I hope I am not about to shatter anyone’s egos here but this is something that has puzzled me for a long time; Why are most innovative banks outside the UK?

If you look at nearly every list that is put out for the most innovative banks on the planet you will see almost no UK banks in there.

Take this one from BAI for example for the “most innovative banking organizations”. No UK banks in here but the same names crop up; mBank, Garanti, La Caxia, Fidor, BBVA et al.

All of these organizations are outside of the UK in origination, and for the most part, most of their thinking and doing is outside of the UK also.

With only Fidor having a presence in the UK, although BBVAs investment in Atom might mean they argue they have a toe in the waters at least!

Now Santander would have a fair challenge to this in recent years, but even still the customer facing capability currently in the market of Santander is very similar to that of all of its closet UK competitors and for all other things I regard them Spain based.

So what’s the deal? The UK is the center of the FinTech world, on most people’s listings. We have the regulator who supports innovation and we have a blossoming design and technology pool to pluck talent from.

So why I ask are UK banks the “also rans” of European banking innovation fronts? How can this be the case?

Here come the excuses…

Innovation is hard in UK banks. Hell just getting through each day is tough at a bank, as I can testify to.

Im busy…

You’ve a day full of meetings that you may or may not need to attend.

My boss…

A boss that, if I play the statistics, probably doesn’t “get” digital and what you actually need to do.

Multiple choice pointlessness…

You’ve a wealth of pointless multiple choice exams you have to do to prove you’re not a crook on a monthly basis.

Our governance…

You’ve a governance processes and project processes that is setup to avoid issues and deliver change in a controlled fashion. This is all code for change averse.

FinTech pressures…

On top of all of this you then have all these two men band FinTech guys starting up in the basements and parent’s lofts making you look stupid with what they can deliver.

That last one reminds me of my favorite Jimmy Carr joke with a few tweaks…

Jimmy Carr

I genuinely get it; it’s hard but that’s not good enough of an excuse.

Although there are many of them, as I see it, there are 3 major sins I see within UK banking causing this problem:

1) Strategy vs. Reality – Even when they know what to do they can’t/won’t make it happen.

This really is two sins in one here but I give value if nothing else. Firstly UK banks preoccupation with strategy and the companies that they use to fuel it.

I have seen first hand this scenario in my time in a bank;

Manager – “So what should we do with XXX in 20YY?”

You can insert any topic in XXX and really any year in the YY here it doesn’t change the dialogue.

Employee – “Well given the market and X, Y, Z I think we should approach this like 1, which will cost 2 and require us to do 3.”

It actually doesn’t matter what you put in here the answer will be the same.

Manager – “Okay that sounds good. Why don’t we get in XXX to tell us what to do and how we should approach it?”

Employee – “Hmm but they will just charge us £1m for a presentation to tell you what I just said?”

Manager – “Yes but lets just and then we are covered.”

Notice this last one is a statement not a question.

UK banks have a massive predisposition to use external parties to create their strategies for almost everything. I fear this might be a 100 years of bad HR management and recruitment practices has led to really very senior bankers just not trusting their employees.

Couple this with anything said, either starting within or ending with, “McKinsey/Gartner/Bain/Forrester says” requiring no challenge from stakeholders to you then I can see why this can happen.

I will come back to this at another date but banks need to realize quickly that their traditional suppliers to banks have all, if not more, of the problems that the banks themselves do. At best the traditional suppliers are only 5 steps ahead of the banks.

This all said, even when banks get someone sensible to put a strategy together their ability to execute this can be pretty poor, if not part of an executive strategy lead planning process. I have seen some of the most impressive strategies (hell I have put them together myself!) be crafted by really true subject matter experts (SME’s) that have resulted in terrible executions being delivered to customers.

Strategy vs Delivery

The best example of this I’ve ever seen was a large bank’s mobile strategy. The strategy was excellent; beautiful design-led thinking, global review of the best practice and functionality and culminating in realistic design mock ups of what the new app could be – fantastic.

The company got me back to review what they had delivered 12 months later and I didn’t recognize it from the strategy.

Banks pride themselves on being able to deliver. Being able to integrate banks, systems and processes but, in my experience, where the rubber hits the road, or rather than bank hits the customers, most completely fail to live up to the potential.

