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It’s Time for Finance to Embrace ‘Little Bets’

  • By Jim Kaitz and Peter Sims
  • Published: 4/17/2015

Today’s financial planning and analysis (FP&A) pros operate in a fast-paced, highly competitive, ever-shifting marketplace. Technology quickly becomes outmoded. Products go to market in ways we could never have predicted even five years ago. Money changes hands at lightning pace, and markets rise and fall within minutes, if not seconds.

“The twenty-first century is a terrible time to be a control freak,” says Alec Ross, former senior innovation advisor at the U.S. State Department. But where is today’s balance between adequate controls and iterative thinking and adaptive leadership?

Based on recent research, there are some essential principles that successful risk-taking (and risk-managing) entrepreneurs—and enterprises—use to get to market quickly, discover what works and keep the brand relevant. A deep familiarity with these principles can vastly help finance people understand how their business partners think and operate. The finance professional who truly wants to stand out and help the organization thrive must thoroughly know every aspect of the business. They can start with these guiding rules (and this list is by no means exhaustive):

  • Accept uncertainty.
  • Start small. Bet small.
  • Be willing to be imperfect and to learn.

Accepting uncertainty

The most successful and creative entrepreneurs, inventors, artists and engineers understand that there is no such thing as a sure bet. What we would like to predict is largely unpredictable. Jeff Bezos believes that you cannot analyze a new idea into an Excel spreadsheet. This is “the illusion of rationality,” the belief that we must create data before we can analyze it. Yet we do not experiment and tolerate uncertainty because we cannot escape the grip of the analytical tools from our education and management training. When he sees a new opportunity, Bezos asks his senior team: Are we all excited about this idea? Can we see it becoming a $10 million business? Then he lets his colleagues figure it out.

Shifting global markets, political and cultural unrest and changing demographics are constantly reshaping the world. The certainty of uncertainty is becoming ever more evident with the accelerating pace of technology. The Internet has broken down communications barriers, allowing new players from around the world to emerge quickly (with little overhead) and compete globally. This has exposed top-down, central planning’s limitations in allowing flexibility and discovering new ways of doing things.

Starting small

When Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin first started collaborating on the Stanford Digital Library Project, they didn’t intend to create one of the fastest-growing startup companies in history. Nor did they anticipate revolutionizing how we search for information. They were simply seeking a solution to prioritizing library searches online. Working through the possibilities, however, they ended up creating the legendary PageRank algorithm.

But the real breakthrough came with a little bet. Prior to 2002, most Web ad sales came from banner ads. Prices were negotiated on a fixed-fee basis. But then Google created AdWords, an automated auction-based system allowing advertisers to display ads next to specific search terms. Advertisers could now target their ads, while the auctions automatically set the price. Within three weeks, the system had produced twice as much revenue as fixed-priced ads.

Being willing to fail and accept ‘affordable losses’

Thomas Edison conducted more than 9,000 experiments before inventing the light bulb. He said, “If I find ten thousand ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. Every wrong attempt discarded is just one more step forward.”

Today’s entrepreneurs not only accept failure as part of the development process, but they fail quickly, pushing ideas into the market fast, learning from their mistakes and refining their products to move forward. This model has been particularly successful in Silicon Valley.

Research shows that the most effective entrepreneurs constrain their risk by thinking in terms of what they can afford to lose before starting a new project—say, three to five hours a week or $25,000 to pilot a project or program. Then they can test the data and insights, as well as team enthusiasm for the idea.

Finance’s role

What do these emerging trends mean for finance? Simply, that creativity and risk are nothing to be feared. These methods of thinking give finance professionals a better understanding of how today’s businesses function, how they develop products and bring them to market. This ultimately helps finance create better budgeting and forecasting. More important, having this critical aspect as part of a 365-degree understanding of the business builds trust between finance and other departments, from marketing to the supply chain.

The best people in finance have a profound intellectual curiosity. They are constantly learning. They are willing to understand how their colleagues approach—and solve—problems. They want to be a part of the creative process. This type of integrated thinking is one little bet that finance pros of the future can make to help their businesses succeed now and throughout their careers.

The world is growing more complex. By simplifying processes—breaking down steps to view (and capitalize on) these complexities—finance people will stay ahead of the curve and navigate market machinations more effortlessly and resiliently.

Jim Kaitz is president and CEO of the Association for Financial Professionals. Follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter @JKaitzAFP.

Peter Sims is co-founder and managing director at The Silicon Guild.

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