Six Impossible Things

I’m having fun in the most unlikely of places. I’m currently working at a Big American Bank. In fact, it’s so big it’s called Bank of America. I recently wrote an article for their internal agile magazine which probably best describes why I think it’s so much fun, and which I’ve reproduced below.

There are three things I really love doing: delivering code that has a business impact, coaching individuals and teams, and optimising organisations. Working with BAML is giving me ample opportunity to do all of these, and I’m busy reaching out to agile coaches and solid delivery folks in London and New York. If you might be interested get in touch and I’ll make the introductions. They’ve got some great technical and process people already, like the remarkable Gordon Weir, but we’re going to need a bigger boat. The scope of the transformation programme, along with the support of senior managers who are letting me cause all sorts of mischief, is leading me to believe this could become a horse of a different colour. If you’re into large-scale change I think you’ll want to have been there. Anyway, here’s the article. I hope you like it.

Update: Gordon and I are going to be talking about the story so far at ADC/BSC East in Boston in November.

Six Impossible Things

Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

– Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Recently I’ve been seeing lots of things that don’t happen in real life. I’m OK with this because I’ve seen impossible things before, but not often this many, and certainly not before breakfast.

The first thing I saw was a Managing Director in a Big American Bank deciding to abandon decades of organizational “best practice” and recreate his organization in London, by letting the people choose their own teams, and if that weren’t unusual enough, the teams choose their own team coach. To quote Douglas Adams: This is, of course, impossible.

Then I met a group of former managers in the same bank who had decided they had had enough of telling people what to do, and had reinvented their role as servants rather than masters. This too, is impossible. To emphasize this they went around calling themselves Jeeves, after the butler in the P. G. Wodehouse books. This is not just impossible, it’s also rather silly. I like that.

Next I visited the same Big American Bank in Big America. There things became curiouser and curiouser. I met senior managers who had been working at the bank for over 30 years, and who had chosen to abandon their lofty title to become a member of a software delivery team. This clearly never happens in real life. The management team there had also decided they wanted to be servants, and taking a lead from the Jeeves’ had decided to call themselves Bensons, after an American butler called, um, Benson. This is equally impossible-and-silly. I like that too.

The Americans also decided to break all the current structures and form themselves into self-selecting teams with self-selecting coaches. Which, as I’m sure I don’t need to remind you by now, in a bank like this, is clearly impossible. But that wasn’t the final straw. The final straw was seeing a Java developer sitting next to a mainframe programmer learning COBOL. I suspect that’s a skill that will never appear on the resume. (Hmm, I see, you learned C++, then Java, then COBOL, wait, what?) On closer inspection I discovered the Java programmer was learning COBOL so the COBOL programmer could go home at weekends and have her life back. He was increasing his own capability in a legacy skill so the team could more evenly balance the workload across its members. This, surely, is impossible.

Having seen all that, I like to think I’m prepared for anything. Except even then I keep getting surprises. Remember that Managing Director I mentioned at the beginning? Last week he was off learning to program in Python. No, seriously. It must be time for breakfast.


  1. What about the intern that died last week at BAML after 3 days working straight? He was clearly doing the impossible! Seven impossible things!!

    1. I’ll preface this by saying I think it’s in pretty poor taste to make light of someone’s death, and I think it’s tragic that a young person has died in whatever circumstances. However I’ll respond to the point anyway. Usual disclaimer that my opinions represent me and no-one else.

      The reports I’ve read about this sad event are all couched in vague and unattributable terms like “Serious concerns have been raised…” or “One anonymous poster said…”. Some are even using hysterical and offensive language like “slavery”. I’m particularly surprised by that because it’s from The Independent, which is usually a bit more grown up. Deep in paragraph three they admit “The circumstances of his death are unknown, but police are not treating them as suspicious” but luckily they don’t let the (lack of) evidence get in the way of a good headline.

      In my experience working long hours is common in a front office trading environment, especially among juniors. It isn’t so much a “macho rite of passage” as a boring necessity. Depending on what you are trading, the markets typically open at 7am which means you need to have set up shop before then, and often close after 6pm at which point there’s still lots of tidying up and financial bookkeeping to do, and the juniors get to do it. Trading Assistants can often work 12 or 14 hour days – it’s a tough lifestyle – but it’s still an indoor office job with clean air and good coffee, so to declare it as “slavery” seems a bit ridiculous. I very much doubt it will make the front page when it emerges there is no causal link after all.

      Having said all that, the part of the bank I’m in is one step removed from the trading action, out the back – making sure the money ends up in the right places and all the regulatory requirements are met. Not nearly as macho or dangerous.

    1. See above. Thanks, Dan.

  2. Great post! I am currently at Big American Insurance company and this post inspires me to continue looking for the impossible. I know it’s there somewhere!

    (BTW, excellent response to the insensitive comment.)

  3. I’m at a Big American Bank in New York as well, leading a very small Agile team in a very frictionful environment, and attempting to parlay our frequent small successes into infrequent small cultural changes around us. Sometimes I worry there’s no upper bound on the number of meals I have to eat before what I’m imagining becomes possible. Reading this makes me feel I’ve got a small but real chance.

    Looking very much forward to hearing more details of your experience.

  4. Great post. Purse self-organization.

    (BTW Does COBOL has Factory pattern? :D)

  5. Nice article on how thought leadership and commitment can bring about positive impact

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