How to Transform Your Business in Times of Continuous Change

In times of continuous change, there are both winners and losers. Some company’s grow to become highly performing and competitive enterprises while others develop into fighters, fighting for survival on a daily basis.

Today’s business environment is constantly evolving, with many factors both internal and external to the organization affecting the achievement of its stated objectives including the level of its competitiveness compared to competitors.

Some of the contributing factors include prolonged geopolitical and economic uncertainty, unresolved trade issues, rapid advancement in technological innovation, increased competition from new market participants, and fickle customers with constantly evolving needs.

As a result, the business has to be adaptive if it is to grow and succeed in such a disruptive environment.

When everything is going well, it’s easy to focus more attention on the good stories and less on what could go wrong. The blue overshadows the red, and this is a major problem in some companies.

These companies allow their past success stories such as successful product launches, increased market share, core technologies, and other organizational capabilities to blind their ability to view the future with a different pair of eyes.

Culturally, they are locked into the old way of working, bound by legacy systems and processes. Little time is spent on reviewing and evaluating the existing business model to establish whether it is still viable or not in these disruptive times.

On the contrary, transformational companies are not satisfied with the status quo. They are appreciative of the fact that past success is not a guarantee of future success.

Just because you are doing well today doesn’t not mean you’re going to enjoy everlasting success.

Business history pages are littered with doom and gloom stories about companies that have collapsed due to lack of innovation and unwillingness to evolve with the market.

Examples of such companies include the technology company Xerox, the retailer JC Penney, the social networking company MySpace, the department store Sears, the high tech company Polaroid, the bookstore Borders, and Circuit City the consumer electronics company.

What do all these companies have in common? At some point in time, they were all mighty industry titans, too big to fail and led by great, smart people.

However, in the midst of their successes they failed to adapt to changing customer needs, new technologies, competition and business models.

Even though these companies had built their businesses from the ground to the top of their respective industries, their death knell was the self belief that no other company was capable of doing better than what they were already doing and unseat them at the top.

Unfortunately, because of this fallacious way of thinking and ignorance they all paid a hefty price.

To avoid having your company join this list of colossal business failures:

  • Don’t get comfortable doing the right thing for too long. Continuously look for opportunities ahead and remember that today’s success can obscure tomorrow’s possible failures.
  • Regularly ask yourselves if what you’re doing and how you’re doing it is enough. It’s about making productive use of the resources available to you to improve your company’s performance and competitiveness.
  • Don’t dwell too much on the past. It’s important to know what has happened, but more importantly you need to understand why it has happened and how your company would perform in the future.
  • Commit sufficient time to analyzing new technologies, industry trends and competitors. Reviewing financials provides a rearview mirror of business performance, and you need forward looking indicators to understand your customers, competitors and the competitive status of your business (in terms of products, core technologies, market share, talent, culture)
  • Stay open minded. As highlighted above, when a company has been successful for too long, very little time is spent on thinking through alternative downside scenarios. It’s so easy to focus on the good news, spurn bad news and avoid discussing negatives. Questions such as “Why haven’t we done it before, What if this doesn’t work? What would we do then? What might make this not work?” are reluctantly answered. As a result, what begins as minor issues eventually develop into major issues. Don’t be a victim of own success to such an extent that you become ignorant of change.

Transforming a business into a highly performing and competitive enterprise is a journey characterized by ups and downs. Consider every challenge, every problem and every piece of bad news as an opportunity to learn and improve.

The Accuracy in your Forecast Matters More than the Forecast Itself

One of the roles of the FP&A function is predicting future business performance and help business leaders prepare for an unplanned future through forecasting and decision support.

Although anticipating the future is challenging given today’s fast-changing environment, looking ahead is increasingly essential.

The world is far, far more complex than we think. Unknown unknowns and known unknowns have replaced the routine, the obvious, and the predicted.

Resultantly, many of the assumptions on which important future business decisions are based are easily refuted with the passage of time. For example, one of the most common outcomes of the typical business planning process is a hockey stick forecast.

These forecasts usually show significant business growth and profitability prospects. The last few years of actual results are flat, and then magically shoot up for future years just like the blade of a hockey stick.

It’s a rare experience to come across a forecast that shows a downward spiral of business performance.

Businesses leaders often present a positive outlook of enterprise performance even if the odds of achieving their bold aspirations are slim. This is emblematic of human’s limited ability to accurately predict the future.

Tunnel vision

In his book The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb demonstrates how humans suffer from the delusion of knowing. We underestimate what the future has in store.

In the same manner, we tend to develop a tunnel vision while looking into the future, making it business as usual, when in fact there is nothing usual about the future.

