Harnessing Optimism and Investing In Technology to Accelerate Growth

Despite the world’s love affair with technology over the past two years – for the most part, it allowed us to continue working, and, for many of us, grow our businesses – could the tide be turning in a wave of short-term thinking and knee jerk reactions? According to FP&A Trends Survey 2022, even though technology is a key enabler of financial planning and analysis activities, 36% of those surveyed said that it was difficult to justify the ROI on FP&A technology against shorter-term sales and marketing activities. This was the number one obstacle that FP&A practitioners needed to overcome to support management today. The second most significant concern the respondents had was the view that FP&A was not considered a strategic investment area within their company (27%).


How can this possibly be the case, when especially cloud-based technology has been considered the saving grace of doing business during the pandemic? Early adopters reaped the rewards by being able to continue operating seamlessly and then being in a position to pivot and serve the changing needs of a market that suddenly had to stay at home. Hot on the heels of the early adopters were those companies who finally had the impetus to implement the technology they’d been mulling over. And yet here we seem to have a significant proportion of FP&A practitioners being blocked from implementing the technology that would allow them to support their management team with the information and analysis they need to navigate the undoubtedly bumpy times we are experiencing.


The challenge of doing business in surreal times

I don’t need to spell out how challenging doing business is today, as we are all living through it. It feels like every day there is a new hit of overlapping impacts making it more difficult to rebuild our businesses. In surreal times though, it seems to make sense to turn to those masters of surrealist humour, Monty Python, who suggested that we should “always look on the bright side of life”. You might be rolling your eyes right now, wondering both how that is possible today, and what any of this has to do with FP&A. Let’s see.


Yes, it might seem contrived and blinkered to present a rose-coloured picture of the world right now, but neither is it helpful to fixate on the fact that times are tough (and basically talk ourselves into a recession). Instead, I think FP&A leaders should be encouraging their management teams to take a leaf out of the Python playbook and actively seek out and communicate the good news and progress amidst the despondency.


You will find the good news if you look

Opportunities and reasons to be optimistic certainly do exist. We’ve seen this happen before, after all. After the 2008 global financial crisis, research from McKinsey showed that companies that moved quickly into a positive, proactive, growth mode emerged from the downturn stronger, and continued on this trajectory for a decade. On the other hand, companies that got stuck in pessimistic inertia saw the opposite effect. The research saw the same trend happening during the pandemic. Between December 2018 and May 2020, the top 20% of companies researched grew their profit by $335 billion, while the companies in the bottom fifth lost $303 billion. And this gap was widening to produce a K-shaped recovery: the winners streak ahead forming the upward arm of the K, and the losers increasingly decline along the downward arm of the K.




Avoid pessimistic inertia

There are big and small examples of this all around us. It is mind-boggling that, more than two years of pandemic later, there are still retailers that have no, or only very basic, mostly manual, ecommerce offerings. Even with access to easy-to-deploy online shopping cart technology and payment gateways, these companies presumably decided it was better to maintain a highly defensive posture, and not spend the time and money needed to shift to an ecommerce offering. Unfortunately, if these companies were holding out for ecommerce shoppers to return to bricks and mortar stores, they will continue missing out. Of course, some, even many, shoppers will return to traditional shopping, but they are unlikely to abandon ecommerce altogether and are now comfortable looking further afield for what they want to buy.


The other obvious example of pessimistic inertia is the air travel industry, which staggeringly, appears to have been caught on the back foot by the absolutely predictable demand for travel as soon as health restrictions allowed. Most recently, in the height of the summer holidays, Heathrow Airport capped daily passengers to 100,000 (less than half of its 2018 daily average) and asked airlines to stop selling tickets until September! There are multiple factors at play here, but my general point remains: if you don’t look for the opportunities, they will pass you by. (Just like your boarding time when you are still trying to get through airport security after a four-hour queue.)


Keep focus and acknowledge the wins

What does this mean practically for FP&A practitioners? My suggestion is to keep focusing on what your organisation does well and celebrate the victories (even small ones) that move you forward. Don’t forget your people. Balance acknowledging that times are challenging with celebrating the personal wins of your team. Whether or not you prefer working remotely to being back in the office, the reality is that more than two years of working from home has weakened the social ties that form the foundation of morale and team spirit.


Optimism snowballs

As this optimism starts to snowball it will lead to bigger wins, strengthened morale, and more cohesion and alignment between the business and your people. Critically, to do this you need to take a long-term view. Reactionary, short-term thinking might be tempting but it can only deliver short-term wins and can block long-term progress. The results of the FP&A Trends Survey 2022 I mentioned previously are a case in point.


Be smart about long-term strategy

So be smart about how you go about looking for opportunities. Don’t fill up on the metaphorical canapés, as tasty as they might look after a long pandemic. You could end up full and have no space for the main courses when they do arrive, which they will. The real opportunities that take your business to the next level of growth are the main courses in this metaphor. Don’t sacrifice long-term strategy on the altar of the short-term opportunism shown by the stats mentioned in the opening paragraph of this article.


What this means from an FP&A point of view is that it is vital to enable yourself, and your management team to take the long view. Which in turn means taking the long view on FP&A technology investment and processes. Without agile and strategic planning capabilities, on-demand to the point of near real-time forecasting, rapidly accelerated budget cycles and data-driven decision-making abilities, your management team is at risk of staying out in the reception area, filling up on canapés, and completely missing out on the main event.


Your real deal checklist:

1. Enable your management team to take the long view.

2. Invest in FP&A technology and processes to achieve this.

3. Prioritise capabilities that enable:

a. On-demand forecasting

b. Accelerated budget cycles

c. Data-driven decision-making.


As published in FP&A Trends September 2022