Applying Design Thinking to Finance

I recently finished reading The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage by Roger L. Martin. It’s well worth reading. Even though the book was published almost a decade ago, the ideas and principles espoused by the author are still relevant and applicable in today’s business environment.

Design thinking is a customer centric process used by designers for creative problem solving. The process utilizes elements from the designer’s toolkit like empathy, intuition, systemic reasoning and experimentation to arrive at innovative solutions that benefit the end user or the customer.

Finance is increasingly being called upon to provide effective business decision support. For many traditionally trained accounting and finance professionals, the request is a big ask.

Understanding and influencing the entire value creation cycle of the business is not something that they are accustomed to. Instead, many accounting and finance teams are comfortable working in financial reporting roles.

However, as businesses increasingly leverage new technologies to automate rules-based, transactional and repetitive tasks for a fraction of the full time employee salary, it’s only a matter of time before some finance team members become an endangered species.

Part of the problem is the fact that during our training, the majority of the courses we undertake make us believe that our core role is to deliver compliance-focused tasks.

Think of Financial Reporting, Taxation, Auditing and Assurance, Business Law, and Financial Accounting modules. All are compliance-focused. At the beginning of the learning, the content of each module is the basics and progresses into advanced topics towards the end.

Ultimately, we develop a box-ticking mindset. Having such a mindset will not help differentiate the business from its competitors and create a competitive advantage. I’m not discounting the importance of financial reporting or any other compliance tasks.

They too are important. But, innovative and successful companies do not become so simply by heavily investing in compliance activities.

Innovation and efficiency do not have to be at odds

In The Design of Business, Roger L. Martin highlights that one of the reasons many businesses face a struggle to innovate and create value for their stakeholders is because of an increased reliance on analytical thinking versus intuitive thinking.

The former involves senior management attempt to base strategy on rigorous, quantitative analysis (optimally backed by decision support software). The later is centered on the primacy of creativity and innovation, the art of knowing without reasoning. Roger Martin does not advocate the adoption of one approach over the other. Instead, he advises businesses to seek a balance or reconciliation of the two.

Traditionally, finance transformation initiatives are driven by cost reduction strategies. The focus is on squeezing out as much fat as possible and achieve efficiency. Take adoption of new finance software as an example. Rather than view the adoption as an opportunity to relieve finance teams of rudimentary tasks and focus on initiatives that require critical thinking, CFOs view this as an opportunity get rid of employees and cut costs.

If a business is heavily dependent on analytical thinking, especially where performance and rewards are budget and or forecast driven, maintaining the status quo often prevails. The organization finds itself operating as it always has and is reluctant to design and redesign itself dynamically over time.

When faced with a decision about investing in a new product, market or something new and promising, but not in the current budget, the answer is always no. Many at times the argument is that if something cannot be planned and budgeted for in advance, it is not worth pursuing. This ultimately breeds conformity and stifles innovation as resources are allocated to business units based on past performance.

Finding a balance between exploration and exploitation

Balancing innovation and efficiency demands the organization’s resource allocation not to be based entirely on past performance. Rather, a portion of the resources should be distributed based on the unproved ideas and projects each business unit presents for the coming year.

One of the reasons why a number of promising projects fail to see the light of the day is because management have created a culture that first seeks a predictable outcome before paving way for the project. They seek reliability, which is in direct contrast to a designer’s mindset.

A designer seeks validity over reliability with the goal of producing outcomes that meet a desired objective. The end result is shown to be correct through the passage of time.

The current business environment is awash with mysteries, which take an infinite variety of forms. For example, we don’t know how our product and market segments will continue to perform in future. We are not certain which technologies will have an immediate impact on our business. Or we might explore the mysteries of competition and geopolitical tension.

Data on past performance might help us extrapolate future performance but the future is no guarantee.

Given that the future is a mystery, the business should embrace a new way of thinking that provides a simplified understanding of the mystery and in turn help devise an explicit, step-by-step procedure for solving the problem.

An organization may decide to focus on exploration, which involves a search for new knowledge and the reinvention of the business, or exploitation which focuses on business administration and seeks to increase payoff from existing knowledge.

Intuition, originality and hypotheses about the future are often the driving forces behind exploration. On the other hand, analysis, reasoning, historical data and mastery are the forces behind exploitation. Both approaches can create significant value, and both are important to the success of any business organization. However, organizations struggle to pursue both approaches simultaneously.

