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The financial services sector received the most investment from VCs in 2021, topping $130 billion and growing 177% year-over-year. The pressure for financial institutions to hold the attention of their customers across product offerings will continue again this year. Digital disruption from fintech, big-tech, and internal innovation from direct competitors is forcing banks to scale infrastructure, expand their investment portfolio and diversify growth strategies, but not without a substantial learning curve.

A five-year growth plan for a mid-size bank now requires leadership to understand the benefits of cloud computing, artificial intelligence, process automation, hybrid physical and digital customer service, and personalized member experiences that cater to vastly unique needs.

On top of competitive pressures, the pandemic has accelerated customers’ demand for exceptional mobile experiences across retail and commercial services. Without a modern, agile approach, digital-first competitors will continue to provide compelling reasons for customers to switch all along the value chain.

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • How banks can gain an advantage with autonomous product teams
  • Why a shift to customer-led culture is critical for survival

Autonomous Product Teams Unlock a Speed Advantage

It’s the tired but familiar story of large, slow-moving corporations unable to keep up with innovative new market entrants. Sluggish department silos with unintentional horse-blinders on can’t adapt to changing customer needs fast enough. And because slow adaptation is what leads to industry disruption and eventually the decline phase of the business cycle, the threat is real for mature banks facing an onslaught of challengers.

Lean startups have a significant speed advantage. They can hone in on customer needs, prioritize high-impact features and optimize the customer journey practically overnight. Neobank WeBank launches up to 1,000 updates each month and takes only ten to eleven days to go from ideation to production. Meanwhile, an average bank launches 50 to 100 updates per month and takes one to two months to bring new ideas to market. Enterprises need to unlock this advantage- and autonomous product teams are a vital component. 

Large companies have leveraged autonomous product teams for decades to overcome the speed gap. When combined with a lean startup approach, enterprises have an advantage over lean startups. They have more resources–dollars and people–than fintech disruptors. While an actual startup will typically have the resources to tackle one opportunity at a time, a larger enterprise can spin up multiple teams that tackle a portfolio of opportunities, increasing the likelihood of success by defending their business against disruptors and capitalizing on new growth opportunities.

We’ve helped do it firsthand at a Fortune 500 insurance company, with autonomous product teams working on multiple lines in the water simultaneously. Wells Fargo Innovation Lab, Suntrust Accelerator Studio, and Ally’s TM Studio are other prominent examples. These lean, data-informed, customer-centric teams are more than just a hip office and a kanban board. They operate on the fringe of the core business and are empowered to execute under independent oversight, albeit with a clear directive to drive desired business objectives. Within months, a small team of research, strategy, product, technology, and marketing experts can laser focus on a problem and transform how a product adds value to the customer experience.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Wells Fargo rapidly responded to a surge in digital sign-ons with new features that allow customers to request mortgage payment referrals and apply for PPP loans online. Their organizational structure enabled speed-to-market. Without customer-centric autonomous teams, the development of these value-added experiences could have been delayed significantly or missed altogether. Wells Fargo defended its position in a rapidly changing competitive landscape by listening to its customers and quickly adapting its products to those needs. Layer in automation and artificial intelligence to the applications process information, and it’s these seemingly insignificant iterations that add up to a future-facing digitization strategy.

Team makeup is another advantage modern product teams have on their side. Having experts from each discipline weigh in on product decisions in real-time is a speed multiplier and serious risk-reducer. Siloed teams may follow a wrong path or hit unforeseen roadblocks. A cross-functional team with subject matter experts spanning relevant disciplines may have more context and insight earlier in an initiative and avoid unnecessary disasters or setbacks. This cross-functional model encourages equal contributions from all departments for every decision, not just those requiring their expertise. For example, a team’s data lead can provide valuable information about setting up tracking long before the group begins making UX decisions or building an app. In a conversation about feature prioritization, a marketing lead can recommend a light user test to validate hypotheses in-market before devoting weeks of development resources.

Imagine the advantage a bank with that kind of agility would gain for an industry that services such a vast pool of unique, complex, and personal needs.

To unlock such an advantage, ensure product leaders have the resources they need and some guidelines for what you hope they accomplish. We’ve had the most success when strategic initiatives are guided with tools like a learning plan, design-sprint frameworks, and an iterative, test & learn approach.

Creating a Customer-Centric Culture

If banks want to keep up with shifting consumer behaviors, they will have to evolve beyond team structure. Banks will have to design a truly customer-centric culture to disrupt themselves before their competition does.

Imagine the org chart of a technology company compared to an enterprise bank. At the bank, below the CEO, you might find the head of consumer banking, head of corporate banking, head of wealth management, head of strategic planning, head of human resources, chief risk officer, chief financial officer, and managing director.

Many traditional banks claim to be customer-centric but operate under divisionally-fractured org charts that limit visibility in the end-to-end customer journey. The banks continue to make decisions based on “the way things have always been,” even though customer needs have changed. They lean on experience to guide their path forward instead of new ways to solve new customer challenges. 

In comparison, at a fintech company, you’ll find a chief business officer, chief product officer, chief technology officer, chief marketing officer, head of human resources, chief financial officer, and president. The fintech company’s leadership structure doesn’t fracture based on each customer segment. Instead, the entire organization works together to adapt to customers’ needs and create a better product holistically, from acquisition to onboarding to support to sales. 

The company achieves maximized profitability because it organizes itself to rapidly deliver product improvements centered around the customers’ experience, not its product roadmap. As a result, leadership speaks the same language and delivers a shared vision across the whole company.

Looking at the example below, which company do you consider more customer-centric? For me, the difference is noticeable, and it’s not just a design choice; it’s a product strategy decision.

You can almost imagine two very different conversations that led to two very different product offerings. One is simple and speaks clearly to customer desires. The other provides multiple confusing options, likely based on company-led beliefs instead of current customer needs. The choice between the two options is easy.

The number of challenges financial service companies face is infinite. While many may not have the luxury of transforming their org structure and culture overnight, the more companies can embrace the competitive advantages that innovative technology companies bring into the financial services industry, the higher likelihood they’ll have of survival. 

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352 is an innovation and growth firm. Leading companies hire us to find billion-dollar opportunities, build killer new products and create hockey-stick growth. We bring grit and new-fashioned thinking to innovation, digital development and growth marketing.