Instead of acknowledging our unknowledge of the future, we continue to project into the future as if we are experts at it, using tools and methods that exclude rare events or outliers.

Although these rare events are most of the time external to the organization, they play a significant role in influencing the operational and strategic performance of the business.

The problem with many business performance forecasts is that they tend to focus on a single point destination or outcome, including a few well-defined sources of uncertainty ( known knowns) at the expense of others that do not easily come to mind.

The goal is not to predict or forecast all improbable events but rather to have an open mind and acknowledge that the likelihood of your actual future being different to your predicted future is considerably high.

Think of new products that failed to hit the mark with customers, projects that experienced cost overruns or took longer to complete, companies that failed to survive their forecast horizon etc.

The list of forecast horror stories is endless. I am sure in 2003 the thought of Lehman Brothers going under five years later was a laughable idea and outside the company’s projections.

Mitigating the tunnel vision

When it comes to forecasting, most of us adopt the inside view to assess the future performance of the business or any other project.

In other words, we tend to plan and forecast based on the information in front of us, neglecting some sources of uncertainty outside the plan itself. Daniel Kahneman, the well-respected psychologist has termed this WYSIATI – What You See Is All There Is.

As a result, we produce plans and forecasts that are unrealistically close to best-case scenarios. However, there are many ways for any plan to fail, and although most of them are too improbable to be anticipated, the likelihood that something will go wrong is high.

The cure for tunnel vision is taking an outside view of that which is being forecasted. Optimism bias often gets into the way of accurate forecasting leading to some of the horror stories mentioned above.

Thus, to avoid falling victim to optimism bias it’s important that you go through all the statistics of projects or initiatives similar to that being forecasted. This will help you identify an appropriate reference class and use the statistics to generate a baseline prediction which acts as an anchor for further adjustments.

Measure your forecasting error

Even though the world is complex and constantly changing, many planners are still adopting a simple view of the world as evidenced by their click and drag forecasts projecting into the long term future. Simply extrapolating projections from one year into the next is a mistake.

The accuracy of forecasts is more important than the forecast themselves. Do you attach possible error rates to your forecasts and measure the actual error rate after the forecasted horizon has passed? As the projected period lengthens, the larger the cumulative forecasting errors.

Despite evidence of enormous forecasting errors in the past, there is an ingrained tendency in us to ignore failure statistics and believe we are suddenly better at predicting the future compared to our uncomprehending predecessors.

Should we therefore discard predicting the future altogether? No, we first need to acknowledge that what we think we know about the future is not all there is. Our comprehension of the future is limited. From there on we can plan while bearing in mind such limitations.

In other words, we should stop overestimating our known knowledge about the future. We may be good at predicting the ordinary, but not the irregular, and this is where we ultimately fail.

Talking about Digital Transformation

These days I’m hearing quite a number of business leaders talk about digitization, going digital or digital transformation.

Regardless of which term you’re most comfortable with, it’s a good sign that leaders are seriously considering taking advantage of the power of modern technologies to transform their businesses.

An investment in IT is no longer considered a cost to the business. Rather, in highly performing organizations, embracing emerging digital technologies is considered an enabler of business performance.

In these organizations, business leaders are cognizant of the conditions in which technology supports the overall business strategy as well as those in which it helps shape the business strategy itself.

It’s no secret that we are in the digital era. Digital technologies are everywhere. Just think of the significant increase in the pervasiveness and the power of digital technologies in new domains such as cloud computing, robotics, wearable devices, 3D printing, drones, machine learning, blockchain, virtual reality etc.

These new technologies are influencing not only the way humans live and work, but also how we learn, play, innovate, transact and govern.

Your existing strategies will not carry you into the future

Although I’m not able to predict with certainty what the business landscape will look like in the next 5 or 10 years, I strongly believe that organizations that will survive and succeed during this period will be defined by their ability to master and take advantage of the power of these emerging technologies to deliver value to customers.

Traditional, tried-and-tested ideas that propelled your business to where you’re today are no guarantee they will continually move you forward and ahead of your industry incumbents in this digital economy.

Let’s look at Amazon as an example. The global ecommerce retailer started off as an online bookstore and along the way embraced emerging technologies to become a leader in cloud computing services, media and artificial intelligence.

The company did not become successful because of its size. Rather, taking advantage of digital technologies helped it to become a powerful global brand.

Just because your current business model is working does not necessarily mean you should allow it to run its course. It’s critical to always question, refine and enhance your competencies and strategy otherwise you risk becoming irrelevant and falling victim of some successful, but now outdated, past practices.

