Fiserv’s Dennis Hall: Testing & Learning Makes It Hard to be Wrong at Scale

I hope you are strapped in and ready for this next Luminary – a stalwart advocate of the “test & learn” mindset, who has led digital sea change at multiple Fortune 500 companies in the financial services industry.

Dennis Hall is Head of Digital and Product Development and SVP at Fiserv, a financial services technology company. Dennis brings nearly 30 years of digital strategy experience in financial services. Take that in for a second and think about what has occurred in that timespan. His career covers the .com era, mobile, and digital transformation.

With so many changes that have taken place over his career, there were so many questions I had for Dennis. Having lived through multiple digital transformations, I needed to know what the very first conversation with executives looked like when he was pitching a “test & learn” approach to digital. How did and does he continue to tackle changing culture within financial services, which is notoriously the most daunting aspect of digital transformation? Dennis delivers on all of these questions and more in our interview below.


JARED JOHNSON: J.P. Morgan Chase's CEO has said he wants to make their banking experience more like Amazon Prime. Do you see banks and credit unions trying to create new revenue streams, or is it about optimizing the existing revenue streams that they have today? Can you share your point of view on the future of customer-facing experiences at retail banks?

DENNIS HALL: I'd say it's both optimizing existing revenue streams and creating new ones. For the last 28 years, I have been in the financial services industry, specifically in the digital space. 10 years ago everyone was creating a digital strategy and it was often a tech/product initiated exercise. What I’m seeing now is that everyone has the basic digital building blocks and business leaders are getting more engaged and are focused on digitizing their business strategy. When they're presenting their business strategies, they're presenting it in the context of "Here's the new mobile app that I need to drive my experience I want to create with my clients." Digital is no longer this separate thing off to the side. It's a core component to their business.

I think the future is going to be about leading with unique digital experiences or products that don't exist outside the digital world. Whereas you look at 10 years ago or even five years ago, that was very different. You were expected, for any kind of high end, high touch client experience, to have a client come into the office, sit in a conference room, have a detailed conversation, a lot of paper back and forth. That's kind of gone now. Any experience like that usually makes people run away from a financial services company, myself included. Everything is pretty much digitally enabled now. Now it's really all about what are the new products and services to get more horizontally integrated with the client from not only retail financial services, but wealth management, insurance, estate planning, credit cards, all of that tied together and really get that 360 degree view of the client from a digital perspective, and build the relationship horizontally.

I think that's just going to continue so that the entire relationship is going to be completely digital. I think of myself, the only time I go to the bank, probably once or twice a year, is usually when there's a problem that I'm really upset about that I couldn't do on my digital device. I think that's going to become the norm in the future.

 


JJ: You're mentioning thinking horizontally. Does that mean that more of the products are integrated and talking to each other? Do you see more momentum happening toward that change in the back-end, or this more on the front-end?

DH: I think it's really with the data. What we talk about in my current position and even past positions, is the 360-degree view of the client. That usually starts with the data. You really can't create a high-end, high-touch digital experience either from a FI employee perspective or from a client perspective if you don't have good data. You can get the check marks, get some of the basic functionality, but you really can't create truly differentiating experiences unless you get the data right. One of the challenges, in every position I've been in as a digital leader, is you must take some time up front to get the data side right. It can seem like you're slowing down a little bit to make sure you've got the right quality and governance around the data, but it's worth the investment because then you can really run fast on the digital side.

In my current role at Fiserv, we work with a lot of banks and credit unions of different sizes and with varied client demographics. Almost every one of them that I have talked with, have some type of data initiative going or starting. That's one of the things I'm seeing prevalent across the industry. After the data is in a really good place, and you have that 360-degree view of the client, getting the right data scientists in the organization that can really figure out how to use that data to better understand your clients, know what the next products that they're looking for, and also know what products you have that aren't really resonating with clients so that you can start to fail fast and move on to the new things. The days of managing by gut feel are gone. You have got to use your data to really inform your product development and where you're going to invest your tech dollars from a digital point of view.

You really can't create truly differentiating experiences unless you get the right data.



JJ:
Let’s dive into ‘failing fast’ and how you're investing your tech dollars. What is your point of view on the way that digital strategies and digital experiences have been funded, in the past, and how they will be funded in the future?  How does a move to ‘failing fast’ change the way that digital is funded within organizations? How do you apply ‘fail fast’ when you're talking to the CFO?

