categoryStrategy Management

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 high performing, innovative 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 high performing, innovative 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.

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?

The Basics of Strategic Planning and Strategy Execution

Effective strategic planning and strategy execution are key to driving business success and growth. Unfortunately, leaders tend to focus more on the planning process and less on doing or executing.

Strategic planning is the process of articulating the vision of what the organization wants to be, defining its strategy, setting strategic initiatives, making decisions on allocating its resources to pursue this strategy, and aligning the organization to ensure that employees and other stakeholders collaborate toward common objectives.

The focus is on the future direction and performance of the organization. Through strategic planning exercises, organizations tend to produce 3-5 year rigid strategic plans documenting the organization’s strategic goals as well as action plans to achieve those goals.

Rigid strategic plans work best in a stable environment. However, times have changed. Today’s business environment is awash with substantial volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. The abnormal is now normal and uncertainty is now certain.

As a result, enormous doubt has been cast on the effectiveness of strategic planning in the current environment, leading some to claim that strategic planning is dead.

I don’t buy this view. Strategic planning is not dead.

Yes, the environment is constantly evolving, and the organization needs to be flexible, adaptive and responsive. But, how can you address and navigate the future without a well laid plan and strategy?

In their book Sun Tzu: The Art of War for Managers, Gerald A. Michaelson and Steven Michaelson cite that:

A common mistake is to consider planning as only a mental process, an idea in our head that simply looks at the past and adjusts for the future. If your plan is not in writing, you do not have a plan at all. Instead, you have only a dream, a vision, or perhaps even a nightmare.

This is not about producing long strategy documents that very few read. Rather, it is about a producing a simple written plan that is easy to understand, such as a strategy map.

Strategy maps helps leaders define and communicate the strategy of the organization by creating a visual representation of the key business objectives on a single page. Strategy maps also outline the strategic aims and priorities of the organization and help to ensure everyone is working towards common goals.

The organization’s plan must not be rigid in nature, but flexible enough to accommodate changes in the environment or business requirements.

As a football fanatic and an avid Arsenal FC fan, I have experienced a fair share of exciting and disappointing matches. But, over the past few years, I have come to appreciate the fact that rigidity does not win matches.

Within the same match, I have watched Arsenal quickly switch from a 4-3-3 formation to a 4-2-3-1 and make substitutions depending on the realities of the match. Even though the manager had a 90 minutes’ game plan before kick-off, he also had other plans that allowed for flexibility in formations to adapt to reality.

The same approach should be adopted in business. Rather than stick to rigid planning systems that convey a message that obedience to the plan is key to business success and growth, leaders need to implement plans that allow the assessment of business performance under different scenarios.

Defining strategy and tactics

Put simply, strategy is about doing the right thing. It is about how an organization will move forward and figuring out how to advance its interests. In war terms, it is seeking victory before the battle.

On the other hand, tactics is doing things right. It is the implementation. The battle or action of the war.

However, often times there is confusion on whether strategy determines tactics or it is tactics that determine strategy.

Seeing that strategy definition is part of the planning process, and tactics is about implementation, it is safe to conclude that strategy always comes before tactics.

It is therefore important for leaders to understand that for tactics to effectively support the strategy by doing things right, the strategy itself must be right first. You must be doing the right thing. A bad strategy underpinned by good tactics can be a fast route to failure.

To do the right thing, leaders need to primarily stop focusing more on or reacting to competitors. Great strategies do not arise from reacting to competitors.

Instead, they are a product of intense discussion and deliberation that take into consideration the organization’s internal strengths and weaknesses including external threats and opportunities.

The focus should be on identifying unfulfilled customer needs or Jobs to Be Done, then devising solutions to meet those needs and ultimately assessing competitive realities to determine the viability of your strategy.

Oftentimes, the decision sequence is wrong. Leaders initially focus on profit requirements, and the decision on the needs of the market is secondary. First, you must satisfy the needs of the market. Then, and only then, can you profit from your actions.

Separating planning from execution

Innovation, profitability, and growth all depend on having strategy and execution fit together seamlessly. However, spending too much time in planning can breed indecisiveness and error.

The important thing is to get started. Unfortunately, many of us are good at thinking and bad at doing. With the right strategy, the battle is only half won. The strategy succeeds only with informed and intelligent execution of tactics.

Issues arise when planning is separated from execution. Majority of good strategies fail due to poor execution. Well thought-out plans are not followed through properly because of limited resources, managerial talent or operational skills. In some cases, it is because people are focusing on the wrong things, products or services.

To avoid poor execution of good strategies, leaders must have the ability to clearly define and communicate the strategy to employees in a format that is easy to comprehend. This is necessary for ensuring that everyone has an idea of what the key priorities of the organization are and their role in accomplishing these.

It is also important to measure, track and report on the progress of the strategy against the critical success factors of the business. This is essential for determining what is working and what is not working and make immediate adjustments to prevent further deterioration.

I welcome your thoughts and comments.

