Why Leaders Need Metacognition

By David Peterson

How many decisions do you make in a day? Several hundred? A thousand? More than 3,000? Would it surprise you to know that scientists have determined that we make about 35,000 decisions each and every day? Researchers at Cornell University determined that we make about 225 decisions every day just about food. Now consider about 90% of the decisions we make are subconscious. That means we are making 3,500 conscious decisions each day (give or take a few decisions), a considerable amount, regardless of whether it’s where we will have lunch or setting the strategic direction of the organization. Metacognition—that is, thinking about how we think—can make those decisions better.

We encounter a fast changing world every day.

Even local markets move at a pace requiring quick, strategic thinking. The pace of change for bankers continues to increase, and, over the next eight years, the very fabric of our customer base will evolve. But will we be aware of how these changes will require us to pivot our behaviors, our products, and services to meet changing demand? How many of those 3,500 decisions will be mission critical—requiring strategic thought, and not just going through the motions?

Many reading this article have been in banking for decades. In fact, the longer you have actively been working at a financial institution the more likely it is you have grounded your thinking into predictable patterns based on tradition.

We know what it means to be a banker, to make a loan, to open a deposit account. We exercise certain decorum, we dance a certain rhythm, following a time-honored script. We move in accordance with those expectations. And it’s not just us.

Our customers have their expectations set by thousands of similar experiences they have had in our branches.

Think about a mom who comes into the branch with three small children. The children are fighting and fussing as kids do, and, as she enters the main lobby, the mom turns to the kids, puts her finger up to her lips and does a loud SHHHHHHHH!

Now think a minute. Why would the mom do that? Is there something inherently necessary about a financial institution being a quiet place? It’s not a museum or a library! But I contend that nearly every customer has an attitude that a branch is a place for quiet, seriousness, and decorum. It’s traditionally been that way. Those kids were shushed by their mom, who was shushed by her mom and so on.

In order to break this cycle, we need to look at everything we do, literally everything.

Then we need to decide whether each activity is how we need to act in the future. The past has a vote but not a veto. You can absolutely choose to carve out a new, bold strategy for providing basic financial services with the goal of thrilling and delighting your customers. This would include not just existing customers but future customers as well—e.g., millennials and Minecrafters (another term for Gen Z). That means critically examining activities—and the steps in those activities—to determine how they might be altered.

I was recently facilitating strategic planning offsite for a Midwestern independent community bank. One of the activities that occurred prior to the offsite was an examination of the steps involved in opening a basic checking account. A chart was created to document all of the steps involved. Then each one was broken down to determine whether that step was actually needed.

The participants further examined the different channels in which new accounts were opened. They observed that the options they were offering to an existing customer to open another account on their mobile app were significantly streamlined compared to the same activity performed in the branch. The resulting chart filled 12 feet of paper taped to the wall! All of the board members present saw clearly which steps were superfluous.

Kudos to this FI for taking the time to strategically think about the steps (i.e., hoops) they were forcing customers to jump through. After talking with several of the offsite attendees about the process they were using to identify unneeded steps, I asked this: “Did you consider just opening accounts in the branches using the mobile app?” They looked at me as if they didn’t understand.

Tradition says when we are in a branch, we use the computer system tied to our core application. When a customer is out of our branch, they can use the mobile app we have provided to access their account.

But that is a construct of our own making.

We have to stop thinking about what we have traditionally done and start examining how we can find the most efficient, customer-friendly way to achieve tasks while maintaining all required compliance elements. And this is hard because we are asking our staff, who generally do not even use the mobile app, to be the ones generating innovative ideas.

We have to accept the fact that the banking experience will be different in the future. I’m talking about the near future, not eight years from now.

Now more than ever, banking executives need to take a fresh look at what it means to be a financial institution and what services will be valued by future customers. It will require metacognition—and achieving an open state of mind to allow truly creative ideas to be seriously considered.

Consider this: over the next 35 years, $41 trillion of wealth will transfer generationally. Combine that with this sobering fact: thousands of American baby boomers pass away every day. The time for implementing an enterprise-wide attitude towards metacognition is now. You are only lacking the will to make it happen. Think about it.

David Peterson is chief strategic officer at i7strategies, a consulting and strategic planning firm specializing in financial institutions and the companies that serve them.