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Financial Decision Making for Humans, Not Corporate Overlords

A guide from a recovering corporate accountant.

TLDR: Impactful financial reporting requires collaborating with users to understand the core questions they need to answer so they can take action, before using an agile approach to evolve with their needs. 

This isn’t the conventional financial reporting approach which often presents high detail and generic numerical information with limited application or compelling storytelling. This vague, passive, and disengaging approach gets in the way of progress. – Chris, Media Suite Finance Ninja

Damn, as an industry, we accountants, finance managers and business managers do an embarrassing job of empowering actual humans. That’s because they require context, stories, and insightful information to make decisions. 

Yeah, there’s oodles of accounting software out there that will translate data into colourful squiggles for you. But here we still are, in 2022, with vague pie charts and pages of detailed P&Ls. No strategy aligned story, no clear actions, no feedback loops. Just masses of information hoping to answer the user’s questions.

Until we learn to translate, tell human stories, and guide action, we will continue to isolate ourselves from everyone who hasn’t completed a commerce degree, the people we’re trying to help. 

Let’s work alongside decision makers at all levels – not just executives – to increase our impact. Let’s be more human and less like the corporate overlords people think of when they think about accountants.

Wait, Am I a Corporate Overlord?

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Photo by Hunters Race on Unsplash

Before we get started, are you a ‘corporate overlord’? Here’s a quick test. 

You might be a corporate overlord if you’re sharing financial information that:

  • Goes over the heads of a lot of your audience while also asking something of them
  • Doesn’t tell a story, give an assessment or guide actions
  • Is disconnected from purpose, values, strategy 
  • Overwhelms your audience
  • Isn’t clear as to how the audience influences outcomes
  • Doesn’t celebrate ‘wins’

Does this sound familiar? Are you ready to try something else? Great, here’s how you can start making changes.

Ask the Right Questions to Guide Decision Making

I believe the quality of our lives is directly related to the quality of the questions we’re willing to ask. 

Accountants, analysts, and finance people are in the business of answering questions. Every dashboard, report, and piece of analysis is inherently answering a group of questions. So make sure they’re crystal clear! 

If there’s info on a report which is not answering an important question, get rid of it. The decision makers, stakeholders, and leaders we’re trying to help with financial reporting generally have an endgame in mind. That means it’s your job to understand it and provide all the information needed to get there. 

Ask them what key questions they’re trying to answer or what key problems they’re trying to solve. In other words, lean in and start collaborating with them.

In my experience, being human is often messy, illogical and emotional. Because of this, our stakeholders generally need support to untangle and reframe problems as clear questions. Their skill sets rarely include data science, accounting, and complex commercial analysis. 

They often either:

a) Have 50 related but unimportant tangential questions

b) Have some missing key context getting in the way of asking the right questions, or

c) Can’t get past a request for specific information that they’ve adapted to using 

This is why patience, curiosity, and the ability to listen for understanding is important. Stick with it, and be willing to slowly and gently facilitate the untangling process.

Exercises for Discovering ‘The Right Questions’:

  • Clarify the problem. Define it, write it down, and ask “is this the most important or relevant problem you’re trying to solve? Consider if it’s a ‘core business’ problem or not. Is there a more important problem or question that is more valuable to focus on first?
  • Name all the inherent assumptions in the defined ‘problem’.
  • Together, write out all the possible questions you could ask related to this problem. Go nuts. Write 50. Group them by theme. Highlight the ones you already have an answer for or have the data to answer. Narrow it down to just three high level questions in this exercise. Be specific and don’t get lost.
  • Ask what the stakeholder would do if they had the answer to this question. If there is no clear action or change in behaviour or process then is it really the right question?
  • Read and understand the organisation’s strategy to provide context for what questions might be most important to the organisation
  • Review every dashboard and report you produce and explicitly write down what  the most important and relevant questions are that they’re already aiming to answer. How well do they do that? What’s missing? Ask users for feedback.


Put Effort Into Collaboration, Not Perfectionism, and Start Now

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Photo by Alice Dietrich on Unsplash

I’m not here for perfectionism, I’m here for impact.

