In this article, I share my thoughts on what is important to keep in mind when building effective FP&A teams in times of great challenges.
These views are my own and do not represent those of the International FP&A Board, nor my current employers.
Data Scientists in FP&A: Lessons Learnt from the “Spotify” Model
“Five critical FP&A team roles” presentation by Hans Gobin, International FP&A Board ambassador
The ability to work together and leverage the hive mind is one of the greatest individual capabilities we can develop. In a rapidly changing world, FP&A teams need to adapt, and a different set of skills are required to navigate. We are creating much more data as part of our operations, and we have better technologies to leverage them. This is why we need to bring the additional roles into the team.
Figure 1. Five critical FP&A team roles
Do these roles need to sit within FP&A? This model, if taken out of context, could mean that FP&A departments go out to recruit these roles into their own teams. By recruiting, for example, a data scientist within your team, you risk creating silos within the organisation.
I’m a fan of the ‘Spotify’ model, where you have functions (squads) and specialisms (tribes). For specific tasks, we call upon the experts within the tribes. In this model, the data scientist is a shared resource, who will rejoin and share experiences with the rest of the data science tribe, when the task is complete.
There is a learning curve that is required to make the most of this model. However, this cross-functional way of working will become increasingly common, and it’s a skill we must learn.
Good Visualisation Takes Some Practice
“Building synergistic FP&A teams” presentation by Maria Olsson, FP&A Transformation lead, ConvaTec; and International FP&A Board ambassador
I think that organisations are weak at creating consistency in communications. This has been made worse by the fact that the latest generation of data visualisation tools makes it quick and easy to create a huge range of charts and infographics.
The challenge now is to bring a bit of governance into your teams around how to use these visual aids:
- Have you thought out about colour schemes? Are you stuck on red-amber-green? I used to do that, but in one firm, when speaking to senior stakeholders, I realised that a number of them were colour blind.
- What about rules for chart types? If you want to communicate trends over time, use a line chart. If you want to show composition, use a vertical bar chart or a treemap. But please… never… EVER… use a pie chart.
- Tailor your visuals to your audience. Most CFOs have been digesting data in a tabular format since the beginning of their careers. Tables make more sense to them, compared with a salesperson who might find it easier to consume insights from a chart
- Think about how you structure your dashboards and keep a consistent structure in all your dashboards/ reports. Too many dashboards are constructed with great visuals and charts, but to the consumer coming in cold, it can be overwhelming and hard to navigate. You need to structure and signpost, in a similar way to PowerPoint, so that you can guide the user through a story of the data
Figure 2. How not to present data. An example of a bad scale. Source: Reddit (dataisugly)
Figure 3. How not to present data. An example of no context or data labels. Source: Reddit (dataisugly)
Remote Work: It’s Not All Sunshine and Rainbows
“Building effective cross-cultural online FP&A teams” presentation by Will Ingles, FP&A Director, Avon
Motivating and coaching our colleagues has been even more important over recent months as we have been forced to work remotely. At the Digital FP&A Circle, Will Ingles, who has a remarkable cross-cultural experience, shared some advice on how to manage FP&A teams across different time zones and cultures. To learn more about Will’s presentation, please refer to the event summary article.
With my team, I have found that no one approach will work all the time, we have to keep varying it. Whether its a virtual team lunch or a group therapy session, I have had to mix it up to keep up interest and engagement. We also have to be conscious that not all of us feel ‘photogenic’ on Zoom, and therefore, we should not make team members uncomfortable by insisting they turn on their camera. Also, our team tried to partner up to remind each other to log off at certain times since it is easy to lose track of time when working from home.
The Circle consensus was that working from home is here to stay. I wish that were true. Whilst it's great that organisations have seen the light and started to treat colleagues like adults (and productivity has improved over this time), I fear that this great enlightenment will be followed by a period of darkness where managers revert to type and presenteeism makes a comeback. I’m hearing too many managers with the attitude “right, you’ve had your fun now, everyone back in the office”. We are starting to see evidence of this. Recently, the head of Barclays backtracked on his earlier sentiment of not requiring expensive office space. He has come out and said that he wants the teams back in the office where possible.
Another factor to consider is that not everyone wants to work from home. There are those in flat shares, who do not have proper desks or chairs at home. One of my colleagues is living in a canal boat, he doesn’t get any human interaction. Another colleague struggles with disturbance from his kids. Employers’ health and safety in these situations is very long and drawn out discussion.
It’s High Time to Deal with FP&A Structural Problems
“Adapting FP&A teams to the new normal” presentation by Justine O’Toole, Vice President – Global FP&A, Beam Suntory
We have had a lot of volatility and major events over the last few years. It is possible that aliens could invade next year and provide another new paradigm shift. I don’t think there is such a thing as a new normal, merely a continued state of flux. We need to evolve or become extinct.
During the recent months, different businesses have been impacted in different ways. Whilst travel companies are screwed, cereal companies have seen an uplift in demand. I find myself actually having time for cereal, as opposed to rushing out of the door to catch my train each morning.
