How Finance Can Help Improve the Company’s Operating Performance

Today’s CFO is more than a numbers person. In addition to fulfilling the traditional oversight function, the finance executive is also now a key business performance manager mandated to achieve operational excellence.

He or she has to make sure that the business is getting the operations right the first time and meeting operating targets – optimized processes, reduced error rates, lower costs, higher quality products and services etc.

In today’s constantly changing business environment, this might look easier said than done, but they key to operational success is ensuring that the business operating model is aligned with the new economic realities.

This is how we have always done business no longer cuts it through in our current industrialized and digitized economy. New technologies and innovation are disrupting business models. Customer behaviours and spending habits are constantly shifting. Geopolitical risk across the globe is at its peak. Growth in developed economies is stagnating while in emerging economies it is fraught with severe challenges. Competition is intensifying.

In short, the world is now extremely volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA).

Such changes are exerting immense pressure on the operational performance of the business. Thus, to survive and improve performance in this dynamic environment, businesses must learn to adapt, become agile and innovative.

Finance can play an important role in improving the company’s operating performance by helping the business navigate around these challenges.

Develop and strengthen relationships with operating managers

The ability to forge positive long lasting relationships with business unit managers is now a critical skill necessary to achieve finance effectiveness. Finance can longer sit comfortably in the back office, and expect to add value to the business.

Instead, finance needs to obtain front-line and hands-on operational experience. For instance, join operational teams on site visits or other external stakeholder meetings. It is through these interactions that finance can develop and demonstrate own understanding of the business and how it works.

The function will be able to acquire knowledge on the operating unit’s markets, competition, customers, supply chain and risks. This information is necessary for developing and implementing reliable and meaningful performance measurement metrics and ensure that everyone is on the same page. It will also help determine whether or not any business-related changes being made will have a positive or negative impact on the company.

Gaining knowledge of operations and the business is not an overnight process. Thus, finance needs to work with operations more closely and more frequently. Regularly maintaining contact and discussing business performance with operating managers is key to developing trust and strengthening the relationship between finance and operations.

On the other hand, infrequent contact with business unit managers will unfortunately hinder finance’s progress of becoming the business’s trusted advisor.

Finance effectiveness goes beyond simply publishing the numbers

In addition to reporting the numbers, finance must also be able to tell the story behind the numbers. What is driving the numbers? Can the numbers be maintained? Are they trustworthy?

Decision makers are always looking for information that is objective, insightful, relevant and usable so that they can understand the financial implications of their decisions and actions. In other words, one version of the truth.

Unfortunately, for many finance organizations, they are failing to provide information and insights operating managers need. Rather, they are providing what finance thinks they need. This in itself is a recipe for disastrous decision-making processes.

To avoid falling into this trap, finance must regularly meet with business managers and discuss their information needs. This will ensure the function is providing relevant information and insights on performance drivers as well as factors that will have the most impact on the business.

How often does your organization’s finance team discuss performance issues with business unit managers? Daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly or there is no regular discussion about metrics and performance? How influential is finance in defining improvement goals? What role does finance play in measuring, managing and monitoring performance?

By leveraging data analytics technologies, finance can help optimize operations and provide business managers with reliable information on what happened, why it happened, what will happen in the future and how it will happen.

Instead of relying on hindsight and insight to optimize operations, business managers will develop foresight about the future and improve their decision-making processes.

Recognize the need to do more

Finance must show a continued interest in helping the business achieve operational excellence.

It is important to note that finance business partnering is not an occasional process whereby finance shows an interest in improving operations, fades away for a while, comes back into the picture, disappears again and the cycle continues like this. Rather, the focus should be on continuous improvement.

Although some organizations have already started transforming their finance organizations, the gap between finance’s actual and desired involvement in operations is still enormous. Closing this gap requires finance to recognize the need to do more.There must be a hunger to add value to the business and become a critical player.

Finance must continuously evolve and become a learning organization. It must adapt its operating model and embrace the important role it plays in helping the business advance its operational performance. It is common to encounter significant hurdles during the transformation process but this must not act as a trigger to give up.

The focus should be on becoming better and making performance improvement an everyday mandate. Identify a few operational targets, processes and critical reporting and analysis that are in dire need of improving and focus on these.

Once you have worked on these and are happy with the progress made, you then move to the next areas of improvement. Sometimes it is better to start small and celebrate small wins than not start at all.

Finance can only do more if the corporate culture and senior executives support the collaboration of finance with the rest of the business. Thus, the type of an organization the CFO works for can influence the role that finance plays.

If the organization is traditional, slow to change and lacks executive support, finance will forever play the oversight and reporting role.

On the other hand, if the organization is adaptive, innovative and executives rely on information to drive decisions, then finance will play the key strategic advisory role.

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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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