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.

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Finance Analytics: It’s Not About the Size of The Data

As the need to make impactful operational and strategic decisions in real time increases, CFOs are playing a greater role in the adoption and integration of data analytics in their organizations to support data-driven decision making.

Executives and business unit leaders are increasingly relying on insights produced by Finance to better understand enterprise performance. That is, what has happened, why it has happened, what is most likely to happen in the future, and the appropriate course of action to take.

In an era where data is proliferating in volume and variety, decision makers have realized it’s no longer enough to base key enterprise performance and risk decisions on experience and intuition alone.

Rather, this must be combined with a facts-based approach. Which means CFOs must set up modernized reporting and analytics capabilities with one of the main goals being the use of data as a tool for business decision making.

Appropriately analyzed and interpreted, data always has a story, and there’s always something to discover from it. However, many finance functions are failing to deliver value from their existing data analytics capabilities.

There is a misconception that to deliver actionable insights, the function needs more data for analysis. As a result, the supply of data keeps rising, while the ability to use it to generate informed insights lags badly.

Yet it’s not about the size of the data. It’s about translating available data and making it understandable and useful.

In other words, it’s about context and understanding that numbers alone do not tell the whole story. Finance leaders should connect the dots in ways that produce valuable insights or discoveries, and determine for example:

  • What is being measured, why, and how is it measured?
  • How extensive the exploration for such discoveries was?
  • How many additional factors were also reviewed for a correlation?

Further, to use data intelligently and influence better decision making, CFOs and their teams should recognize that most enterprise data is accumulated not to serve analytics, but as the by-product of routine tasks and activities.

Consider customer online and offline purchases data. Social media posts. Logs of customer communications for billing and other transactional purposes.

Such data is not produced for the purpose of prediction yet when analyzed, this data can reveal valuable insights that can be translated into action which delivers measurable benefits.

Often the company already has the data that it needs to answer its critical business performance questions, but little of it is being aggregated, cleaned, analyzed, and linked to decision making activities in a coherent way.

Exacerbating the issue is the mere fact that the company has a mishmash of incompatible computer systems and data formats added over the years ultimately making it difficult to perform granular analysis at a product, supplier, geographic, customer, and channel level, and many other variables.

There is nothing grand about data itself. What matters most is how you are handling the flood of data your systems are collecting daily. Yes, data can always be accumulated but as a finance leader:

  • Are you taking time to dig down into the data and observing patterns?
  • Are the observed patterns significant to altering the strategic direction of the organization?
  • Are you measuring what you really want to know, what matters for the success of the business?
  • Or you are just measuring what is easy to measure rather than what is most relevant?

CFOs do not need more data. What they need right now is the ability to aggregate, clean and analyze the existing data sitting in the company’s computer systems and understand what story it is telling them.

Before they can focus on prediction, they first need to observe what is happening and why. Bear in mind correlation does not imply causation.

Yes, you might have discovered a predictive relationship between X and Y but this does not mean one causes the other, not even indirectly.

For instance, employee training hours and sales revenue. Just because there is a high correlation between the two does not mean increase in training hours is causing a corresponding increase in sales revenue. A third variable might be driving the revenue the increase.

Jumping to conclusions too soon about causality for a correlation observed in data can lead to bad decisions and far-reaching consequences, hence finance leaders should validate whether an observed trend is real rather than misleading noise before providing any causal explanation.

Certainly, big data can be a powerful tool, but it has its limits. Not all data is created equal, or evenly valuable. There are situations where big data sets play a pivotal role, and others where small, rich data sets trump big data sets.

Before they decide to collect more data, CFOs should always remember data is comparable to an unexploited resource.

Even though data is now considered an important strategic asset for the organization, raw data is like oil that has been drilled and pulled out of the ground but not yet refined to its finer version of kerosene and gasoline.

The data oil has not yet been converted into insights that can be translated into action to cut costs, boost revenues, streamline operations, and guide the company’s strategic direction.

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Doing The Right Thing For Too Long

Markets and business models are shifting, and so should you keep up with these market changes if your business is to survive and succeed. Compared with the past, the current era of digitization represents an inflection point.

Consider individual trends such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality, Big Data, cybersecurity threats, drones, the Internet of Things, driverless cars, blockchain technologies, and more.

These new technologies have significantly changed the way we connect and interact as individuals, including how businesses deliver products and services to their customers.

Reinventing your business will determine whether you succeed or fail in the digital age. As the saying goes, disrupt or be disrupted. No company, business, or industry is safe from disruption. Today, individual businesses have the potential to compete against multinational companies and win.

These businesses are quick to anticipate market changes and flexible to get ahead of the curve. Sadly, many companies are blinded by their successes and aren’t willing to disrupt themselves. They are not experiencing their desired growth trajectory because they are stuck doing the right thing for too long.

Don’t get comfortable with the status quo and allow your business to get stuck on a strategy and mindset that no longer fit the market.

