Long reads

Agile Series: Diversity of thought

Andrew Smith

Andrew Smith

Founding CTO, RTGS & ClearBank

Diversity is a big issue, one that challenges most organisations, and with ESG becoming increasingly important, it is becoming hard for regulated institutions to hide from their responsibilities. Now I personally don’t see it as a responsibility, I see diversity, and by that, I mean all aspects of diversity, as an opportunity to do things better, and to innovate.

Needed experience

Most regulated businesses in their Job Descriptions have a sentence that reads something like:

“You must have 2 years’ experience working within a regulated institution”

Or they will have something like:

“You must have 2 years’ experience working in the financial services industry”

This is systemic right across financial services, with far too much “value” being placed on having experience within a very narrow view. You see this from grass roots positions right the way up to the ExCo. For example, a bank ExCo role almost always says you need to have X years’ experience as a designated Senior Manager (part of the Senior Managers Regime – SMR). So, if you need this SMR experience to get into ExCo, where did you get that SMR experience from in the first place? The result is you get the same people moving between institutions because they are the only people with the right “experience”. It means you get the same “thoughts” cycling round and round the industry. Not exactly the right mix for innovation to flourish within…

I have always found that in most cases, stating you must have X years of experience stifles diversity and therefore diversity of thought which ultimately means you are stifling innovation.


Skills therefore are the most meaningful measure of if someone is suitable for a position. When I build out engineering teams and wider IT departments, I only care about a person’s skillset. Now for certain tools, yes, I want someone with experience using that technology, because I don’t necessarily want to go on an education journey before they add value. But their experience in terms of have they worked in a specific industry; I almost never ask for.

If my engineering team has a wide variety of backgrounds, life and work experiences, then they are able to think differently. We can look at the same problems and come up with a few different solutions, enabling us to challenge each other’s approach and most importantly, innovate.

Team construct

In an agile engineering team, I insist on a principal engineer, or senior engineer. I firmly believe in autonomous teams, so you need someone you totally trust to make the right decisions and who ensures the fundamentals are of a quality you can rely upon. For me, fundamentals are:

  • Security
  • Availability
  • Performance

The construct after that may include an agile BA whose skills and experience is linked purely to agile principles and their ability to communicate business needs. They don’t need to be an expert or experienced in a specific subject, and they do NOT need specific financial services experience. This is where a Subject Matter Expert comes in. Now this is the only role where experience in a specific field really matters. They can tell you how something is currently done and why, but they aren’t there to think of how it should be done in the future. Only to validate that it works after that. The SME empowers the BA and team to look at the problem / solution in a totally different light, knowing though they are totally informed with all the data points they need.

There is a lot to learn form other industries, for example, the gaming industry (I mean gambling in this case) has provided many new approaches to mobile apps and capabilities. They were some of the most pioneering organisations on the technology front when mobile apps first appeared.  Companies that provide streaming services have given us concepts such as “Chaos Monkey” to really build super resilient solutions. Now cloud native banks almost all form some form of version of Chaos Monkey theory for their resiliency. These innovations didn’t come from banking or finance, and I don’t think they ever could have.

So, if you want to look at new ways of solving problems, you need people who think differently, who think outside of the box, who bring with them experiences of how similar problems have been solved in different industries, different places around the world etc.

The same is true of most aspects within a business. I have sat through thousands of hours of workshops across various areas of banking, insurance, telecommunications etc where it is clear, the people driving the processes are basing this so-called new process totally off their experience of what they have seen implemented before. There is zero thought put into, “could we do this differently?” You can see this in so many processes that are supposedly digital now in banking. The actual process or workflow almost identically follows what an old paper process looks like, it’s just now done on the computer. Not exactly innovative.

Diversity of thought leads to innovation

So, if we have teams of people looking at the same problems, each with different experiences we get different views. The trick then is to take these views and see what can be learned from each one. Have an open mind and challenge each other, there is nothing wrong with challenging people’s thoughts and what they think is best. Through genuine challenge and questioning (not loudest voice wins), you get a clearer picture of what the art of the possible can be. Sometimes there isn’t too much new that evolves, other times, wow, you innovate and make some significant progress…

To boil it all down to one sentence…. Diversity is a key ingredient of continual innovation and improvement.

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