3 Common Pitfalls of Performance Reporting and How to Avoid Them

Recently I met up with a close friend of mine whom I hadn’t seen in a couple of years for a chat and catching up. He is a qualified accountant and finance professional working in the financial services industry in Zimbabwe.

On top of the social chatter, we started discussing the evolving role of finance, in particular finance business partnering and the impact of Industry 4.0 on the profession.

As our discussion continued, we shared experiences, what has worked and what hasn’t worked so far in our respective organizations, as well as the way forward.

One thing that intrigued me was that my friend didn’t by any chance try hard to hide his frustrations emanating from his every day job. Chief among the frustrations was the fact that finance wasn’t highly regarded within his organization as he would have loved it to be.

I probed further trying to understand why he had reached to that conclusion.

Although my friend mentioned that his organization has made reasonable progress in ensuring that finance transforms from the commonly perceived scorekeeper function to a trusted business partner, many business leaders still perceive finance’s role as that of balancing books and providing rudimentary analysis.

As a result, finance is not invited to the decision making table and asked for its contribution.

Keen to find out why business leaders didn’t see any value in engaging finance in the operational affairs, I asked deeper questions until we both agreed that his team was clogging business partners with too many performance reports, his organization lacked a clearly defined data management model, and finance personnel need to be empowered to collaborate with the business effectively.

Far Too Many Reports and Far Too Little Insights

As it turns out, it’s not only business leaders in my friend’s place of work who are constantly being weighed down by a mass of performance reports. There are plenty.

With the volume of both internal and external data increasing exponentially, the demand on finance teams to provide insightful, relevant and timely management information to support fact-based decision making isn’t going down either.

Because of this unrelenting demand for more information it is easy to succumb to the thinking that more is better, resulting in finance teams working round-the-clock to produce reports that neither meet the requests of stakeholders nor offer the business an informed, value-adding view of its performance.

The problem with having too many reports is that the business is forced to track and monitor far too many metrics which, in most cases, are in conflict with one another and offer far too little insight.

Additionally, the business lacks a clear line of sight to clearly analyse past and anticipated performance in order to make better decisions. In today’s exponentially growing data age, decision makers are looking for essential information to make more confident and effective decisions that focuses their attention on activities that truly matter, and provide a consistent view of performance across the business.

To avoid this common pitfall of repeatedly creating useless performance reports that no one dares to read, finance needs to regularly engage with business leaders and take time to clearly understand what information they actually need to achieve their strategic objectives and consequently drive value.

Delivering this information in an efficient and effective manner is key to finance generating business trust as well as empowering the business to proactively respond to emerging opportunities and threats.

Lack of a Robust Data Governance Framework

After seriously discussing the problem of too many performance reports, my friend further raised an important question. What if a business leader requests a specific report and we do not have all the necessary information to adequately support our findings? Before answering him, I fired a question back at him. How are you currently handling these requests?

To my complete surprise he responded, finance produces reports that we believe are correct and if we do not hear back from the business leader all is considered in order. At this point in time, I was quickly reminded of the expression Garbage In – Garbage Out. No matter how logical our thinking and analysis is, as long as the inputs are invalid the results will be incorrect.

The same applies to business performance reporting. In today’s data-driven and tech-enabled economy, optimized and appropriate use of data is central to helping the business make enhanced decisions, create competitive advantage and successfully execute its strategy.

Thus, data quality is imperative, requiring finance leaders to ensure that there is absolute trust in the information provided to the business.

From discussing with my friend, it became clear that a business requires the right data to support its integrated set of defined key performance indicators (KPIs) and to maintain the integrity of this data, it must be supported by a robust governance structure.

Today’s volatile and dynamic business environment means the organization’s strategic priorities are always changing, as well as its information needs. As a result, the reporting function also needs to keep pace with this constantly changing landscape.

Building a cohesive information and data governance framework ensures common KPIs linked to strategic and operational decision making are used consistently across the business.

KPIs, regardless of their focus are only as consistent as the underlying data, and poor data input will produce inconsistent measures, even if they are labelled as the same KPI. This is why getting the basic data structures and data feeds right is so fundamental in providing decision support that can be trusted.

Additionally, due to the fact that different functions of the business use data for multiple different information needs, a robust data governance framework leads to a single version of the truth via enforcement of consistent information standards, creates awareness of where the performance data is housed and how it can be accessed.

Since the main goal of performance reporting is to provide management with real-time information with proactive comparators, a constant review of the information requirements and data governance framework ensures that performance measures remain relevant.

What I also picked up from my friend is that despite significant growth in the potential use of external data to drive better decision making, many businesses remain predominantly reliant on internal data to drive key business performance decisions.

They are grappling to incorporate this type of data across different business processes, mainly because of the differences in the structure of internal and external data sets.

By incorporating external comparators in their decision making processes, management will be able to identify areas where the business needs to ramp up through investments, and often more prominently, where it is already ahead of the competition, but must continue to focus on to uphold or create a new advantage.

Without this crucial information at their disposal, it is impractical for finance teams to clearly understand the major drivers of their business performance, produce insightful analysis, partner with key decision makers and support strategic decision making.

Business Leaders Discounting Finance’s Capabilities

In order to become effective business partners and provide relevant decision support it is imperative for finance teams to get as much exposure as possible to business-wide decision making. Unfortunately, getting this exposure remains a distant dream for many capable finance teams.

Because business leaders see finance personnel only as gatekeepers and not strategic business advisors, there is little motivation on their part to empower finance to collaborate effectively with the business on a larger scale.

As we started discussing the promises and perils of Industry 4.0 with my friend, he was very much surprised with how far behind his organization is in terms of digital transformation and process automation.

My friend is not alone on this boat; many finance teams are still stuck with legacy financial systems, tools and processes; spending a significant portion of their time on low value-adding transactional activities such as arduous data extraction and manipulation or traditional month-end activities, and little time on positive analysis and decision support. This is detrimental to effective performance reporting.

Performance reporting will only succeed if finance teams are suitably equipped to deliver high-quality insights that support decision making empowered with deployment of reporting technologies.

Even if the business presents an opportunity to collaborate, time alone is not sufficient. There is also a need to create an environment that allows finance people to develop appropriate capabilities, some of which may not come innately to many technical finance people.

One way of fostering this environment involves running finance training programmes that focus heavily on softer skills such as leadership development, communication, change management and stakeholder management, as well as on-the-job training for traits such as commercial acumen, and less on the technical or transactional processes which are easy candidates for automation and do not constitute a large portion of finance’s everyday job.

As with any other form of investment, the organization must be able to reap rewards from the training programmes. It makes no economic sense to spend substantial amount of resources trying to boost finance function productivity and in turn get rewarded with mediocre results.

It is therefore critical that finance personnel sent out for training exhibit the right behaviours and have the confidence to work with the business to interpret reports and constructively challenge strategic decision making to drive more effective decision making.

This in turn will assist finance shed its image as a mere service provider, elude mundane tasks, enhance its reputation and become part of the decision making crème de la crème informing business decisions with deep insights and recommendations.

In addition to training programmes, the organization also needs to invest in appropriate enabling technology that help with data analysis and interpretation in real-time, providing the organization with the necessary speed and quality that it requires to stay ahead, as well as allowing finance to demonstrate their analytical skills and become more influential as business partners.

Addressing the above common pitfalls is key to streamlining an organization’s performance measurement and reporting processes, and ensuring that senior management regularly receive relevant, insightful and near real-time information necessary to improve strategic decision making and ultimately business performance.

What other common pitfalls have you experienced in delivering high-quality performance reporting?

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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?

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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?

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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?

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