Posts tagged: Value Creation

Risk Decision Making in an Interconnected World

Globalization and advancements in digital technologies have fundamentally eliminated barriers to doing business. Today, the world has become so interconnected that we are now able to carry out business with any organization across borders anytime of the day.

The opening of global markets which were once impenetrable for individuals, smaller enterprises and organizations is presenting significant growth opportunities to this group. At the same time, threats and complexities abound.

Given this current state of the world, it’s increasingly imperative for business leaders to understand the implications of an interconnected external environment on strategic and operational decision-making, and the achievement of enterprise objectives.

Companies are having to deal with business opportunities and threats that transcend borders. Global volatility is on the rise. From geopolitical tensions, Brexit, US/China trade conflict, rising economic nationalism and xenophobia to epidemic diseases, environmental disasters, and climate change, the world is experiencing significant uncertainty.

Surviving and thriving in this environment requires the organization, through its leaders, to manage for success by making better informed and intelligent risk decisions that drive business performance.

This means looking beyond risk management primarily as a loss prevention process, but rather a key process that supports effective decision-making. Since volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity have become the norm, it can be tempting for decision makers to entirely focus on the negatives, what might go wrong, and miss on emerging opportunities.

Faced with these uncertainties and not having clarity of their impact on the attainment of stated business objectives, many companies switch into the protective mode.

Although it’s important to be mindful of value preservation, a sole focus on this is not sustainable for the long term success of the business, especially in the current highly competitive environment where innovation is a key driver for rapid and profitable revenue growth.

Business leaders also need to be mindful of how the company will continuously innovate and create unmatched value for all stakeholders. And more often than not, this involves the business entering uncharted territories, and experimenting with new ideas which most of the time is counter to the traditional role of risk management in the business.

As the business ecosystem increasingly gets interconnected, new risks or uncertainties emerge. Thus, a holistic approach to risk and opportunity assessment is critical.

While a number of organizations do spend time analyzing emerging risks or threats to acquire some foresight about their impact on decision making and business performance, not enough is spent on understanding how current risks are intertwined.

Building an integrated view of the different risk factors or sources of uncertainty across the business is therefore critical since a change in one area has cascading effects that impact the entire ecosystem.

Many organizations still rely on the risk register to track and monitor critical risk factors capable of thwarting the successful achievement of enterprise objectives. For the greater part, these risk lists are a product of “top risks” research findings by consulting firms, academic, and other research institutions.

The mere fact that a risk factor has made top ten list of key risks to watch does not necessarily imply that you should attach the same value judgement for your company. Remember, the findings are from a representative sample whose business and operating model are most likely dissimilar to yours.

Should we therefore ignore these findings? Simple answer, no. Rather, we should use these resources as a guide to understand different sources of current and emerging threats and opportunities to the business, including the economy at large, and evaluate the recommendations in the context of the organization’s broader strategy and performance objectives.

For instance, let’s assume the main focus of your existing business strategy is to grow and expand internationally into the USA, Asia Pacific and European markets. Although important and connected, risk factors such as local regulatory changes, rising household debt levels or a slowing down economy will, in this case, likely be of minimal consideration.

What might be of heightened importance is rising nationalism and policies such as “America First,” in the USA, Brexit and the impending new trade policy with the EU, and future US/China trade relations and its impact on the entire Asia Pacific region.

On the reward side, taking Asia Pacific as an example, the region represents the largest e-commerce market and more than half of the world’s mobile subscribers are based here. By 2025 it is estimated there will be 3.9 billion smartphone connections and 11 billion IoT connections in Asia Pacific.

This alone is a huge opportunity for any type of business currently operating or planning to set shop in this region to tap into this large market and meet current and emerging customer needs through digital technologies or solutions.

Thus, relying primarily on outdated risk registers or lists, which in most cases are infrequently reviewed, to support critical business decisions in today’s fast-changing and uncertain environment is insufficient. Just as the internal and external environment continue to change, your business strategy also need to evolve in light of new and emerging opportunities and uncertainties.