More often, an organization chooses to focus on exploitation, to the exclusion of exploration and to its own disadvantage. The solution is not to embrace the randomness of intuitive thinking and avoid analytical thinking completely. The solution lies in the organization embracing both approaches, turn away from the false certainty of the past, and instead peer into a mystery to ask what could be.

In other words, balance exploration and exploitation, invention of business and business administration, and originality and mastery.

Finance plays a critical role in helping the business achieve efficiencies, redeploy the savings and redirect freed-up resources towards exploration of new opportunities.

Building design into finance

As design thinking is frequently associated with marketing and product development, finance is deemed an unlikely place to apply design thinking principles. However, design thinking can be applied to the finance function in every organization. The key is to identify and define the customers clearly and approach their needs empathetically.

Unlike the marketing function which focuses its efforts on external customers, finance’s efforts are focused on meeting the needs of its internal customers. To elevate design thinking in finance, the function should think differently about its structures, its processes, and its cultural norms.

Quite a number of finance organizations are organized around ongoing, permanent tasks. Roles are firmly defined, with clear responsibilities and reward incentives linked tightly to those individual responsibilities. The problem with such a structure is that it discourages employees to see the bigger picture. Individuals employees see their work as own territory to be protected by all means.

There is little to none collaboration. It’s all about “my responsibilities,” not “our responsibilities.” As a result, individuals limit their focus to those individual responsibilities, refining and perfecting outputs before sharing a complete final product with others. This can be routine production of monthly reports.

In contrast, designers are accustomed to working collaboratively with adhoc teams and clearly defined goals in a projected-oriented environment. Rather than waiting until the outcome is right, designers expose their clients to a series of prototypes that improve with each iteration.

Considering that finance business partnering extends beyond traditional month-end reporting tasks and involves working on various business related projects, sharing performance insights and creating value, CFOs should therefore foster a culture that supports project-based work and explicitly make it clear that working on a project is no less important or rewarded than running a business segment.

It is therefore imperative that finance business partners acquire design thinking capabilities that can help them develop a detailed and holistic understanding of their internal customers’ needs and frustrations, and serve them better by formulating and recommending creative and actionable solutions that deliver the desired outcomes.

Equally important too is having the courage to elicit feedback from business partners, develop mastery of the value proposition model and deliver improved solutions.

Rather than immortalizing the past, the focus should be on creating and influencing the future.

Thanks for sharing:

One Reply to “Applying Design Thinking to Finance”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to get notified of new posts by email

Recent Posts

Categories

Leading in Uncertain Times

One of the biggest challenges facing business leaders today is making the right decisions that will ensure their organizations succeed, survive, and remain competitive in an increasingly uncertain and complex environment.

A recent post, The best way to lead in uncertain times may be to throw out the playbook, by Strategy+Business has several good points.

The article is about the COVID-19 pandemic, how global companies navigated through the crisis, and how best to prepare for future disruptions. Here are some key points and my comments.

