Regardless of industry, regardless of size, regardless of duration, all companies have similar issues in their financial analysis, planning, and consolidation areas. From building budgets to financial reporting, how can CFOs, VPs of Finance, Directors of FP&A and Controllers tell if their FP&A teams are falling behind their competitors? Here are seven signs that your Enterprise Performance Management (EPM) environments are stuck in the last decade:
- Strategy is planned verbally or in spreadsheets. While the majority of strategic CFO’s agree that Finance should be looking forward and not backward, most strat planning is done in Excel or worse, out loud in various meetings. There is no modeling unless someone comes up with a bunch of linked spreadsheet formulas. Strategies are agreed to in conference rooms and conveyed at a high-level via email (or they aren’t communicated at all). Strategies are evaluated by whomever has the best anecdote: “well, the last time that happened, we did this…” The only thing worse than not having a solution for strategic planning is not doing strategic planning at all. Speaking of spreadsheets…
- Excel is the key enabling technology in your FP&A department. One sure way to tell if your EPM function is falling behind is to ask “what is the single most important tool your department uses when running reports? Performing analysis? Coming up with a strategic plan? Preparing the budget? Modeling business changes?” If the answer to four-out-of-five of those is “Microsoft Excel”, ask yourself if that was by design or if people just used Excel because they didn’t have a better system. Excel is a wonderful tool (I open it every morning and don’t close it until I leave), but it was meant to be a way to look at grids of data. It was not meant to store business logic and it was never meant to be a database. Force your FP&A group to do everything with Excel and expect to be waiting for every answer… and then praying everyone got their formulas right when you make business decisions based on those answers.
- There is only one version of the budget. No one really thinks that there’s only one way that the year will end up, but most companies insist on a single version of a budget (and not even a range, but a specific number). Not only are EPM Laggards (companies with EPM trailing behind their peer groups) not planning multiple scenarios, they’re insisting that the whole company come up with a single number and then stick to it no matter what external factors are at play. Ron Dimon refers to scenario plans as “ready at hand plans” waiting to be used once we see how our strategic initiatives are enacted. EPM Laggards not only don’t have additional plans ready, they insist on holding everyone in the organization accountable to one single number, outside world be damned.
- Budgets favor precision over timeliness. Your competition realizes that a forecast that’s 95% accurate delivered today is more helpful than a budget that was 98% accurate 6 months ago. Yet EPM Laggards spend months coming up with a budget that’s precise to the dollar and then updating it periodically at a high level. It’s amazing how often FP&A groups end up explaining away budget vs. actual discrepancies by saying “the budget was accurate at the start of the year, but then things happened.” Budgets should be reforecasted continuously whenever anything material changes. Think about it: if you had one mapping app that gave you an estimate of your arrival time to the 1/100th of a second at the time you departed and another mapping app that constantly refined your arrival time as you drove, which one would you choose?
- No one takes actions on the reports. Edward’s Rule of Reporting: every report should either lead to a better question or a physical action. If your department is producing a report that doesn’t lead someone to ask a bigger, better, bolder question and doesn’t lead someone to take a physical action, change the report. Or stop producing the report entirely. EPM Laggards spend an inordinate amount of time collecting data and generating reports that don’t lead to any change in behavior. EPM Leaders periodically stop and ask themselves “if I arrived today, is this what I would build?” Half the time, the answer is “no,” and the other half the time, the answer is “if I arrived today, I actually wouldn’t build this report at all.”
- Most time is spent looking backwards. Imagine you’re driving a car. Put your hands on the wheel and look around. Notice that most of your visual space is the front windshield which shows you what’s coming up ahead of you. Some of what you see is taken up by the dashboard so you can get a real-time idea of where you are right now. And if you glance up, there’s a small rear-view mirror that tells you what’s behind you. A combination of all three of these (windshield, dashboard, and rearview mirror) gives you some idea of when you should steer right or left, brake, or accelerate. In a perfect EPM world, your time would be divided the same way: most would be spent looking ahead (budgeting and forecasting), some time would be spent glancing down to determine where you are at the moment, and very little would be spent looking backwards since, let’s face it, the past is really difficult to change. In your car, you’d only look at the mirror if you were changing lanes or you were worried about being hit from behind, and business is similar yet most EPM Laggards drive their cars by looking backwards.
- Labor is devoted to collecting & reporting and not planning & analyzing. If you spend all of your time gathering data, reconciling data, and reporting on data, you’re answering the question “what happened?” Your competition is spending their time analyzing (“why did this happen?”) and then planning to take action (“what should I do next?”). There is a finite amount of time in the world and sadly, that holds true in our FP&A departments too. If your EPM system is focused on collecting, consolidating, & reporting and your competition has their EPM focused on analyzing, modeling, & planning, who do you think will win in the long run?
What You Can Do
If you look at those seven top signs you’re lagging in your EPM functions and wonder how to improve, the first step is to stop building anything new. While this seems counterintuitive, if you take a tactical approach to solving any one area, you’re going to put in place a single point solution that will need to be thrown away or redone as you get closer to your overall vision for EPM. So what’s step 1? Have an EPM vision. Ask yourself where you want your company to be in three years. What do you want out of consolidation, reporting, analysis, modeling, and planning and how will all of those functions be integrated?
You are not alone. I have seen hundreds of FP&A departments in my time struggle with having a vision for just one area let alone a long-range vision. Even when leadership has a vision, it quite often focuses on system improvements (we’re not sure what to do, so let’s throw technology at it!) rather than try to improve processes too. Thankfully, there is hope and as my good friends at G.I. Joe always say, knowing is half the battle.
If you have any questions, ask them in the comments or tweet them to me @ERoske.