DH: I think the thing I've noticed in the past several years, the days of the two-year projects are gone. The, "Hey trust me. Give me a bunch of money, and give me 24 months, and in 24 months I'll have something really cool to show you" – is a non-starter these days. Almost every company or any high-performing digital company that I know of, does more of a ‘crawl, walk, run’ approach where you get a little bit of funding up front to test a hypothesis or get some momentum going. Then the key thing is you have to deliver. You have to deliver within six months, but probably more like three months, one month, start to show some benefit and some value. Then where you see the success, scale quickly. Really leverage that. When you don't succeed, take the learnings and cut your losses.

In the world of Agile Development, the business and technology groups are really tightly connected together. I think that tight connection makes it hard to be wrong in any level of scale because you get a month in and you're like, "This is really kind of a clunker idea. This isn't resonating." You can test it with clients or some of your power users and get feedback very quickly on something visual, and you can fail fast. I think that helps you cut the cycle from six months to 12 months down to four week sprints where you're getting feedback. Either you are course correcting or you're moving on. I think that's the thing I like most about the Agile world that we all live in today, is that it's hard to be wrong in any large scale because you've got these quick feedback loops.

I think that's the thing I like most about the Agile world that we live in today, is that it's hard to be wrong in any large scale because you've got these quick feedback loops.



JJ:
What did it look like to get executives on board with that way of thinking? Because it's hard to show the value up front until you've moved into that test and learn mindset and you're seeing those results. You do need some level of trust to say ‘testing and learning’ is better. What does that conversation look like with executives, and how are seeing that transition happen?

DH: It happens by delivering early; getting some quick wins out of the gate takes you a long way. Then you must measure. You must measure both from a financial perspective and a customer feedback perspective. There are some simple ways to do that.

On a previous program I led, we were actually trying to solve a performance issue with our website. We put tracking in place that gave us a lot of analytical information about our clients that were using the website. We used that to inform what became the mobile program, because we had data on what devices people were using, what operating systems they were using. That told us most of our clients had Apple devices and most people were using their phone, not a tablet. That led us to believe we should really be building an iPhone app first. That will have the most impact. That directed our investments and our thinking and improved our chances of being right. We hit the ball out of the park very early. That led to project two, project three, and before we knew it, we had people lining up at the door to do digital transformation of their particular business. It was quick wins early, measure, demonstrate success with metrics whether it be dollars or user adoption or customer satisfaction, things like that, and use facts to justify further investment, and then continuously measure.

You must measure both from a financial perspective and a customer feedback perspective.



JJ:
You mentioned getting people excited about seeing successes, and we think that a lot of digital transformations are really about people transformation and transforming the way that people work. What have you seen really be effective at financial services organizations to transform the culture so employees embrace new ways of working?

DH: Especially in financial services, there's always been a kind of an ‘us versus them’ type of relationship historically so the thing I look for first is the relationship between product and technology. Breaking down those barriers is probably the most important. The mindset should be ‘we are they’, not ‘us versus them’. Every organization I went to where I've seen that, the first thing I say is: “There's no winner or loser here. It's all of us together. If any of us fail, we all fail.” You must get that team mindset and have people in the right swim lanes from a product owner perspective and a developer's perspective, but it's really all of us working together in an Agile mindset and breaking down that mentality of, "You write the requirements, throw it over the wall, I'll code it, and six months later tell me what you think."

Ultimately, everyone wants to work together in the same room, rowing the boat in the same direction. I've yet to see one team ever want to go back after making that Agile transformation.


JJ: You mentioned combining product and technology so that they're working together more harmoniously and the product team doesn’t throw requirements over the fence to the technology team. However, when people are entrenched in their ways of working, making that first change is really hard. What do those first conversations look like?

DH: It's hard. The analogy I use a lot is throwing a football. If you're right-handed, shifting to a new Agile way of working is like throwing a football left-handed. The first time you try to do it, it doesn't feel right because you're accustomed to your old ways. To help people transition to new ways of working, what we've often done is either hired someone, or plucked someone from another team that's already gone through the transformation, to be an Agile coach for the first few sprints or even an entire release cycle. Expertise from a coach helps. I think it also helps people to trust the process, too. When they see someone else course correcting the team if they're going off the rails, or giving advice when they're asking, "Hey, how do I enter this into Jira?" Or, "How do I create Epics and user stories versus a waterfall requirements document?" Having someone else that's there to help is worth the investment up front, because it speeds up the learning curve.

