment” (read something inspiring, play marshmallow dodgeball or hold a trivia quiz; do not refer to corporate memos or procedures). Phone calls are answered with the words “Umpqua, the world’s greatest bank”. Tellers, for example, hand out a chocolate with each cash withdrawal. It goes to great lengths to cut the time and form-filling involved in obtaining a mortgage—typically an agonising process.

Awesome!

When Umpqua passes $50 billion in assets—not a far-fetched prospect—scrutiny will increase exponentially. Banks subjected to this level of red tape describe it as all-consuming.

Unfortunately for them, though, it may be (at least in financial services) that you must be small to be good.

Read more: Umpqua Bank – Responsive Example

Banks’ New Competitors

The rise of private-label banks, like The Bancorp, which power the new offerings — not only by upstarts like Simple and Moven but by major players like T-Mobile and Google — shows how regulatory barriers are lower than they seem.

The barriers are probably lower than they seem (see: Uber, Tesla?) but I’ll quote and corroborate The Economist here, on the impact of increasing scale: “Banks subjected to this level of red tape describe it as all-consuming.”

Banks cannot respond to these threats simply by “being more digital,”— i.e., closing down branches and rolling out better mobile and online banking services. If they want to defend their turf against the Googles and PayPals of the world, they themselves must move further into the commercial lives of their customers.

This is obvious, but I guess it’s a point worth making?

They must learn to play a greater role not just at the moment of financial transactions but before and afterwards as well. Banks possess inherent competitive advantages in the digital world. They have large customer bases; vast amounts of customer and transaction data; and capabilities to enable payments, security, and financing – all of which are tough to replicate.

Hard to replicate: Large customer/data bases, check. Everything else? No check.

Side note: how come transactions are SO BORING? There’s no reason it’s a chore to log into my bank to check transactions, to categorize things on Mint. An aside to this side note: with everything a bank knows about me and where I spend, why do ANY rating sites (from Foursquare to TripAdvisor) even exist?

Read more: Banks’ New Competitors

Deciding Method

deciding

DECIDING METHOD

The below is essentially a carbon-copy of Sociocracy’s Decision-Making Process, just decoupled from the notion of governance and structure. The aim of this method is to enable fast decision-making and to push most decisions toward manageable, safe-to-try size, and we’ve had success extending this process to any significant move…including recommendations to our customers. Depending on the scale of the recommendation, this method can require anywhere from 1-30 minutes to process a recommendation into output, and the method can be easily applied inside of regular meetings to bring speed and finality to a decision.

STEP 1: RECOMMEND

Describe why you think an adjustment or new course of action is needed; Propose a solution or something to try.

STEP 2: CLARIFY

Each member of the group has the option to ask questions of the Presenter to clarify their understanding of the proposal.

STEP 3: REACT

Each member of the group has the option to share their opinion, suggested changes or amendments, cautions, and/or support for the proposal.

STEP 4: EDIT

Having heard questions and feedback from the group, the Presenter can make changes to their proposal before it is committed to by the group.

STEP 5: CONSENT

Each member of the group is given a chance to object to adoption of the proposal, if they feel that it is not safe to try in the near term. If someone has an objection, the person objecting suggests changes to the proposal, and the Presenter works with the person objecting to create a safe-to-try version of the proposal.

GUIDELINES & TIPS

  1. Only one person should own each proposal, and only one person should speak at any given time – dramatic speed increases are possible if you stick to this
  2. Recommendations can be for any change in course, be it a new project, a new structure, a new rule, etc.
  3. No quorum is necessary for a decision, with the understanding that anything can be changed at any time
  4. Facilitation of this method is strongly recommended for new groups; as familiarity with the process increases, groups become self-mediating
  5. This process functions well over group chat, with a shared wiki/Google Doc to capture and edit the output in real time

Additional reading material & sources

At Undercurrent over the past several months, I’ve been working with a few folks on the team toward an open-source, decompiled version of our operating system(s) that can be individually adopted, and improved in parallel (hopefully) by a large group of users. These are my notes. Comments open!
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Decluttering the Company

There has been an explosion of “performance imperatives”: in 1955 firms typically embraced between four and seven of them; today, as they strain themselves to be kind to the environment, respectful of diversity, decent to their suppliers and the like, it is 25-40.

Senior executives spend two full days a week in meetings with three or more colleagues. In 22% of these meetings the participants sent three or more e-mails for every half an hour they spent sitting in the room.

Bain says a manufacturer it studied made savings equivalent to cutting 200 jobs by halving the default length of meetings to 30 minutes and limiting to seven the number of people who could attend.

Some good fun in The Economist this morning, and good fodder for what we’re up to these days. Shame they quoted McBain and not us. (For what it’s worth, I put away the Business and Financial sections via audio during my bike ride this AM. Very enjoyable.)

Read more: Decluttering the Company

Bain Ventures: Trends in Payments Innovation (PDF)

Bain Ventures dropped this deck. It’s worth a look. Some trends that I found interesting/relevant, based on what I’ve been seeing lately client-side:

  1. Developer-friendly payments – banks didn’t go there because (a) it seemed too small and (b) it didn’t seem worth the tech debt
  2. Shifts in decision-making from finance to technology (uh, yeah…and this is a BIG deal for corporate structure)
  3. Acceptance (still) only gets interesting at scale POS (typically the domain of a “strong” IT department) gets easy to connect across the organization
  4. Uber as a mobile wallet – interesting taxonomy, and I like the idea of it being a federated payments system for everything
  5. Analytics companies moving into payments (presumably because it’s getting easier to cross boundaries)
  6. Cloud-based mass payout systems enabling large, distributed brokerages (AirBnB, Fiverr, etc.) to scale without working with banks
  7. Commercialization of digital currencies like Bitcoin (Edison: “Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success.”)

Read more: Bain Ventures: Trends in Payments Innovation (PDF)

Processing Method

Processing Method

Used frequently by individual teams to kick-start work, this method functions primarily as a facilitation guideline for weekly status meetings.

Step 1: METRIC review

Review any current metrics for the team and for each individual. No discussion; only ask questions to clarify trends.

Step 2: IDENTIFY ISSUES

Any team member can raise any issue, opportunity, or item, and placeholders for each are recorded on-the-fly. Avoid describing each agenda item in detail.

Step 3: Process ACTION

Process items on the agenda one-by-one. Whoever brought the item describes the situation, and the facilitator helps find someone on the team that can help. The only resolution for each item is one or more actions to take forward from the meeting. Break down these actions and record them in a shared, open space (e.g. physical board or online system).

Guidelines & Tips

  1. Meetings for the processing method should start on time, with or without the team leader
  2. The processing method should be facilitated by someone other than the team leader
  3. Every action has an owner
  4. Metrics are decided by the team to guide their work, reinforce strategy, and provide a connection to the purpose of the organization; at Undercurrent we use OKRs for this purpose

Additional Reading Material & Sources

At Undercurrent over the past several months, I’ve been working with a few folks on the team toward an open-source, decompiled version of our operating system(s) that can be individually adopted, and improved in parallel (hopefully) by a large group of users. These are my notes. Comments open!
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.