It’s not all about a set of technologies

Simply overlaying technology, however powerful, on your existing business infrastructure does not work. A change in structures, systems, processes, skills and network relationships is paramount.

Neither does digital transformation entail simple automation of traditional, routine and repetitive processes. It’s also about embracing new rules of engagement and continually experimenting with new approaches and adapting them to suit your performance objectives.

For instance, embracing advanced data and analytics tools to learn about and better understand your customers and solve their problems, challenge your current business model and ultimately alter the sources of your revenues and profits.

Shift your focus from thinking about how digital technologies support your current business to exploring how they could also shape your future strategy and business models. In other words, think of innovative ways these digital technologies can help you create and capture business value.

Further, effective decisions on digital transformation are not hype-driven.

Different companies are at different stages of the transformation journey, experimenting with different technologies to create new capabilities, establish new relationships and identify differentiated drivers of value.

Thus, instead of just mimicking what other players in your industry are doing, acknowledge that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Consider how the different forms and functionality provided by digital technologies could influence your company’s strategic actions and provide better value for customers of your products and services.

Don’t go it alone

Success in today’s digital economy depends on your ability to build a network of relationships and co-create value with other digital players. As an example, think of how traditional banks are partnering with fintech and regtech entrepreneurs to fundamentally enhance, transform and disrupt their current business models.

These tech entrepreneurs are ambitious, with bold views on how they can disrupt and reorder the traditional banking model. By taking advantage of different digital technologies, they have challenged and disrupted traditional methods of delivering financial services.

So depending on your industry setting, you need to recognize the role of such specialized entrepreneurs in solving your fundamental business problems in new and effective ways.

As digital technologies increasingly pervade the very fabric of our society and business, are you keeping pace with the change or you strongly believe in your established playbooks to continually help you survive and succeed?

Plan Continuation Bias and Decision Making

Businesses of all shapes and sizes often operate in a system with the different parts of the system interacting with one another to produce effects or outcomes that are anticipated or not.

Some systems are linear with easily predictable outcomes. Other systems are more complex, more like a spider web, with many of their parts intricately linked and easily affecting one another.

Understanding the pertinent system dynamics is therefore critical for making better, informed decisions.

Unfortunately, the business environment in which key performance decisions are made on a regular basis is not linear and the outcomes easily predicted.

Businesses inhabit and operate in environments that consist of interdependent networks in relationships which connect with and interact with each other to produce outcomes.

In their book Meltdown: Why Our Systems Fail and What We Can Do About It, Chris Clearfield and András Tilcsik saw that even seemingly unrelated parts in a system are connected indirectly, and some subsystems are linked to many parts of the system. In the unfortunate event of something going wrong, problems show up everywhere, making it difficult to understand what’s happening.

So what do complex systems have to do with plan continuation bias?

We can plan for the future, but we don’t have a crystal ball to predict accurately what will happen next week, month, quarter or year. Based on past experiences, and analysis of data, we might have an idea but that is all there is.

In spite of the past not always being the best predictor of future performance, it’s surprising to see the level of system blindness that decision makers still exhibit.

Let’s look at a decision to enter a new international market as an example. The strategy and factors that contributed to success in one market by all means do not guarantee success in a different market.

Instead of following a step-by-step approach to better understand the system dynamics of the new market, most of the time leaders adopt a copy and paste approach resulting in widespread failures.

Even though there are tell-tell signs of the expansionary move heading sideways, leaders push ahead by implementing the bad strategy. An indication that plan continuation bias is probably the contributing factor.

Simply put, plan continuation bias is the tendency we all human beings have to continue on the path we have already chosen or fallen into, or pursue a decision we have made without rigorously checking whether that is still the best decision or not.

In business decisions, this form of bias is prevalent in strategy implementation, project management, as well as forecasting and planning. We often don’t take the time to review the plan against actual results and change course. We persist even when the original plan no longer makes sense.

It could be that the system in which we based our original plan assumptions has significantly changed, ultimately requiring us to take a step back and reflect to better understand what’s going on and decide how to proceed.

Because we are so much fixated on the end goal which seems achievable, we blindly convince ourselves to push ahead or continue even if the current results are telling us otherwise. We continue to pump resources towards the plan or project, eventually resulting in waste and worse results than before.

Sometimes plan continuation bias is a result of the organizational culture. If the culture is one that doesn’t tolerate “bad news” and suppresses speaking up when circumstances change, then chances are high that everyone will become so obsessed with getting there.

Leaders should therefore encourage speaking up, and employees will not be afraid to speak up for fear of being reprimanded.

Rather than reprimand an employee who has identified flaws in the existing plan or discovers an impending project catastrophe, why not publicly praise them given that such a move sends out a message that leaders are open to receiving feedback.