If you're right-handed, shifting to a new Agile way of working is like throwing a football left-handed. The first time you try to do it, it doesn't feel right because you're accustomed to your old ways.



JJ:
You're mentioning thinking horizontally across financial products, and having your organization’s data streams moving in-between silos. As we move to raising customers’ expectations that their accounts can all talk to each other, do you think that that's going to be part of the push towards open banking and making it easier for institution X to talk to that institution Y? Because it's really easy to me to move money in-between these accounts at this one bank, and eventually I'll bring that expectation that I can move money everywhere just as easily.

DH:What seems to be happening so far, is that a lot of companies are putting data governance in place within their own organization. That probably needs to evolve to become an industry movement, because most companies are putting in their own standards around asset data or transactional data or client data. It would be really helpful if there was an industry standard that everyone can map to instead of putting their own data governance protocols in place. One of the things that's going to be required to really move to true open banking and even open financial services is having a standard view of critical data across the industry. What is the right governance structure, and what are the protocols that each organization is going to need to follow in order for information to flow opening in the open banking environment? Otherwise, all of the legacy data issues that each company has will collide across the industry.

One of the things that's going to be required to really move to true open banking and even open financial services is having a standard view of critical data across the industry.



JJ:
Oftentimes, we'll talk with folks that are really trying to get a digital transformation initiative off the ground, and they're hitting everything from political hurdles in their organization to culture hurdles to hurdles in the way that projects are funded, and digital transformation needs to make an impact on all of those things. What would you say to the people that are trying to lead those transformations and hitting those roadblocks? Any words of wisdom or inspiration from your experience?

DH: Having lived that a couple times, with Solstice in one instance, I'll give you an example, and then I think we can draw some conclusions from that. One of the companies I worked for had a strategy project that focused on transforming our investment business and many of the other processes/areas that interfaced with the investment business. We had a ton of great ideas and created a database that had something like 700 initiatives that were identified. Many of them were digital in nature. Some of them were data, some of them were product-specific, but a lot of them had digital touchpoints. It was really good analysis, but it was so broad and so expansive, it was really hard to figure out where to get started. We were sort of stuck and were operating in an environment with limited funding and needed to use our available dollars wisely.

In that instance, a handful of us sat in a conference room one Friday starting at noon and we didn't leave until 7:00 p.m. that night. We came out of there with what we called the five “needle mover” initiatives. One was to create a digital experience that our clients are delighted with. Another was to make our employees as productive away from their desks as they are at their desks. Two very simple statements; those were our first projects. I would call them our ‘crawl’ projects using the ‘crawl, walk, run’ analogy. We were able to convince our leadership to give us a little bit of funding to start some of those projects. Then we delivered. We built a very basic presentation app that our advisors could use to present to clients, instead of using paper. That was our first employee mobility initiative. We hit the ball out of the park. Clients loved it, and that became the road map to pretty much digitize a lot of our investment business and a lot of other parts of our employee experience.

Don't try to solve the world, but try to solve a couple really important problems or areas that will be impactful. Hit the ball out of the park early, and then where you see that success, scale on it.

We also got the runway to build our first mobile app, which was a very basic table-stakes phone app. We geared it toward what our data was telling us about our clients and where to focus. I'm going to get the numbers wrong, but we had something like 20,000 downloads in the first six weeks. To get that amount of usage of our previous website, it took something like 15 years. It was a very simple theme. We had some very focused use cases. We quarantined a few really smart people, and then we picked some good partners to help us leapfrog our capability, and then we delivered in three months.

That got us the credibility check mark to get more investment, and we continued to deliver. The ‘crawl, walk run’ approach made the problem smaller. Don't try to solve the world, but try to solve a couple really important problems or areas that will be impactful. Hit the ball out of the park early, and then where you see that success, scale on it. That's the model I've followed throughout my career. When you try to solve everything and you try to make it a two-year problem or three-year initiative, people get tired of it about six months in. If they're not seeing results, it's really easy to shift somewhere else. Then you've got six months of wasted investment. Make the problem smaller, hit the ball out of the park quickly, and then where you have success, take off.


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