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An Olympic Strategy for Financial Services

, | July 12, 2021 | By

by Joe Mendel – 

As we approach the end of July 2021 and the 2020 Summer Olympics are at the forefront in the news, I could not help but draw comparisons of one event and the state of play for financial services organizations today.  Not long after the opening ceremonies, and the lighting of the Olympic flame in Japan’s Tokyo Stadium an amazing test of skill and endurance will take place that in which the only the world’s most elite athletes participate.  To participate, you must be a master of many (skills), faster than many, more accurate than many and more agile than many to rise above the competition and win the gold.  Your strategy must evolve as the competition’s strategy evolves so you must constantly be adapting to changes in real time.  I am talking about the Modern Pentathlon where the competition format includes fencing, swimming, riding, shooting, and running.  And I am also talking about how similar the strategy requirements are for financial services organization who are challenged with the digital demands of an ever-evolving consumer market for financial products and services.

The Modern Pentathlon begins with a round-robin fencing contest where each competitor will face all the other competitors once. Each match lasts up to one minute; the first fencer to score a hit wins instantly.

The swimming competition is a 200 m freestyle race where competitors are seeded in heats according to their fastest time over the distance.

The riding challenge involves show jumping over a 350–450 m course with 12 to 15 obstacles. Competitors are paired with horses in a draw 20 minutes before the start of the event.

The laser-run is a combination of the running and shooting events where each competitor runs three 1000m laps, each preceded by hitting five targets with a pistol.  In each of the four rounds of firing, athletes must successfully shoot five targets, loading the laser gun after each shot. They resume running once they have five successful hits, or once the maximum shooting time of 50 seconds has expired.

The current format maintains the principle that the overall winner will be the first to cross the finish line.

Imagine the discipline, endurance, foresight, and skills needed to compete at this level.

The only thing that I could imagine making this event more difficult would be if the targets were moving, AND if they were doing this every day.  Here is where I see a parallel; this is the level of business competition that financial services organizations are presented with on an ongoing basis.

Strategic planning has been a valued tool for improving organizational effectiveness and profitability since the 1960’s.  The process that has become known as strategic planning originally was the result of research by three Harvard Business School professors and originally was only a discipline of the largest and most successful of companies.  Today, the most profitable, fast-growing financial services organizations still set aside a block of time each year to “create the future of their organizations” and chart the course for the next years.  Peter Drucker once said, “the best way to predict the future is to create it”.

I believe there is still an overarching need for the rolling “master” 3-to-5-year plan that articulates the vision and tactical steps to achieve the goals, but I also feel that if we have learned anything from the ongoing COVID crisis is that there has to be more agility and fluidity with respect to being able to quickly adapt to the velocity of behavioral change and attitude displayed by todays consumer.  To quote Thomas Carlyle, “Our grand business is not to see what lies dimly at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand.”  In other words, the strategic vision needs to be clear and steadfast, but organizations cannot afford to be myopic.

I see the Olympic Pentathlon fencing, swimming, riding, shooting, and running akin to a customer experience strategy, a data/analytics strategy, a digital strategy, a cloud-migration strategy, a retention strategy, open-banking API strategy, you name it, with the added complexity of constantly evolving and moving targets, and additional pressure from an increasing velocity of change.  And only the most skilled business athletes will have the stamina to be able to compete and survive.

So how do you help your organization to develop and maintain an “agile adaptive strategy”?  Here are 21 questions that will help you develop a mindset for maintaining the course and vision while being tactically agile.