Figure 4. What has changed for FP&A? (Source: Justine O’Toole’s presentation)
Based on some of the discussion with the FP&A circle members, I would argue that all of the above changes are what we should have been doing anyway, and will need to continue to do so. We need to model multiple scenarios simultaneously, make decisions on the balance between long and short term investments, provide insight at speed and scale. The pandemic has only highlighted where we have structural problems within FP&A. The best teams have adapted quickly.
In her presentation, Justine mentioned that she has seen FP&A’s prominence rise in her organisation. This is evidenced by the fact that she is getting increased time on the leadership agenda. This will have an impact on FP&A teams. Whilst the core fundamentals have not changed, the prioritisation of them have.
Our work drives some tough trade-off decisions. Best in class teams were already doing these before, and are now thriving. For the rest, if these capabilities are not in place, FP&A will not get senior leadership attention and therefore will not have the prominence it deserves.
The Role of Technology: Give Your Customers the Best of You
“How modern technology can enhance team collaboration” presentation by Alistair Gurney, Group FP&A director, Unit 4
The technology stack is an enabler towards becoming a high-performance team. FP&A is one team and the stack must be suitable for everyone. To be successful, FP&A teams need to curate a unified data set that is accessible by the right people and provides quick answers to commercial questions.
Collaboration is enabled by the unified data set as everyone is looking at the same numbers. I, personally, have been in too many meetings where the first 45 minutes is spent who has the right spreadsheet. The more you can align the data between teams, the more trust you build. The better the systems work, the quicker you can pull the analysis and spend time with the business. You give your customer the best of you, rather than make them wait for your spreadsheets.
In finance/ FP&A, there is militant advocacy of Excel… I feel that part of the advocacy of Excel comes from the experience of failed technology implementations. Many of the current collaboration and data problems are caused by Excel. It’s a risk not to use FP&A tech. Type ‘JP Morgan London Whale’ into Google to see why.
At the Digital FP&A Circle, Alistair Gurney shared his approach to getting the most out of the technology.
Figure 5. Key steps on the journey towards enhancing the FP&A tech stack (Source: Alistair Gurney’s presentation)
Define. The first piece of advice borrows from the agile school of thought – start with something that is bite-sized. This way, you can see some improvements, faster. Utopia takes a long time to achieve.
Simplify. Interestingly, the next piece of advice to avoid best of breed solutions, where you have different components from different vendors which allows for a more tailored solution. The reasoning for avoiding this approach is that the more applications you have, the more interfaces you have to create, and you increase the complexity. Furthermore, each application is yet another version of the truth. I have an alternate view on this. The digital world is getting more complex. There are a whole multitude of applications out there. The days of the one size fits all applications are long gone. If you want to create business value, you need an integrated multivendor IT landscape. Managing and maintaining this is now a core competency.
Enforce. Machines get rusty if you don’t use them. You have to ensure adoption by users. The users need to feel part of the solution, the more they are engaged with it, the more improvement ideas they will generate.
Looking for the Right Candidates: Value Proposition and Personality
“The latest trends and developments in FP&A teams’ recruitment” presentation by Jonathan Firth, Managing director – London and South, Michael Page
At the Digital London FP&A Circle, the final topic was on recruitment presented by Jonathan Firth from Michael Page. During his presentation, Jonathan provided advice on securing the best talent. To learn more about his main points, please read the event summary article.
I’d like to add some of my personal thoughts to this as well.
- Value proposition is critical. Millenials do not value brands as much the generations before them. Your name alone will not secure the best candidate, and there is a real possibility that you may lose them to a competitor.
- From a candidates’s perspective, recruitment appears to be a numbers game. You are one of thousands applying for the same position. How can you select the best candidates based on a piece of paper and the first few seconds of a conversation? Based on Maria Olsson’s presentation, you have to make sure that their personality fits the team. You have to speak to them and understand what drives them
- Inclusivity is a topical subject. In my experience, diverse teams are more productive. Subconscious bias is a massive barrier. Many interviewers make their minds up in the first 30 seconds of an interview. When interviewing candidates, I always spend the first few minutes talking about something non-work related on their CVs. This relaxes them and also forms a connection that helps overcome any bias that I might have.
- There are emerging roles required for a successful FP&A team, don’t feel that these new roles (data scientist, architect) have to be exclusive to the FP&A team, consider working in cross-functional teams.
- Additionally, you need to manage these teams remotely. This requires trust in your colleagues, and you need to continually find new ways to keep them engaged.
- Continue to invest in your tech stack to aid collaboration and productivity in your teams. Reduced number of applications/ interfaces will provide robustness and simplicity. However, the trade-off is that you won't get the best solution for the business.
- Despite the state of the current job market, it is tough to find high-quality talent. Your sales pitch to them is just as important as theirs is to you.
These notes are the copyright of FP&A Trends Group and are for the attendees of the International FP&A Board and their business colleagues. They are not to be used in publications unless authorised by FP&A Trends Group.