When BAU is the enemy

Outside of my day job at ANZ I mentor university students completing their Business Practicum Projects at Melbourne University.

After one such meeting a new graduate came to me to say she didn’t understand one of the points discussed about a new system enhancement.

" We are so entrenched in working around legacy practices and systems we end up perpetuating processes and practices that may not make sense. "
Lara Douglas, Head of Credit Regulatory Reporting, ANZ

I patiently explained in order to ensure users understood how to use the enhancement properly we had agreed to set up a spreadsheet to mirror what was being keyed into a system. This spreadsheet would be populated by the very same person who was keying in the data and we would use it to check the system was performing correctly.

It was only later that day I stopped to think and realised what a meaningless process we had all readily agreed to set up.

We hire Masters graduates in the hope they will have or develop the skills to analyse internal and external information, ensuring the bank complies with regulatory and statutory financial requirements.

But a perhaps even more crucial reason for hiring these people is exactly what happened with our spreadsheet system: smart, fresh eyes see things we don’t and ask innocent questions that make me and other senior leaders stop and think.

Inevitably and especially in large, complex, established institutions like banks we are so entrenched in working around legacy practices and systems we end up perpetuating processes and practices that may not make sense. 

This system enhancement was far from an isolated example.


Another question often comes up: “Why is someone else from outside my team presenting my analysis in meetings with senior leaders? Why aren’t I presenting it?” Universities wouldn’t dream of this situation.

I really struggle to give a sensible answer to this. If I am trying to instil accountability in my team and ensure team members receive recognition and direct feedback on their work, why indeed am I allowing this to happen?

How does that affect engagement and motivation? Indeed, is this compromising the best outcome for the bank?

The more sensible alternative would be for those who have done the work to be always involved in its presentation and interrogation. That is more efficient for the management asking questions, more efficient for my time, more equitable for the participants and just more sensible.

We often read and hear about the complexities and legacy issues of institutions like banks, where 50 years of computing evolution, new reporting requirements and often a lot of mergers and divestments complicate day to day operations.

But what can be overlooked is there are software challenges – human challenges – which come with these hardware technology challenges. Processes build up, mindsets built up, habits are formed.


It’s not news to me our systems can be convoluted and hard to follow. But it became really clear why it can be hard for all but the most experienced team members to quickly pull out information following another episode with our grads.

One of the graduates was trying to understand the risk calculation for a single customer. She went to three different-but-closely related systems and received three different answers. It left her understandably baffled.

This reminded me of one of my favourite principles from The Organised Mind by Daniel Levitin which is: ‘A mislabelled item or location is worse than an unlabelled item’. I have recently applied this in my home so everyone in my family can find items without having to ask me which one of several possible places I had put it.

So why am I so accepting of the absence this structure at work, where whole teams of people have to work out which one of several possible places the correct information is in? Why aren’t I challenging this more and pushing for change?

These innocent questions have made me reflect on whether I have chosen the right things to let go of or focus upon as a leader. By focusing on delivering through and around accepted limitations am I really helping to take the business forward? Or just continuing via the same framework – which might not be good enough?

Although I like to think of myself as young, with 17 years in the financial services industry I have begun to realise I am more institutionalised than I thought.

When mentoring junior staff in the art of how big companies work, they have as much to teach us as we do them.


The Melbourne Business School at The University of Melbourne runs a For Credit subject in various Masters Degrees called the Melbourne Business Practicum (MBP)

  • There is no cost to an organisation apart from an investment of time and access to the company environment;
  • The students conduct analysis, investigation, application of latest theories and research methods and advice to address a specific idea or problem;
  • Acceptance into this subject is through a competitive selection process;
  • Small teams of students are placed into an organisation to solve a business problem of operational or strategic importance within an intensive two week period;
  • The students present to key stakeholders within the organisation followed by a written report approximately four weeks lagter; and
  • Building strong business relationships with the host mentor students are ultimately responsible for developing insights and recommendations for the organisation.

Lara Douglas is Head of Credit Regulatory Reporting at ANZ

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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