2) Plan vs. Reality – Most plan for their organizational hang-ups not the art of the possible and not what is possible.

The second (or third if you are being picky I guess!) is banks are terrible at planning.

I say terrible because they have two extremes:


Those who plan for a utopia of events that never happen; they will either be a contractor, new hire or be from


Those who plan for how hard it is to do things at their company; they will carry years of banging their heads against a wall to try and get something done and have mainly admitted defeat.

In my experience, banks suffer from both of these things intermittently.

“You don’t know how hard it is to do things here”
is the whimsical cry I hear from some people within banks trying to find a reason for why they haven’t done something before.

Now we know that it is tough to deliver change in banks at speed that you would be proud to tell your mum about, but the sins of the last project should not disrupt the opportunities being created by the present ones.

Bad process and practices need to be challenged and those attempting to do so need to be praised not punished.

3) Money vs Reality – People don’t understand what things ‘should’ cost.

Money does not maketh the man nor does it maketh for the most innovative bank or successful delivery of innovation to the market. I have seen a number of times those with the deepest pockets have a very dysfunctional view of the world and what things should cost.

I think it’s a reflection of the digitally or technology-skilled void at the top of most of the organizations in the UK. The expectation of many senior people in banks is that anything good costs a lot of money in an almost reassuring “well it cost a lot so this must be good” style of thinking proven to be wrong in the digital age.

You only have to look at cases like mBank in Poland, who spent less than a fifth of the budget of most UK banks each year on an 18-month transformation that made them just awesome!

Necessity is clearly the brother of innovation as many of the most innovative things happening are doing so incredibly cost effectively across the developing world.

Again I think banks need to realize that in 9 out of 10 cases the traditional suppliers are the problem not the solution.

When each bank in the UK has to spend £130m a year on running and transforming their digital function then I call foul on the results of this pissing contest.

So are FinTech fruit flies just attracted more to rotting fruit?

There could be a case to say that the FinTech scene in the UK is the result of necessity and that actually all these companies only exist because there is a need that requires satisfying? Is it that simple? Do we have the most flourishing FinTech because our banks require the most help?

After all, some of the FinTech innovations that are popping up in the UK have already been implemented to customers by some of the more innovative European and Chinese banks very cost effectively.

If some UK banks struggle to strategize, deliver quality, have processes that consistently bring ideas into production and by default are spending £130m a year then how will this get better?

Case in point – Hellenic Bank

Before Christmas I had the pleasure of talking to Natasha Kyprianides (@natashakyp), Head of Digital & Multichannel Banking at Hellenic Bank and it struck me as the opposite of everything I talked about above.

For those who don’t know Hellenic Bank, it is the second largest bank on the island of Cyprus founded in 1976 with technical assistance from Bank of America. They are a legacy organization by most definitions and share similar issues to those of a major legacy bank in the UK.

That being said, what they have delivered in only 6 months and with a very frugal budget and limited resources is exemplary.

The design of the new app is incredibly well put together with simple touches, like the bounce on the ‘spendometer’ naturally drawing your attention to where it is needed. It’s small things like this that are easy to lose in a time and cost bound delivery but Hellenic Bank has held fast.

Hellenic Bank

Things like the spend meter are beyond most of the functionality offered by UK banks giving a clearly aggregated view across all accounts of a customer’s behavior.

These types of features are things we have come to expect from the likes of Moven and Simple but in an organization like Hellenic Bank the delivery of such capability shows that it is possible if you approach it in the right manner.

Hellenic Bank

The experiences have been very much orchestrated from the customer’s perspective. The customer has the ability to hide/show and order accounts how they want; or favorite the payments that they use most frequently where OTP input is not required when executing a favorite payment with a pre-approved payee selected. This maintains security while making the payment process fast and seamless. Again, pay attention to UK banks as this is beyond most of the functionality they offer.

Hellenic Bank

Simple swipes through accounts and cards makes gaining information simple and they have even tackled difficult on-device account opening with a variable rate being offered on the fly for time deposit accounts.

All of these screens could easily fit within a good ideation or strategy document but Hellenic Bank has actually delivered these things to their customers! This app is available in the Apple app store and Google play store today.

What I find most stunning is that all of this has been delivered in less than a quarter of the time that Lloyds Bank took to create their last mobile banking app and even more astoundingly with less than 5% of the cost!