Here are a few questions to ponder, the answers to which will determine the future of your business:

  • What is at the core of your strategy?
  • Are you in touch with the customers you want to serve? When customers give you negative feedback, how often do you listen and act on it?
  • Are you operating your business on the premise that you know what is best for your customers therefore they are supposed to buy whatever product or service you offer them?
  • Are you keeping up with market shifts or you only know how to grow under one set of conditions or products and services, but not how to survive and strive under another?
  • How robust and flexible is your IT infrastructure to help you innovate, perform your company’s Jobs To Be Done, and scale your business?
  • Are you creating a strong culture that is focused on customers, including a culture that not only embraces change but seeks it out?

Given our world is changing faster, it’s imperative to continuously look for signs that things are changing and think about how those shifts would play out in the short-term, medium-term, and long-term, not forgetting the impact on the execution of your strategy and enterprise performance.

The signs can reveal individually. At times, they are part of a wider trend.

Nonetheless, how you adapt will determine whether you succeed or fail. Keep learning. Learn about innovations in your industry and beyond. Try out new business models and technologies and embrace a philosophy of constant change.

Once you understand how the market is changing and evolving, you can develop the right product or service and strategy that will help you achieve your desired outcomes.

We often talk of the ability to “connect the dots” and “take a helicopter view of the business” as key ingredients for success. But how often are business leaders and their teams doing this?

Across the organization, a culture of “them versus us” prevails. Important decisions are made at a functional level with little or no consideration of their impact at the enterprise level.

Having the ability to grasp the big picture and see how different trends intersect is essential for determining the right path or course of action to pursue.

So, how do you spot market transitions and develop a clear sense of where the market is going?

  • Be curious and hungry for new ideas. Continuously ask tons of key performance questions and pay attention to what’s around you.
  • From time to time, challenge conventional wisdom. It’s easy to stick with what you know about your business model, customers, competitors, markets, or industry but dare to pivot when conditions change.
  • Don’t be nostalgic about the past or worried about protecting what you’ve built in the present. Always be curious about the future and develop a willingness to take calculated risks.
  • Ask existing and would-be customers how they feel about your company’s products, services, and strategy. Instead of turning to sources that reinforce your existing point of view, seek multiple perspectives and cross-reference them as new facts come in.
  • Develop an ability to handle multiple random data points at once. This will help you generate critical market, customer, and business performance insights and make smarter, informed decisions. Be careful to distinguish between the signal and the noise since data can be deceiving, especially when you’re looking for “confirmation” that protects your business model.

Data might not tell you why something is happening, but it does tell you what’s going on.

  • Look for patterns and abnormalities that might suggest something is going on, including any interdependencies.
  • Anticipate all the various scenarios of what could happen.
  • Plan your course of action in response to what’s happening in real time.

As the signals of a market shift increase, the need to act becomes more imperative. Note, monitoring and identifying market shifts, and effectively taking the appropriate course of action is a matter of timing.

If you continue doing the right thing for too long and lack the boldness to disrupt both the market and your own organization, you risk being disrupted and left behind. There is no company that is too big to fail. Neither is there a startup that is too small to succeed.

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How Feasible Are Your Strategic Objectives?

Every organization sets out its goals and objectives, to accomplish its mission and vision. The two often seem like two interchangeable phrases but there is a distinction.

A goal is a desired result you want to achieve and is typically broad and vague. An objective, on the other hand, defines the specific, measurable actions each employee must take to achieve the overall goal.

It is every leader’s job to create a coherent set of feasible objectives or what Richard Rumelt calls proximate objectives. Objectives that define targets the organization is fairly expected to achieve, even overwhelm.

This is essential for ensuring energy and resources are focused on one, or a very few, critical objectives whose accomplishment will lead to a cascade of positive outcomes.

An effective strategy defines a critical challenge or opportunity and clearly articulates how the organization is going to play to win or perform customers’ Jobs to Be Done.

Thus, the objectives an effective strategy sets should stand a good chance of being accomplished, given existing resources and competence.

On the contrary, a bad strategy results in the setting of bad strategic objectives.

Long lists of “things to be done,” are often labeled wrongly as strategies or objectives. Or the desired outcome is simply rehashed with no explanation of how this will be accomplished.

It doesn’t matter how well-thought your strategy is in response to an identified challenge or opportunity. If the resultant strategic objectives are merely a list of things to do, or just as difficult to achieve as the identified key challenge, there has been little value added by the strategy.

In today’s highly competitive, uncertain, dynamic, and complex environment in which a leader’s ability to look further ahead is diminished, it is better to focus on a few pivotal items through taking strong positions, creating options, and building advantage.

First identify the key challenges or opportunities for the business. Look very closely at the changes happening within your business, where you might get an added advantage over competition.

Next, create a list of the issues, including the actions your company should take.

Then, trim the original list to a noticeably short list of pivotal issues and proximate objectives by identifying one or two feasible objective(s), when achieved, would make the biggest difference. Remember, the identified objectives should be more like tasks and less like goals.

Now, focus on the objectives by channeling skills and available resources to accomplish the overall goal.

Once accomplished, new opportunities will open up resulting in the creation of more ambitious objectives. This cycle will help you develop a system that enables the setting of feasible strategic objectives.

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