If you care about impact too then please dispose of the idea of something being finished, ‘ready’, ‘correct’, or ‘perfect’, and just start answering the questions of your stakeholders as best you can.

While high accuracy is great when it’s accessible, 85% accuracy is about what we normally need to actually make a decision. Let this be your ‘finished enough’ goal and focus on the required action.

After all, if there’s no action as a result of what you’ve presented, what’s the point?

Instead, put the effort you’d usually put into perfection, into formatting for readability, hiding the nuts and bolts, and simplifying the heck out of what you’re presenting. 

Then as soon as you possibly can, create a feedback loop. 

Ask your stakeholders:

  • Did this information answer your questions? 
  • What steps did you take on the back of this? 
  • What’s left unanswered? 

Keep collaborating until the important questions are clear and the answers are evident. Then, you guessed it, keep doing it at a cadence that aligns with the capacity of your stakeholders to receive it. 

Stakeholders disengaging? Refocus on what’s important. 

Stakeholders not actually interested at all? At least you didn’t spend countless money and hours creating ‘the perfect’ process and reporting ecosystem only to answer questions which might not even need to be answered. In this case, come back to core business problems until there’s more clarity and engagement.


The Value of ‘Another Freaking Spreadsheet’

I both love and loath spreadsheets. 

When you collaboratively explore questions, data, and answers, you’ll probably end up creating spreadsheets along the way. But instead of just adding more spreadsheets to the pile, use them as use cases for choosing or creating integrated software that has a better user interface and be more robust than a fragile spready. 

If you find yourself trying to operationalise and build a process around any spreadsheet, ask yourself if there is a more robust and less manual way to do it. Accounting teams in large organisations building long term and complex processes around spreadsheets hold everyone back.


Tell a Story or a Story Will Be Told for You

Storytelling is how we make sense of the world and it’s as important to our organisations as it is to our personal lives. It’s so important that in the absence of a story we collectively understand and accept, we each make up a unique one. Some of these might really undermine your culture.

Compelling stories represent values and identity, include challenges or an opponent, and guide an audience towards action. When we’re all creating our own stories, often subconsciously, we might accidentally cast the wrong opponent or become protective of a value and resist action. These stories may contradict or confuse if given space, be warned.

One of leadership’s key roles is telling a compelling story and to do this it must be based in reality. This is where you come in. This is where our work can either be an accelerator or a handbrake.


Curate Data to Tell a Story Instead of Overwhelming Decision-Makers With Data 

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Photo by Victoriano Izquierdo on Unsplash

Impactful leadership hinges on telling compelling stories and engagement. 

Yah know what gets in the way of this? Labouring through pages of data full of nuance and devoid of context, attempting to extract and translate key stories. 

Leaders already exist in highly complex relational environments, often with limited available decision making capacity and with limited dataset understanding. Which is why asking them to wade through data for answers is frustratingly counterproductive. 

Instead, do some of the legwork for them: 

  • Gather the context
  • Build relationships across the organisation
  • Answer stakeholder’s questions and provide context to these answers

And be clear with your answers. 

If anyone has to translate your answers, it’s energy wasted. Instead of raw data, try to automate answers into things like: 

  • Yes or no, pass or fail
  • Traffic light status (green, amber, red), with definitions for each status
  • Action needed or not needed
  • Exception reports (“focus on only these few things”)

Doing this well means telling the story of how your organisation is going on its strategic journey. It brings people together onto the same path. It focuses us onto the next step. 


In Conclusion, Don’t Be a Corporate Overlord

Look, we’ve all unconsciously been corporate overlords before, I have too. 

It’s hard not to because it’s baked into the tools we use, the education we receive, and the expectations of how things are from those around us. I still find myself cringing and squirming when something I produce feels pretty overlord-ish. 

But hey, I’m able to come to work because I know I’m trying to unlearn that nonsense. 

I know the genuine effort I put into growing personal relationships, collaboration, telling meaningful stories, and supporting decision making makes an impact.

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