Using Stories for Business Works. Do You Use them?

63% vs. 5%

If you communicate in business meetings the way most people do, it might surprise you to know that only about 5% of people will remember the facts you share. Research shows that is the percentage of people that remember Information presented in a traditional, Joe Friday, manner; “Just the Facts”. If, however, you used stories to convey your message, you would increase your audience’s retention by a factor of twelve. Yup, that same research says more than 63% of people will remember things they hear when it’s in the form of a story.

So, why don’t more businesses use storytelling. That’s a darn good question if I say so my darn self. I’m not Marvin the Mind Reader, but I bet it’s because they think stories are just for entertainment. More importantly, how can you start using stories in your business to be more effective with your communication?

STORIES ARE TIME-TESTED

Storytelling is one of the oldest ways people have shared information. They’ve been around for thousands of years, long before anyone ever researched their effectiveness. And, like many other time-tested remedies to common problems, many people question their real usefulness unless they hear about scientific research that supports the claim. Well, now that we have that out of the way, let’s move on to some basic storytelling tips to get you started on your storytelling journey.

KEEP IT SHORT AND SWEET

Slow and steady wins the race, but stories aren’t a race. Stories should be concise and you better get your audience’s attention quickly. Remember the little factoid at the beginning of this article? I bet you do because it was kind of a startling statistic, wasn’t it? That’s a very effective way to get someone’s attention, catch them off guard. Unless you already knew those 5% and 63% statistics they probably seemed a little shocking, especially when you contrast the two numbers against each other.

ONE THING

If you ever saw the movie City Slickers, you probably remember Curly talking to Mitch about the secret to life, “One thing. Just one thing.” Find the one thing you want your audience to remember if they forget everything else, because they might. Think about some of the most effective stories used in business, advertisements. You probably remember catchy slogans like “Just Do It” or “Where’s the Beef?” Those slogans are decades old and people still remember them because they were short, to the point and embedded in an engaging and very short story. What’s your story’s one thing?

Storytelling doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective.

Review: Adaptive Insights Demo

This is a review of a demo of Adaptive Insights. It is not a review of my first-hand usage of the product, although I have used a trial version of the product with full functionality in the past. This review, however, is based on a demo of the most recent product. I am not affiliated with Adaptive Insights.

Adaptive Insights, formerly Adaptive Planning, has made improvements in the last few years, but the core strengths of the product seem to be the same. Based on the demo I saw yesterday, Adaptive Insights excels at consolidations, budgeting, forecasting and scenario analysis. I view its combination of the familiarity of Excel with the data integrity and security that databases offer as the product’s biggest strength.

WHY NOT JUST KEEP USING EXCEL
Image source: http://401kcalculator.org via Flickr
Image source: http://401kcalculator.org via Flickr

Adaptive did a great job of presenting the case for not using Excel for your hardcore budget and forecasting needs. It’s a great tool, but too many people look at Excel as the finance pro’s Swiss army knife. If you want some facts and figures to convince you, take a look at the Slideshare of my PowerPoint deck I presented a few years ago at an American Strategic Management Institute/Performance Institute conference about Driver-Based Planning. In a nutshell, it’s just too easy for errors to occur in spreadsheets when you start working with lots of data. Budgets and forecasts are, by definition, usually pretty data intensive, especially if you’re using driver-based planning. Incorporating actuals, assumptions, scenarios, and a whole laundry list of time periods creates headaches in Excel that are just difficult to manage. I have written about the pitfalls of over-reliance on Excel, so I’ll leave it at this. If you work in a company that is big enough to have finance professionals working on budgets and forecasts, you should be seriously thinking about getting the heck out of Excel for most of that work, if not all.

BUT, I KNOW AND LIKE EXCEL

One of the biggest arguments I have heard over the years for not moving things out of Excel is that we all already own, know and like Excel. There is no incremental cost or training required since we already use it for so many things. Wrong! You know how to use it, but do you know how to use it while mitigating all of the potential horror shows it could cause? However, don’t despair; you don’t have to leave the comfort of Excel. Well, not exactly.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License. Created by i a Walsh. Original image source: http://www.klariti.com/business-rules-templates/
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License. Created by i a Walsh. Original image source: http://www.klariti.com/business-rules-templates/

In my experience, one of the biggest challenges companies have with getting the most out of any software is training. This is especially true with larger companies, but as technology gets better and cheaper it is happening even with smaller companies. The reason is training, or a lack of training to be more precise. I have seen the scenario over and over again in my consulting work. The client presents a problem. Simply put, they are not happy with the functionality they are getting from their current budget and forecasting tools. These tools usually are just a cobbled together combination of Excel spreadsheets and what usually appear to be hastily developed import or integration solutions they have come up with. To add insult to injury, they have usually experienced substantial turnover. Usually the people who were originally trained to use the software have moved on and their replacements never received the complete training they needed to get the most out of the tool that was so painstakingly created and implemented.

The formula structure and logic in Adaptive is very similar to Excel. This drastically reduces the learning curve because you essentially just need to focus on what in Adaptive is different from Excel and you’re good to go. This is why the company brags about implementation timelines of as little as 6 to 12 weeks. I have not just seen demos of the product, I have used an older version that was less user friendly and it is very easy to learn if you are good with Excel. I think we can all agree that if you don’t know how to use Excel, you are not working in accounting, finance or FP&A. Most of us see formulas in our sleep, unfortunately, and the logic and structure of how you build formulas has not changed much in more than 20 years. Even when I was transitioning from Lotus 1-2-3 many years ago, the formulas were substantially the same in both spreadsheet tools.

