In uncertain times agility is the new stability

The Quintessential Technology Source for Corporate Financial Professionals

In uncertain times agility is the new stability

By James Welsh, Head of Projects for Finance, Corporate and Institutional Bank & Treasury, National Australia Bank [ASX: NAB]

James Welsh, Head of Projects for Finance, Corporate and Institutional Bank & Treasury, National Australia Bank [ASX: NAB]

“The pace of change has never been this fast, yet it will never be this slow again. There’s an enormous opportunity, and enormous potential, in that realisation.” said Canadian PM Justin Trudeau in Davos 2018, to the World Economic Forum.

Exciting, yet uncertain, times ahead, and this has never been more true for the finance industry. According to a recent report by Autonomous Next, the cost savings achievable through technologies such as AI, ML, and blockchain across financial services are expected to reach $1 trillion by 2023 with the front and middle office accounting for $416 billion of that total. However, we must temper this optimism with a dose of reality. Finance is often referred to as the backbone of an organization and our deep-rooted heritage in control makes us stable, but not necessarily as adaptable as we’d like to be. In fact, Charles Tilley, Chairman of the International Federation of Accountants, noted a recent survey showed that only 8 percent of CFOs believed they implemented processes well. This is a staggering gap between ambition and execution. Unless addressed, this gap will result in a huge amount of productivity savings being wasted.

"Designing and implementing technology is a complex endeavour and success is centred on cross-functional collaboration and teamwork"

As an industry, we need to close the gap, but we can’t do it alone. Designing and implementing technology is a complex endeavour and success is centred on cross-functional collaboration and teamwork. But how do we get better at teamwork, especially with those outside your direct reporting line? It’s like anything – you need to practice. To practice and thrive, you will need both an environment and culture which facilitates this.

Target speed and flexibility through cross-functional teams 

Agility means different things to different people and what works for finance functions is likely to be different from, say, a digital team. However, collaborating using crossfunctional teams to drive better outcomes for those teams and our customers is a unifying practice that everyone can participate in. At NAB, over several years, we have developed a cross-functional team practice across our Finance teams, using new and different ways of working. These small teams of 5-9 Finance colleagues have diverse backgrounds and skills and are free to deliver value on the highest priority items aligned to our strategy. This delivers benefits in two ways: firstly, motivated teams can deliver at a higher capacity than individuals, which increases momentum in solving complex issues and delivering benefits. Secondly, rather than being constrained by rigid silos, we are targeting a model where we can seamlessly re-point resources and capability, allowing teams to form and disband quickly as the need arises. The pace of change and disruption has created an uncertain future, but the use of these teams builds adaptability and flexibility in our ability to respond.

How do teams operate?

The teams are trained in agile mindsets and practices. An agile mindset is an idea that we can try things today which may not work, but by trying and learning, we are better placed for future success. During team formation, we emphasise diversity across specialist financial skillset, gender and cultural backgrounds. Different backgrounds ensure diversity of thought and different perspectives which are important for complex/creative problem-solving. Teams are encouraged to find ways to cheaply test or experiment with multiple options, not debating a single best approach to finding a solution. Teams are self-organised and empowered to make decisions, rather than spend time and energy escalating to management. They focus on delivering outcomes in small increments to ensure that value is delivered earlier and those early successes also serve to motivate the team. As teams work through iterations, they use visual management boards and stand-ups to improve transparency and collaboration. At the end of each iteration (or sprint) the team reflects not only what was delivered, but how the team has performed and takes recommendations into future work. Ensuring that teams pause and reflect regularly is hugely important and enables significant uplift in the teams’ ability to problem-solve.

How do you build a cross-functional practice?

This does not happen overnight, and both individuals and teams need to develop and refine their skills. A critical first step is ensuring senior leadership buy-in as sponsors play a key role as change enablers, but can also act as disablers when either not motivated or lacking the training to create an agile culture and support initiatives. Teaching colleagues the fundamentals of how cross-functional teams operate and the key features of an agile mindset are relatively simple. Building a sustainable team practice which enables more effective collaboration both across finance and the enterprise is far more difficult, but worth the effort. Start small with a single pilot and share the learnings of both your successes and failures. This will allow the team to examine progress and coursecorrect as required and heighten the likelihood of success. Pilot success will green-light further expansion and, almost by osmosis, others will want to try it.

By creating the environment and culture to support this practice, you are building muscle for more effective teamwork and collaboration in your team, your function and across the enterprise. In a volatile, fast-paced environment, the only certainty is we can’t predict the future, but we can be better prepared to be responsive for whatever lies ahead. As Trudeau said, there is enormous potential in that. 

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