Risk-Based Decision Making

Risk is an inherent element of the business. Given that every business activity or decision has a risk consequence, a business should not expect to operate and progress by making risk an afterthought.

Technological advances, evolving customer expectations, volatile markets, global political instabilities, shifting demographics and natural disasters are impacting business models and forcing organizations in every sector to rethink the way they operate.

Left unaddressed, these forces of change have a huge potential of derailing the strategic plan of the business and accelerate the organization towards failure. In order to survive in this VUCA world, the business should make a paradigm shift from reactive to proactive mode. This helps prepare and plan for the future rather than respond to it  after it has arrived.

The challenge today in many companies is that risk-based decision making is an afterthought. Only after going through a turmoil do people start asking where is risk management and why did the risk experts fail to anticipate the events in advance. In financial services companies where there are dedicated risk management teams, it is easier to point the finger of blame.

However, not all companies have a dedicated risk management function.

Risk is everyone’s responsibility

What exactly is the meaning of this statement?

Is making risk everyone’s responsibility part and parcel of risk culture?

What is the best approach of making everyone embrace risk-based decision making?

If some employees within the organization have never received training or guidance towards risk decision making, are they still held responsible?

By making risk everyone’s responsibility are we increasing confusion and blurring the lines between accountability and responsibility?

In the event that a business fails as a result of activities or decisions that could have been avoided, who is held accountable and responsible?

The CFO as the champion of risk-based decision making

In companies lacking a dedicated risk management function with a CRO at the helm, overseeing of risk management is normally under the purview of the CFO. The CFO is better positioned to champion meaningful risk conversations across the organization and drive better decision making processes.

Many people connect risk management with the negatives, hence the desire to avoid risk at all costs. Risk-based decision making is not about managing or avoiding risk. Effective risk management involves looking at the upside of risk and making informed risk decisions that help the organization achieve its stated objectives.

Driving a risk-based decision making culture therefore goes beyond lip service. It is not about merely saying everyone is responsible for risk. It is about raising risk management awareness and developing risk competencies across all staff levels through training, discussion and sharing of risk information.

Risk doesn’t start to happen once the strategy has been set. With the world always changing, risk is a constant present both before and after strategy setting. That is why it is important to understand the risks of your strategy including risks to the execution of the strategy.

Once every employee has a better understanding of risk, how it applies to their individual area of responsibility and align with the overall strategy of the business, risk-based decision making ultimately becomes part of the culture.

Given that finance has a unique end-to-end view of an organization the CFO plays a critical role in helping business partners understand the strategic plan of the business, identify, quantify, and mitigate any risk that affects or is inherent in the company’s business strategy, strategic objectives, and strategy execution.

The CFO is capable of leading the risk conversation and ensuring that the focus is more on taking advantage of opportunities and achieving strategic objectives and less on the downside, in turn ensuring that more value is created than is preserved.

Although the CFO has the bird’s eye view of the organization and an understanding of where the risks are coming from including the mitigation strategies, s/he cannot do it alone. Risk management requires an holistic approach across the company, and different risks are the problem of the function that they most impact.

It is therefore imperative that the CFO co-ordinates efforts and works alongside other C-suite executives to identify and assess emerging risks and best understand how to mitigate them.

Having the ability to partner with the business and speak their language is key to leading and engaging C-suite executives in meaningful risk conversations that help mitigate risks to the execution of the strategy.

Relationship between risk and performance

Risk conversations have to keep pace with the complexity of the business. Elevate the conversation to include a discussion around sources of potential disruption, their impact on the day-to-day execution of your strategy and the creation of value, and what your organization should do to increase the possibility of success.

Risk and performance are two sides of the same coin. A business cannot manage risk in isolation of performance. At the same time, the business cannot manage performance without consideration of risk. It is therefore imperative to integrate risk into your strategy and performance management decision making processes.

One way of embedding risk in the strategic planning process involves connecting your risk reporting and your strategy execution. Unfortunately, companies spend a significant amount of time compiling risk registers that do not inform strategic decision making. I have come across risk registers that list hundreds of risk events with very few of the events connected to the achievement of strategic objectives.

Risk assessment exercises should not be performed in isolation to strategic decision making. It is therefore important for the team responsible for performing risk assessments and compiling risk reports to understand what the strategy of the organization is, including what the strategy colleagues are doing on a day-to-day basis.

Not only will this help understand the business environment but also key assumptions. Instead of churning out the same report with the same list of risks on a monthly or quarterly basis, your report should be a reflection of key risk management changes overtime and help influence business decisions.

Conclusion

Risk-based decision making should be integrated into the overall management system of the organization. Given the constantly changing business environment, the business should always be ready for the unthinkable.

Business leaders should therefore focus on continuously improving the organization’s risk management framework and employee risk competencies to ensure both are capable of withstanding the test of times.