  • Rather than follow a rigid blueprint, executives must help organizations focus on sensing and responding to unpredictable market conditions.
    • Comment: Senior leaders play a vital role in providing clarity about the organization’s strategic direction, creating alignment on key priorities to ensure the achievement of enterprise objectives, and ensuring the business model is continuously evolving to create and capture value in the face of uncertainty. They must not rest on their laurels and stick to the beliefs and paradigms that got them to where they are today and hope they will carry them through tomorrow. Regulatory changes, new products, competition, markets, technologies, and shifts in customer behavior are upending many outdated assumptions about business success. Thus, the businesses you have today are different from the ones you will need in the future hence the importance of continuously sensing changes in the global economy. Employees and teams often feed off the energy of their leaders and tend to focus their attention where the leader focuses attention. If the leader is comfortable with current business practices and rarely embraces the future or challenges the status quo, then the team is highly likely to follow suit.
  • When it became clear that supply chains and other operations would fracture, organizations began scenario planning to shift production sources, relocate employees, and secure key supplies.
    • Comment: Instead of using scenario planning to anticipate the future and prepare for different outcomes, it seems most of the surveyed organizations used scenario planning as a reactionary tool. Don’t wait for a crisis or a shift in the market to start thinking about the future. The world is always changing. As I wrote in The Resilient Organization, acknowledge that the future is a range of possible outcomes, learn and develop capabilities to map out multiple future scenarios, develop an optimal strategy for each of those scenarios, then continually test the effectiveness of these strategies. This does not necessarily mean that every change in the market will impact your business. Identify early warnings of what might be important and pay closer attention to those signals. In other words, learn to separate the signals from the noise.
  • The pandemic forced the organization’s senior management team to re-examine how all decisions were made.
    • Comment: Bureaucracy has for a very long time stood in the way of innovation and agility. To remain innovative and adapt quickly in a fast-changing world, the organization must have nimble leadership and an empowered workforce where employees at all levels can dream up new ideas and bring them to life. Identifying and acting on emerging threats and potential opportunities is not the job of the leader alone but every team member. To quote Rita McGrath, in her book Seeing Around Corners, she writes, “Being able to detect weak signals that things are changing requires more eyes and ears throughout the organization. The critical information that informs decision-making is often locked in individual brains.” In addition to the internal environment, the leader must also connect with the external environment (customers, competitors, regulators, and other stakeholders), looking for what is changing and how.
  • It’s worthwhile for leaders of any team to absorb the lessons of sense-respond-adapt, even if there is no emergency at hand.
  • Sensing: Treat the far-flung parts of your enterprise as listening stations. The question leaders must ask is, “What are we learning from our interactions beyond the usual information about costs and sales?” Train your people to listen for potentially significant anomalies and ensure that important information is not trapped in organizational silos.
    • Comment: Cost and sales data are lagging indicators that reveal the consequences or outcomes of past activities and decisions. Although this information can help leaders spot trends by looking at patterns over time, it doesn’t help understand the future and inform what needs to be done for the numbers to tell a different story. In addition to lagging indicators, pay attention to current and leading indicators and understand the relationship between these indicators and outcomes.
  • Responding: Improve communication across intra- and inter-organizational boundaries. Leaders should view business continuity as an essential function that acts as connective tissue for the enterprise.
    • Comment: In addition to creating mechanisms that allow the free flow of information both inside and outside the organization, decision-makers should also be comfortable receiving information that challenges their personal view of the world, even if it’s not what they want to hear. Create a culture of psychological safety where people are not afraid to share bad news for fear of getting punished, but rather are acknowledged and rewarded for speaking up. Leveraging the diversity of thought enables leaders to anticipate the future as an organization, decide what to do about it collectively, and then mobilize the organization to do what’s necessary.
  • Adapting: Challenge assumptions, and question orthodoxies. There’s always the temptation to mitigate threats simply by applying existing practices harder and faster. One way to get at those deeper issues and encourage double-loop learning is to ask, “What needs to be true for this to be the right approach?”
    • Comment: In an increasingly uncertain environment, it’s difficult to survive and thrive with an old business model or outdated technologies. Many businesses fail because they continue doing the same thing for too long, and they don’t respond quickly enough and effectively when conditions change. As a leader, stay curious and connected to the external environment, look for market shifts, understand what needs to be regularly refreshed and reimagined, adopt new technologies and capabilities, and adapt in ordinary times but also during times of transition. Unfortunately for many leaders, it’s just more convenient for them to continually downplay the fact that conditions are changing than take the appropriate course of action that drives business success.

How are you preparing your organization for potential future disruptions?

Thanks for sharing:

The Collaborative Organization

These days the term collaboration has become synonymous with organizational culture, creativity, innovation, increased productivity, and success.

Let’s look at the COVID-19 pandemic as an example. At the peak of the crisis, several companies instructed their workers to adopt remote working as a health and safety precautionary measure.

Two years into the pandemic, they are now asking their employees back to the office full time or are planning to adopt a hybrid model.

The need to preserve our collaborative culture and accelerate innovation are two of the top benefits being cited by organizational and team leaders for bringing workers back.

Collaboration is indeed essential for the achievement of team goals, functional objectives, and the overall success of the organization.

Today’s breakthrough innovations are emerging from many interacting teams and collaborative relationships.

When teams, functions, and organizations collaborate, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; group genius emerges, and creativity unfolds.

But, what makes a successful collaboration? What are the key enabling conditions?

