I recently attended and spoke at the inaugural internal Agile conference by DBS Bank in Singapore, which to my surprise opened with comments by the CEO Piyush Gupta. The term “comments’’ fails to describe Piyush’s exceptional articulation of how Agile connects to the bank’s strategy. He covered three major topics - agility, Agile and the way forward for DBS.
“Agile with a little a”
DBS wins awards and justifiably claims the titles “Asian bank of choice“ and “best bank in Asia.” Interestingly, the five year journey to the industry leading position started with the executive team focusing on values, then the “plumbing” of the bank or how work gets done. The end of the journey is a nimble, “Goldilocks-sized” bank - not too big and not too small, that is agile with a little a. Decisions happen quickly, service groups resolve issues fast and DBS measures innovations in days or weeks. As a result, the bank has a foundation to tackle future challenges such as a wider set of competitors, extremely high customer expectations for performance and great experiences, and customers that “need banking, not a bank.” He sees an existing product delivery framework incapable of delivering at a competitive speed to create “moments of joy” for customers.
“Agile with a big a”
Piyush started this segment of his talk briefly describing the problem with traditional software development. People create written specifications, which are often wrong or captured incorrectly. Then other people design and develop a solution. Then a new group of people test the solution and find problems that have to be fixed by the developers. Then the product goes live and is often not what the customer needs or no longer viable in the market.
Interestingly, Piyush identified “limitations of the human brain” as the problem. He channeled Jeff Patton’s comments in User Story Mapping by stating that we are incapable of sufficiently capturing the sum total of the requirements for a new product on paper. The person recording the requirements probably misses 30% of the information and the person stating the requirements probably hasn’t even realized another 30% of what they need.
Agile gets out of this conundrum through small teams working daily with the business in short cycles to see the outcomes along the way. The teams rely on conversation instead of paper. As a result, customers see new products quicker. DBS tests and learns faster from more frequent customer interaction. To get there, the bank needs to “fix the kitchen to get the right meal to the right customer at the right time.”
Agile in a large bank raises concerns of chaos. How do 20 teams “own the thing?” How can we ensure security? How will we manage defects while developing new products? What is the change management process? Then Piyush got a laugh from the audience. “Agile doesn’t mean a Bohemian, hippie-like attitude to managing core banking systems.” He set goals for rigor in DevOps, test automation, daily regression tests and disciplined, parallel processes - Agile to build new solutions and DevOps to deploy them.
The Way Forward
While DBS is well positioned in Asia, Piyush sees a long way to go compared to Silicon Valley and other Asian companies like Alibaba. Apple Pay threatens all big banks. Apple builds faster and better than the banks. DBS must “operate like those guys” at Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon.
“The road ahead is longer than the road behind.” DBS needs to quickly figure out how to effectively develop solutions across multiple Asian countries; how to reimagine jobs, roles and skills; and leverage human-centered design to always keep the customer in mind.
Piyush beautifully described how the lines between application development, business people and product managers are and must keep blurring. Silos must go away as DBS integrates digital customer experiences, new technology and new approaches to delivery. “Agile with a big a” is not just about technology, he said. Ultimately, every project must leverage Agile for DBS to compete.
He certainly kicked off the two day event on a high note. I have participated in several, similar conferences and had not seen such a senior executive begin the conference let alone speak about the connection of Agile to strategic challenges with conviction and clarity. Piyush’s words led to a deeper, richer and focused experience for the attendees and the six international speakers. As we closed the conference with an interactive exercise for attendees to reflect on what they discovered and remaining “puzzles” followed by an informal panel session to discuss a few of the puzzles, I felt confident and optimistic about the prospects for the DBS Agile journey. I met great people who want to be Agile and they have an exceptional leader who knows what that means for DBS.