Considering the complexity of today’s business environment and its tight linkages, it might not be feasible to pause each time a key decision is made. You want to avoid a situation where decisions made are more reactive than proactive.

Instead, find a balance between focusing on the tasks or initiatives to be performed and making sense of what is happening. Avoid getting fixated on one or the other.

Making sense of what is happening gives you a chance to notice unexpected threats and figure out what to do about them before things get completely out of hand.

Avoid making key decisions under time pressure and consider all plan possibilities instead of settling just on one.

Reimagining Risk Management in a Constantly Changing Environment

Deloitte has published an interesting and useful piece, Reimagine Risk: Thrive in your Evolving Ecosystem based on its 2019 survey of risk management. The paper makes some good points, including:

In environments of change, professionals in a range of endeavours often fail to understand risks and their roles in managing them.

A lack of awareness of risks, of people’s roles in controlling them, and of ways to use risk data and new technologies and tools increases the challenges of risk management and undermines the achievement of strategic goals.

Companies that view risk management as among the most important factors for achieving strategic goals tend to achieve higher growth.

Organizations that achieve the greatest gains from risk management show a strong tendency to view the function from a more strategic perspective rather than treating it as a compliance and loss prevention function.

An integrated approach to risk eschews siloed solutions and aims to develop both an enterprise wide view of risk tied to the attainment of key corporate objectives.

In leading organizations, risk management now plays an offensive as well as a defensive role.

Risk management should proactively assist the organization in achieving superior strategy, innovation, and resilience, and not focus solely on avoiding losses and protecting assets.

Risk management’s presence at senior-level meetings increases impact. High-level presence of risk management clearly drives leaders’ confidence in risk data.

Risks are now too dynamic and unpredictable for outdated approaches. Be curious about emerging digital solutions.

Risk management has too much potential as a value-creating function to be viewed as primarily a compliance activity with no direct linkage to the attainment of enterprise objectives.

Deloitte’s 2019 risk management survey

Failure to understand and address enterprise risks holistically is often a result of inadequate processes, skills, systems and tools that effectively support intelligent and informed risk decision-making.

Often, people and organizations are unyielding of change. The natural tendency is to hold on to what we know best and how we have done things in the past.

As a result, instead of continuously scanning the environment for new risks to the business and its strategy we are tempted to believe that the future will turn out to be exactly the same as the past with similar risk exposures.

Effective risk management or decision making is not about building and maintaining a list of risk exposures identified in isolation to the overall strategy and performance of the business.

When organizations approach risk management from a “risks list” perspective, the focus is mostly on what might go wrong as opposed to the risks the organization should take in order to create value and drive business performance.

A business is an ecosystem of connected functions and other stakeholders working together to achieve the organization’s key objectives. The cause-and-effect relationship between the various stakeholders is significant.

Thus, a single decision made by one function or a group of stakeholders can have serious effects on other functions and stakeholders.

Yet despite this direct and indirect relationship between the different business functions and stakeholders, risk management is not always integrated across the enterprise. Risks are managed in silos often culminating in duplication of effort and unproductive use of resources.

Taking a system’s approach to risk thinking and decision-making is key to unlocking value from risk management processes as opposed to embracing a linear thinking approach.

Understand how the various parts of the business interrelate and work together to produce the desired outcomes.

Although compliance and risk management are closely aligned, there is a big difference between the two.

Compliance-related activities ensure the organization is compliant to established rules and regulations, while risk management helps protect organizations from risks that could lead to non-compliance.

Thus, effective risk management is more than a “box ticking” exercise performed solely to satisfy regulators. Though being compliant to prescribed rules and regulations should not be undervalued, in order to inform decision making risk management should be less reactive and more proactive.

In other words, integrate risk into your business and decision support. For example, facilitate periodic risk discussions in order to understand how business functions or units are integrating risk into their business, any opportunities and potential threats to the achievement of their business goals.

To provide effective decision support, the organization must move from a primarily compliance-based and value-protection approach to risk to an approach that also embraces risk-taking for value creation. It’s all about managing the upside and thriving in a constantly changing environment.

Further, in order to optimize results, organizations should avoid paying lip service to risk management and show commitment to intelligent and informed decision making by ensuring that risk management is represented at senior-level meetings to provide business-focused insight.

This does not necessarily mean someone with a CRO designate, as long there is clarity that the individual appointed is responsible for championing the integration of risk into the business, influence strategy and align risk reporting responsibilities.

As risks evolve, the organization must also evolve into an intelligent risk enterprise and ensure adequate processes, people, systems and tools are in place to provide informed decision support to the right people at the right time.

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