  • It extends beyond the boundaries of the organization. Business success is a function of internal and external relationships. Instead of viewing your business in vacuo, understand that you are part of an ecosystem. External to your organization, who do you need to partner with to enhance your value creation processes, achieve/exceed your objectives, or successfully execute your strategy?
  • Ensure the objectives are clear and there is shared understanding by everyone. Unclear objectives are one of the topmost barriers to team and organizational performance.
  • Foster a culture that encourages opinions and ideas that challenge the consensus. People should feel free to share their ideas and not hold back for fear of others penalizing them or thinking less of them. Collaboration is hindered when one or two people dominate the discussion, are arrogant, or don’t think they can learn anything from others.
  • Groups perform more effective under certain circumstances, and less effective under others. There is a tendency to fixate on certain topics of discussion amongst groups which often leaves members distracted from their ideas. To reduce the negative effects of topic fixation, members of the group should be given periods to work alone and switch constantly between individual activity and group interaction.
  • Effective collaboration can happen if the people involved come from diverse backgrounds and possess complementary skills to prevent conformity. The best collective decisions or creative ideas are often a product of different bodies of knowledge, multiple opinions, disagreement, and divergent thought processes, not consensus or compromise.
  • New technologies are making collaboration easier than ever, enabling us to increase our reach and broaden our network. Although new technology helps, it will not make your organization collaborative without the right culture and values in place. First, define what you want to achieve through collaboration then use these tools to promote creative collaboration.

How else are you championing collaboration within your organization to create value and succeed?

Thanks for sharing:

Preparing for Geopolitical Shocks

Geopolitical instability has steadily increased over the past years, and uncertainty in the global economy is at an all-time high. Thanks to globalization and advances in technologies, we now live and work in a tightly interconnected world, one in which the boundaries that previously separated domestic from global issues have disappeared.

Threats are no longer confined to traditional political borders, social structures, and geographic boundaries. Geopolitical shifts have dramatically altered the global economic landscape and brought politics and business together.

The rise of China as an economic and politically influential power has threatened the dominance of the United States as the world’s largest economy. Although the opening of China and a market of 1.4 billion people have benefited both countries, it has also intensified competition and sparked U.S. economic and technological espionage accusations against China, leading to strained relations between the two giants.

U.S. companies operating from China have felt the impact of this tense relationship. The opposite is true for Chinese companies in the U.S.

Across Europe, national populism is on the rise and now a serious force. In 2016, the United Kingdom shocked the world when it voted to leave the European Union, generating reverberating effects across markets.

Banks and financial services companies that once benefited from the EU passporting system have had their cross-border banking and investment services to customers and counterparties in the many EU Member States impacted, causing them to reimagine their value proposition models.

The recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia is another example of a geopolitical event that has had devastating effects on human livelihood and businesses. Although the conflict between the two countries has risen over the years, I think it’s fair to say that few political analysts, governments, and businesses predicted a war to happen.

The war has created a humanitarian crisis, rattled global commodity and energy markets, caused prices to soar, and forced many international companies to temporarily suspend their Russian activities or completely cut ties with the country.

Global supply chains which are already fragile and sensitive due to the COVID-19 pandemic are now facing new challenges in the aftermath of the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Multilateral economic sanctions have been imposed on Russia. A state of affairs that was unthinkable months ago and is now threatening to derail the nascent global economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Given the global domino effect of geopolitical events and the shrinking of the distance between markets and politics, the need to better understand and more effectively mitigate geopolitical risk has become more urgent. The business impacts, whether direct or indirect, vary by company type and industry sector.

Your company may not be able to prevent wars between nations, but you can anticipate and better prepare for geopolitical shocks:

  • Integrate strategy, risk, and performance decision-making. Consideration of risks to business success is an important part of the strategy selection and execution process, not an afterthought.
  • Develop a better understanding of geopolitical trends and how they are changing. For example, what are the megatrends in business, politics, and technology that are making geopolitical risks more diverse, prevalent, and consequential?
  • Assess the links between these geopolitical events and business performance. What are the events that matter most to your business? For example, how might current global political trends pose physical, business, and reputational risks to your parent organization?
  • Anticipate how these trends are likely to play out in the short, medium, and long terms, and develop mitigation strategies for each geopolitical scenario. Proactively anticipate and plan for radically different worlds, instead of reacting to problems as they arise
  • Review your mitigation strategies as the world changes. Are they effective enough in case of a major shock?
  • Develop capabilities for continuous learning to anticipate, address, and recover from geopolitical crises.

What do you think?

Thanks for sharing: