Agile Strategy for Financial Services Projects

Over the years, we’ve worked with numerous banks, fintech, insurance and other financial services providers.

Two things are clear:

  • The finance and banking world is changing fast.
  • It’s hard for finance and banking companies to change.

The Problem

Your senior leadership might want IT (or, less likely, the whole org) to go Agile. And that might be the best strategy for innovation and technology projects such as AI for hyper-personalization, process automation and fraud detection, open banking, implementing blockchain, Buy Now Pay Later and other new banking trends.

But what leaders may NOT realize, especially those approving and driving Agile projects, is that these innovative efforts run counter to the dominant culture in banks – a risk-averse, process-centric hierarchical control culture.

And culture eats strategy for breakfast, no matter how great the strategy is.

So, what does an Agile strategy playbook look like for innovation and new technology inside of a bank or insurance company? How do we bring in new ways of thinking?

First, look at your culture, both who you are and who you want to be.

Agile Strategy, Financial Services, Agile Projects, Agile Leadership, Agile Journey, Agile Adoption, Competing Values Framework
Competing Values Framework Credit: Dallas Shelby, NAS (

Credit: Dallas Shelby, NAS (

In the bottom left is the red Hierarchical or Control culture. Banks are risk-averse, and that’s good when it comes to money, regulations and details.

But when it comes to innovation, you cannot have new ideas without taking risks. Hierarchical process-centric cultures want to know the steps, the plan – exactly what will be done, how it will be done, and the date it will be done by.

But with new ideas, we don’t know all the answers because we’ve never done this thing before, such as, implementing AI for fraud detection. The project truly is the blank slate, which is a hard pill to swallow for Agile Program Management who wants to be able to give stakeholders a specific scope and date. An Agile strategy achieves a balance we can find where a process-centric culture can get innovation, but with an incremental step-by-step means of getting there.

Below is a picture of one group’s work showing how they wanted more of the green innovation culture.

Competing Values Framework - As is-To be, Agile Strategy, Financial Services, Agile Projects, Agile Leadership, Agile Journey, Agile Adoption, Competing Values Framework

The Playbook

We have seen patterns of ideas and practices as means of getting that new innovation. You can call it an Agile Playbook. An Agile strategy is to use common best practices for those looking to incorporate innovation inside of a rules-based process culture. For example, hackathons are timeboxed means of getting new ideas. You don’t dictate what the people will work on. Instead, they have freedom to work on whatever they choose (which gives them the blank slate). The timebox allows the PMO to limit the exposure and risk of wasting time and ideas that will never come to fruition. Similarly, Design Thinking and Google’s Design Sprint are ways of timeboxing User Experience ideas. But making sure these ideas work for you is that the team decides. If they come up with it, they own it. Ownership is key for success. These ideas are not dictated to the teams.

Competing Values Framework - Innovation, create culture, Agile Strategy, Financial Services, Agile Projects, Agile Leadership, Agile Journey, Agile Adoption, Competing Values Framework

In the image above, you can see how one group came up with numerous ways that they felt brought more creativity and innovation. The main point of this group brainstorming effort is to get the team members into a room or remote Zoom session and give them a list of common practices as options to accomplish the goals of the stakeholders. Ideally, the team members will also come up with their own ideas, but lots of factors may prevent that from happening. After they have selected several, those items can go into their backlog (or the Program backlog, PI Planning, etc) to be implemented in the upcoming Sprints.

Another, higher level option is to take a team or several teams and put them in a “bubble” where they are removed from all the current policies and required ways of working. Basically, you’re taking them out of the existing red Hierarchical control culture, and they are creating a brand new culture. Companies have made this change physically obvious, such that the group is in a new area of the building with all new distinct furniture and colors (and maybe that they acquired and built themselves.

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