CFOs Beware: Don’t Get Caught Up In the Hype of New Technologies

In one of my articles, Finance Transformation: From Efficiency to Effectiveness, I recommended CFOs to first identify a business problem before investing in a new shiny piece of technology.  Today, there is so much talk about digital transformation and the immense potential of new technologies to drive business performance.

With a plethora of tools available on the market and all promising to deliver better results, one of the biggest challenges faced by many CFOs and finance executives  is identifying, evaluating and selecting the right tool for the business.

Compounding the problem are a myriad of  articles and blogs on finance digitization portraying messages such as,  “If you are not yet invested in digital, you have already missed the train or if  you are not using the cloud, be aware that everyone else is moving forward and moving faster than you are.”

For fear of missing out, some finance executives are leading their organizations on digital transformation initiatives without a clearly defined and articulated plan.

Too Many Unconnected Systems

Due to the lack of having a clearly mapped business strategy to address digitization, some finance executives are getting caught up in the hype that inevitably comes with every new piece of technology or software on the market. Instead of investing in technology or software that serves the business, they are investing in new tools that the consultants or software sellers recommend irrespective of whether the decision is rational or not. So often the end product is a disintegrated technological infrastructure.

New technology, combined with streamlined processes and talented people is supposed to transform finance from an inefficient function into an effective team player in the business. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Technology is acting as a hindrance. Businesses are superimposing automation on broken or marginally improved processes in turn expecting magical results. In other instances, finance teams are spending a significant amount of time reconciling and aggregating data from different systems.

Today there is an increasing call on finance to play the role of a strategic advisor to business teams yet when it comes to answering basic performance questions, most finance teams are hard pressed to do so.  One of the reasons being that the information required to answer such important questions is housed in different systems all over the organization.

Further, the individuals responsible for partnering with the business to support decision making lack access to some of the systems. They have to rely on information on spreadsheets or reports produced by those with access and most of the time this information is not readily available.

Imagine the frustration of having to wait on someone for days or weeks to send you information and when the information finally arrives you realize that it is not what you expected. For example, the report is not for the business unit you are reviewing or the period selected for the report is incorrect. Because you don’t have access to the system you have to go back to the report compiler and explain again your information requirements.

This back and forth process slows down decision making at a time when accuracy, speed and agility are increasingly important.

Looking at the same information

One of the keys to have meaningful performance conversations is have everyone look at the same information. For example, if the business wants to review the level and nature of capital investments for a given period it is imperative to ensure that the source of this information is common across the organization.

I have come across situations whereby more than one system is used to record capital expenditures often with major record differences between the systems in use. Time and resources are then redirected to focus on reconciling and resolving the reporting differences. It is therefore imperative for CFOs and finance executives to understand that technology alone will not drive transformation.

The data you input into a system will determine the output of that system. That’s why it is important to make sure that everyone is working from a central data repository. Having multiple copies of solutions is inefficient and counterproductive.

As an organization, you do not need too many systems to look at the same information. Thus, before acquiring that new piece of technology always ask yourself, “What is the problem that this new technology will resolve and also how will the investment enhance or strengthen your existing technological capabilities?” Many at times, we are quick to point out the limitations of the current system and use that as the reason for investing in an alternative solution.

Instead of taking a holistic view of the technological needs of the business, we take a piecemeal approach. For example, if AP is not happy with the current system we invest in another AP-focused system. If another team identifies system deficiencies, we look around on the market for a specific tool that addresses that function. This cycle continues over a period of time and ultimately the organization is left with a handful of siloed pieces of systems not completely integrated into the overall technological infrastructure of the business.

As the business and its information needs evolve, sometimes a reconfiguration of the current system(s) as compared to implementing a new one is what is needed. That is why it is important, from the onset, to evaluate the suitability of each piece of technology against the various growth phases of the business. Ask the software seller, “If our business continues to grow, will your product still be able to support our business needs and help us deliver our unique value proposition?”

Considering all the plausible scenarios and options available will help you determine if the technology will serve you for the short or long-term future.

Fear of missing out

Studies have revealed that as individuals we are prone to mimicking people’s actions and their product choices instead of applying our own independent assessment and best judgement. This not only happens at a personal level but also at a professional level.

For example, imagine as a CFO you recently attended an industry conference and the majority of finance executives you met spoke about investing in AI capabilities. Some have already implemented pilot projects and others are at an advanced planning stage. Since your organization hasn’t made plans yet, you make a hasty decision to invest in AI to avoid missing out and keep pace with what others are doing.

The problem with this simple approach is that rather than initially evaluate AI investment from an internal point of view and your business’s strategy perspective, you are now investing in AI from an external point of view based on what other businesses are doing.

I am not saying it is wrong to collaborate and get ideas from industry peers. In fact, this is one of the key reasons for attending conferences. To get informed about emerging trends and disruptive technologies and prepare for an uncertain future.

What is important is that you don’t allow competitor behaviours to drive technology investments in your business. Rather, clarify your business questions first, fix any broken processes before looking into technology and assess how the investment aligns with your overall business strategy.

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