Explore different future scenarios and evaluate how your organization is most likely to perform under each possible scenario. Even though it’s not possible to predict the future with certainty, or the timing and severity of any particular event, planning for unpredictable events can be an effective component to your company’s risk decision-making approach.

Effective risk decision-making in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and interconnected world is about considering all scenarios that might play out in the future, good or bad, and proactively making better informed decisions that improve business performance and increase the odds of success.

Finance Needs To Do More Than Prepare Reports

There is an ongoing discussion about the evolving role of finance and the function’s contribution towards enterprise performance improvement. Thanks to new operating models and emerging technologies, finance has been presented with an opportunity to step up and shine.

That is, focus more effort on providing effective decision support that drives organizational success and less on rote tasks that can easily be automated, outsourced or performed separately in a shared services center.

Providing effective decision support requires a deep understanding of the business in its completeness, the cause-and-effect relationships between business units, big growth drivers and performance drivers. It’s more than producing a complete set of financials on a monthly basis.

By virtue of their training, many finance professionals possess strong technical accounting backgrounds and limited business experience. For instance, preparing external reporting financials that are IFRS-aligned comes natural to them. At any point in time, they are able to interpret a particular standard, paragraph by paragraph, without even making reference to the standard handbook itself.

There is nothing wrong with becoming an accounting standard expert. The problem arises when the entire finance team is made up of financial reporting experts who spend the majority of their time churning out reports just to meet regulatory and compliance requirements and less on driving business performance.

Month-end, quarter-end and year-end reporting are still an important part of running a successful finance organization. It’s important that the financial statements are free from material misstatements and faithfully represent the financial performance and position of the business.

However, the process should not end there. Finance should also be able to interpret the reported numbers, create meaning and simplicity from them as well as communicate a point of view about how the numbers will inform strategic decisions.

It’s therefore imperative for finance leaders to continuously assess the tasks their teams are focused on. Begin with why. For instance, why does your team produce the reports it produces on a weekly, monthly and quarterly basis? What purpose do they serve in informing business decisions?

After you have answered the why question, you should be able to determine whether the activity, report or process is a value add or not.

Any activity, report or process that is not value enhancing should be discontinued completely or streamlined. This will in turn help you free up more time and channel resources towards issues and or initiatives that really matter to business partners and senior decision makers.

Given that individuals are creatures of habit, it can be difficult to let go of traditional practices or old habits.

Unfortunately, sticking with the familiar in a constantly changing environment will not do you any justice. Just because this is how you have always done things in the past and are used to does not mean you should continue on the same path of the tried-and-tested.

In addition to getting rid of old habits that are no longer able to withstand the test of time, it’s also important to ask if the company’s business model is still fit for purpose to address today’s demands and challenges, and more important, is it fit for purpose for the future? With the world changing so fast around us, a business never reaches a point where it has the ideal model.

The operating model needs to continue to evolve. Finance can help shape this model through spending time with business partners and engaging in a two-way conversation about the business and offering its perspective. Communication between finance and the business should not be limited to month-end reports only.

Leveraging our financial expertise, we can help drive change by helping the company identify sources of growth and operational improvements, allocate resources effectively and efficiently, and accelerate its performance over time.

Finance is often regarded as the purse-holder of the company, holding the power to greenlight some initiatives and redlight others.

However, in order to drive innovation and change, finance must learn to see the world not only through a finance lens but also through a business lens. Many finance professionals are conservative and risk averse in their approach. Taking risk is something perceived extraordinary. We need to transition from this kind of thinking.

There is of course balance between taking risk and mitigating risk, but if finance is inclined to opt for the later, value creation opportunities can be missed. It’s therefore critical that we do not succumb to analysis paralysis because it’s easier to lose the big picture of what is needed to drive the company’s success in a myriad of daily transactions or useless data.

In conclusion, if finance is to influence strategic decisions and add value, finance leaders should start asking if their teams are focusing on what really matters to the business or the function.

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.

WordPress Themes