The Financial Services Expert Trap

Why past success prevents innovation and what you can do about it

For the past 60 years the financial services industry has been booming. Since 1980, year over year growth rates tripled and large entities flourished as smaller competitors crumbled. With low interest rates and new regulations, banks grew quickly as the rest of the marketplace piggybacked off their success. Savvy and risk-averse business men and women flocked to the industry; a career in financial services seemed like a safe bet.

Such a prolonged period of success is both a blessing and a curse. What made the financial services sector soar has also been responsible for nearly crippling it and taking our economy with it.

Here Comes Trouble

By succeeding for so many years – practically a lifetime in the business world – financial service firms remained virtually untouched while other industries were being disrupted. This made them dangerously comfortable. The strategies that once promoted growth stopped working in the same ways in today’s hyper competitive economy.

Ignoring changing tech and forgoing innovation for “guaranteed profits,” created the ideal environment for disruption.

In stark contrast to large, collateral backed loans, today’s financial innovators focus on small and specialized services like micro-loans, peer to peer lending, and small business lines of credit. The walls that once separated consumers from their finances gave way as startups like Square, Stripe, Coin, and Dwalla eliminate fees while providing new value.

Even business we typically wouldn’t consider part of financial services got into the game and expanded the field of competitors. Home Depot now offers loans for home remodeling projects. Starbucks and Chik-Fil-A created an app to speed-up payments and create financial loyalty. Walmart, Google, Apple Pay, Paypal are now viable forms of currency. The threats are ever increasing, and the financial services industry isn’t prepared to innovate and adapt.

The Expert Trap

While it’s not fair to blame success for the impending doom, it is important to address the traps of reaching expert status. Yes, being really good at something, being an expert, can be what stifles innovation.

Enter: The Expert Traps. The silent and unseen killers of creativity and creation. When we feel like experts at what we do, the following traps await us:

Trap #1: We Stop Trying to Learn and Improve

Confidence in your skills is important. We’d all like our bankers, lawyers, and employers to be good at what they do. It’s a valid and honorable trait. However, when confidence grows without limits and exceeds its true skill, we lose the incentive to improve.

And this is what suffocated innovation in the financial industry. Big banks and firms were killing it (as in, they were raking in the profits). They were the best of the best; taking the time to reassess their offering would have only distracted them from continuing to win. Or so they thought.

This dangerous confidence convinces experts that it isn’t necessary to test and question the status quo. Hubris whispers “You know what you’re doing. You’ve got the track record to prove it.” While the beginner or the novice looks for opportunities to improve, the expert believes they will always be the best of the best, even as their stock prices plummet. This is one of the reasons they never saw the 2008 collapse coming.

Trap #2: We Don’t Examine Our Successes

Looking backward is a no-brainer when we lose. We can learn from our mistakes. Being a loser incentivizes us to examine what went wrong. But when we win, the opposite happens. Why look back when the future’s so bright? By assuming the win was a result of perfect strategy and execution, you could ignore big opportunities to improve.

Winning is awesome. You will never find me happy with a loss. However, constant improvement and innovation demand we approach both losses and successes as a beginner. And a beginner never stops reflecting. If a beginner receives unexpected praise from a superior, the novice will ask, “What did I do and how can I do it again?”

So hold your head up high. Things are going well! Now turn around and take a hard look at how you got there. Can you repeat it? Was it luck? And most importantly, what could you have done better? Ask the hard questions and live to succeed another day.

Trap #3: We Play it Safe

Ah, to be the best of the best. It feels great to be at the top. So great, in fact, you’d rather not look down. Falling from such heights could be deadly.

For many in the financial industry, reaching the top triggered the instinct to survive. How can we avoid falling? What can we do to stay absolutely still and not compromise our position? Delaying or completely avoiding action feels like the safer option when you’ve fought so hard to get there.
But a beginner has nothing to lose. The beginner defaults to action, to responsible experimentation and seeing what happens. For the beginner, the opportunity to learn something new is more motivating than potentially making a mess. Failure is inevitable for a beginner, so why not try?

This doesn’t mean beginners experiment with reckless abandon, the goal is success after all. Beginners forgo guaranteed success in favor of growing their abilities. Experts hunker down and hold their position, even if it means ignoring an oncoming catastrophe.

 The Systematic Solution

Understanding the traps is a great first step. But it’s not enough. Research on cognitive biases shows that being aware of biases/expert traps doesn’t do much to reduce their effects. All of the above traps happen subconsciously. Trying to “watch out” for the traps is just as difficult as “watching out” for how you’re breathing while you sleep.

The only way to control for the traps of success and expertise is to implement guardrails to keep your work on the right path. Here’s what I suggest:

1. Look for Negative Evidence

When you’re making a decision or choosing a strategic direction, assign someone to challenge your bias for a particular direction. The military calls them red teams, some in business call them a devil’s advocate, and I call them provocateurs. Either way, find an individual or team of outsiders who have no vested interest in your project. They care enough to help, but not enough that they will be affected by the outcome. These individuals are in the best position to open your eyes to blind spots.

2. Retrospectives to Examine Success and Failure

Schedule a meeting at least once a year to look back at your project or company and examine the processes and results. Retrospectives create a structure for reflection, learning, and planning. No matter how well things are going, A Retrospective shows you how to correct glaring strategic mistakes that are invisible when you’re executing on day-to-day activities. I’ve used this process countless times and if you’re not sure where to start, you can use my 20+ page guide to running a successful Retrospective here.

3. Experiment

The most innovative companies are only so because of constant experiments. Experiments to see if they can improve things that are already working well. Experiment to find solutions to pervasive problems. Experimentation increases the velocity of decision making. It helps kill or change projects that aren’t working and lowers the cost of finding solutions. The best experiments use the scientific method, and if you’re not sure how to set up your next test, check out my template here.

Complacency is the enemy of innovation. The more comfortable you are, the less you work to improve and create new value. And complacency always takes its toll. As the pace picks up, the expert falls behind. Only those focussed on constant growth and improvement, even in good times, will be the ones to achieve sustained success.

Adopt the mindset of a beginner, build your retrospective strategy, and never stop fighting to improve. If you never settle, you will never peak! Let’s make the financial services industry boom for another 60, shall we?

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