  1. Does management have a clear vision regarding the future of the company and has that vision been communicated to everyone in the organization?
  2. Is management encouraged to take steps to be leading in the financial services industry, your marketplace, or is there a tendency to “wait and see”?
  3. Are distinctive competencies of the organization well understood by all employees and is there a plan in place to assure that competencies are being constantly enhanced?
  4. Is top management investing the time and intellectual energy necessary in understanding the future of the industry, or, bogged down in operational issues?
  5. Is your company pursuing growth and new business development with as much passion as it is pursuing operational efficiencies?
  6. Is leadership performing more in the role of “maintenance” or as “architects” imagining what the structure of the organization will look like tomorrow?
  7. Do employees in your company have confidence that leadership is committed to training and to the development of new employee competencies?
  8. Has the quality of products and services delivered by your company improved at a pace equal to or greater than your best competition?
  9. Have you determined how the customers of tomorrow will be different than that of customers today?
  10. Do you have a good understanding of who your competitors are today and who they will be in the future?
  11. Is your company focused on creating new ways to benefit/delight/retain the customer?
  12. Is management in your company aware of the three to five most important threats to the future success of your enterprise?
  13. Is your company consistently surveying non-customers to determine where tomorrow’s market opportunities exist?
  14. Do the goals for the company provide enough “stretch” to motivate, challenge, and excite the entire organization?
  15. Is your company attracting and retaining the “best and brightest”?
  16. Have opportunities been identified beyond the company’s existing range of products and services?
  17. Is the development of skills and competencies of your company receiving the consistent amount of investment necessary to ensure success in the future?
  18. Is your company creating strategic alliances with other companies (fintechs and advisory partners) that will accelerate your growth and profitability while reducing costs of new competency development?
  19. What are the major differences that you envision for your industry in the future?
  20. Is there enough experimentation with new products and services to ensure that the company’s understanding of future potential is better than that of the competition?
  21. Are your people in all areas, particularly leadership and technical, trained to communicate effectively, especially in group situations?

In past blogs we discussed the reality of financial services organizations living simultaneously in three distinct transitional modes – the three states of an ecosystem of transformative evolution; 1) Run the Business or Business As usual, 2) Transform the Business, a transient intermediate state where one foot is in the old BAU and one foot in the new process.  This is the state of most stress, where stakeholders re-organize, to accept the transformation but still must work the “old way” while learning and incorporating the “new way”.  Finally, 3) the third state is the Evolve the Business state where the new processes are embedded in the company DNA, the effects are felt, and stages are set for the next transformational initiatives.  It is within these three states where the delicate balance of the “just right” stuff must be achieved for financial services organizations to remain viable.  Each mode has its own set of characteristics and levels of stress which requires differing sets of activities.  Add all of this to the Pentathlon of strategies and it becomes clear how difficult and complex maintaining a growth strategy of competitive advantage is for organizations.



It is an extremely complicated task to ask any organization to be 100% proficient within any mode of the evolutionary or strategic process.  Securing a partner to help with the identification of innovative and disruptive solutions and the implementation of new systems for adaptive competitive advantage is key to success.

Key Take-Aways

  • The importance of having an overall driving force of vision and comprehensive strategy remains critical but the ability to quickly transition strategies and adapt to competitive and market pressures has become paramount – internalize an adaptive agile strategic approach.
  • The window for evolutionary change is compressing while the velocity of change needed to remain competitive is increasing.
  • Juggling multiple core strategies and sub-strategies requires special dynamic tactical plans, fluid skill sets and adaptive employees.
  • Enterprise-wide communication of market-related adjustments is a major key to acceptance and program success – explain the why.
  • Strategic partners are needed to survive in multiple modes of transformation.

At RCG Global, we help Financial Service organizations understand the complexity of remaining viable and competitive in todays on-demand ever-evolving consumer economy.  We have been successfully solving complex business problems for financial service companies globally since 1974.  Our clients rely on us to help them harness the speed of now that drives evolution to the hyper-business age.  We know companies struggle to exist in an ecosystem of three simultaneously co-existing strategic states, where the adoption of an evolutionary mitosis process constantly transforms and evolves operational and engagement models.  Our engagement model has evolved also to provide the expertise necessary to identify evolutionary solutions and get you from mode to mode efficiently with minimal disruption, allowing you to off-load, mitigate and de-risk your most critical strategic and competitive initiatives.

We ask questions to solve business problems.  We engineer the velocity necessary to create competitive advantage through impactful outcomes.  We make your strategy a reality by compressing the time between strategy on paper, to execution, to impact, maximizing returns on investment while creating competitive advantage.

One final word, as Winston Churchill said – “Let our advance worrying become advance thinking and planning” ……It may just help your organization reach and win the gold.