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Perspective

When Culture Is the Product

Dan Huss | State Street Verus

August 09,2018

Goldman Sachs employs more engineers — about 9,000 — than any other single profession in their company.

It’s not surprising then, that Goldman has begun referring to themselves as a “technology company.” State Street Chairman and CEO Jay Hooley also has recognized the important role of tech innovation in shaping financial services as he said in a 2017 interview, “I land on technology as being the lever with the most transformative implications. You either transform or die.” State Street and Goldman are obviously not alone — it’s not hard to imagine that most folks in financial services have had discussions on technology’s new role in their organization, likely ranging from water cooler conversations to proclamations of tech prowess.

So in order to get a seat at the tech table (which is probably a Microsoft Surface©), it stands to reason that financial services will need to adopt some of the practices that have enabled tech companies to thrive. Nowhere is that more true, perhaps, than attracting the necessary talent. Excited tech nerds are the reagent that — when combined with freedom and enthusiasm — begin the chain reactions needed for change.

Within the equation for turning company lead into gold, and ultimately appealing to this talent, is perhaps the most important element —  culture. Tech companies look at culture as a “product” itself, and one that they actively troubleshoot and market to their employees and potential talent. You can see it in action in some of the now famous culture manifestos that have come out over the last few years. Netflix’s “Freedom and Responsibility,” Google’s “How Google Works,” or Asana’s “Culture Code.” Tech talent is attracted to these companies not just because they are doing the most cutting-edge work or because of the seemingly endless perks, but because they know these companies share their beliefs and values.

Developing locally focused and empowered culture starts with how you structure teams.

A common response from the financial services industry may be, “I work in a highly regulated, conservative organization with thousands of employees. You can’t simply write down a few new values or behaviors, create a call to arms and expect people to believe that the culture is suddenly all hoodies and hover-boards.”

It’s true that realigning an entire organization can be extremely difficult, but when culture is viewed as a product, it suddenly becomes substantially more bite-sized, because products, like culture, aren’t one-size-fits all. Just as products have target audiences, it’s perfectly natural (read: inevitable), to end up with different culture flavors across your organizational Kool-Aid©.  These individual flavors are created and brewed by the day-in and day-out behaviors of your teams and individuals. And while different, they are still in fact all Kool-Aid© — working toward the strategic visions, processes and needs of the organization.

Developing this locally focused and empowered culture starts with how you structure teams. Keep the teams small, multidisciplinary and, most importantly, built around a purpose, not just a function. A wrench has a function — it’s a tool used to simply turn a nut on a bolt, only when directed (no one wants to be a wrench). The mechanic, on the other hand, has a purpose — to add value and build something deeply important and personal to them. The State Street team that has launched our new State Street VerusSM mobile platform strives to be an example of this, with experienced designers sitting next to risk experts, sitting next to former news editors, sitting next to product managers. The Verus team Next, determine your team’s core principles and behaviors. Principles act as a function to help guide a team’s decision-making when working independently and faced with many potential options (or when the team flat-out doesn’t know what to do in a certain situation). This is particularly important in the technology space, where uncertainty abounds and it’s rare to understand the full extent of someone else’s job. A product manager may not understand half of what a data scientist is talking about, but that’s ok, because it’s expected that they know the team goals and principles. They are trusted, along with the rest of the team, to act independently toward those ends. Strong principles result in fewer processes needed to fill that void of uncertainty and empower individuals to make decisions.

State Street Verus team’s principles include:

  • Everyone is a designer
  • Embrace uncertainty
  • Default to action
  • Have empathy
  • Be present

Finally, you need to ritualize these principles and behaviors into your daily or weekly activities, because we are what we do, repeatedly. For example, Verus lives the principle, “Everyone is a designer” by regularly holding design studios, where various team members have the opportunity to sketch potential designs for the product. “Default to Action” is a principle actualized via a weekly “show and tell,” at which the team shows off in-progress work. Perhaps most importantly, every two weeks or so there is a full-team “retrospective.” This light-hearted meeting is an opportunity for the team to openly and transparently identify “culture bugs,” or areas of how we work, that may not be, well, working.

Through organizing a small team around a purpose, establishing your principles and actively transforming those into behaviors, you’re developing your culture, an employment “product” that good talent will want to buy.

And the thing about good products is that soon or later, everyone catches on and wants to be a part of it. And when enough people in your organization make that change, before you know it you really are competing like a tech company.

1. Marino, J. (2015, April 12). Goldman Sachs is a tech company. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/goldman-sachs-has-more-engineers-than-facebook-2015-4

2. Aramanda, J. D. (n.d.). State Street CEO Jay Hooley Discusses Innovation, Brexit, and the Impact of Regulation. Retrieved from https://www.theclearinghouse.org/banking-perspectives/2017/2017-q1-banking-perspectives/articles/state-of-banking-jay-hooley

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Topics: Product Development


Dan Huss | State Street Verus

Dan Huss is the Head of Product Management for the State Street Verus. He strives to apply the scientific method to product development and entrepreneurship. This has led him to value uncertainty and ambiguity, and have a default mindset of “build, measure, learn.”