INTERFACES WITH LOTS OF APPS OUT OF THE BOX

Without having to spend money on consulting time to customize your installation or build interfaces, Adaptive plugs into many of the top systems companies use for G/L, ERP, CRM and HR. Just a few of these include Netsuite, Salesforce, Quickbooks, SAP, Oracle, Sage and a bunch more. One warning here. It’s pretty rare for anyone’s version of the same tool to look the same. Your company’s Salesforce probably looks nothing like mine because everyone customizes everything these days. In this case, it may cost you a few bucks to have Adaptive create a custom connector that works with your specific version of whatever tool you want it to plug into. If you’re in the ballpark on budget to step up to the Adaptive Insights product in the first place, the cost of having the custom connectors is probably going to be a no-brainer in the long run with the time it saves.

HIGH CUSTOMER SERVICE RATINGS

This is an area that is hard to overstate. For those of us who have ever been caught in the tech support endless loop of logging a trouble ticket and being lost in a black hole of clueless tech support people who can’t resolve your issue, you know what I mean. How many of us have not had this experience? Your issue is ‘escalated’ repeatedly until you finally reach someone who can resolve your issue. It is unfortunate that more businesses don’t see the value in great customer service.

Public domain image
Public domain image

I have a client that is a managed hosting business and their unique selling proposition (USP) is level three engineers on the first call. What does that mean? When you call an 800 number you usually start at level one and get escalated as these lower level support folks run out of options in the decision flows they have on a screen in front of them. Level three support/engineers generally get things resolved on the first call, nearly every time. There is no escalation from there, but most companies would rather outsource their support to a call center staffed with level one people they pay next to nothing and then hope they can find the answers in their database of issue resolution options and decision flows. The key difference is level one support generally has very little product knowledge. They are trained to input an issue in their system and follow a decision flow until hopefully that gets them to the answer.

In the four, or so, years I have been in communication with the company every single person I’ve ever spoken with has been in the U.S. and they all know what the heck they’re talking about. That may change as they scale and their business model has to change, maybe, but that remains to be seen.

ROLLING FORECAST CAPABILITIES

Adaptive does not come with built-in rolling forecast templates or out of the box solutions, but they can be built pretty easily. Plenty of companies accomplish rolling forecasts with Excel, but you can accomplish it in Adaptive using scenarios and a few other tools.

VISUALIZATIONS STILL NOT THEIR STRONG SUIT

Every product has strengths and weaknesses and in my view (pun intended) Adaptive’s is their visualizations. They get the job done, but even the demo visualizations used dashboards that included donut charts. I’ve never seen a case where that is the best type to use to make a point about information you’re presenting, but to each their own. If I had the budget and wanted really good visualizations of my data (and I see tremendous value in good data visualization) I would include a good visualization tool in addition to Adaptive in my project budget. There are several that won’t break the bank that integrate well with lots of other tools. One of my favorites is Tableau, mainly because it is easy to use and it imports data fairly easily. As an added bonus, it won’t break the bank.

In summary, if you like Excel you’ll love Adaptive. If you hate the potential pitfalls of Excel, you’ll love Adaptive. Coincidentally, today alone I have received invitations to view demos of three of Adaptive’s competitors, so don’t take this article as an endorsement to run out and start putting together your proposal to run up the flagpole to buy Adaptive Insights. It’s a very good tool, but it is not the only show in town. The marketplace for CPM and BI tools is getting increasingly competitive, which could be a good thing for you. I would definitely include Adaptive on your short list and I would definitely get a demo if you’re looking at different options. If nothing else, you will see what one of the top dogs is doing, how they’re doing it, and then you can develop your own pros and cons list.

Why Budgets Suck! And, what to do about it.

One of the best known quotes about budgets came from one of the best known business leaders in modern times, Jack Welsh. He said bluntly, “… the budgeting process at most companies has to be the most ineffective practice in management. It sucks the energy, time, fun, and big dreams out of an organization.” Why is that the case in so many organizations? And what can be done about it?

Three of the many reasons budgets can be ineffective are:

1. Past performance used as predictor

2. Too much detail

3. False sense of security

 

Past performance used as predictor

Every investment prospectus contains the classic disclaimer “past performance is not an indication of future performance”, yet their specific purpose is to sell you on buying the fund, The clear implication is a wink, wink, nod, nod, that says “oh yes it does”.



Google Stock Chart

This same paradigm plagues traditional budget processes today. There are many less traditional, but more effective methods of developing budgets. There is no lack of options, so why don’t more organizations use them? The simple answer is that all budgeting methods have their pros and cons and some of the more effective methods are perceived to be expensive, complex, or both.

Too much detail

It is very common for a budget to be prepared using all of the accounts in a company’s general ledger.

It is proven that forecasts done at a higher level tend to be more accurate, so budgets done at such a level of detail are totally counterproductive to the intent of using so much detail. Budget practitioners use so much detail because they feel that the detail shows support for the number and therefore the number budgeted should be more accurate. People in general tend to believe a number if it is supported, and the more detail the better seems to be a common misperception.

False sense of security

Generally speaking, if something is not in the budget the chances of money being spent on it decrease right? So doesn’t it make perfect sense that if it is in the budget then it is o.k. to spend the money on it? Well, it certainly seems like sound logic, but sometimes people only look at the dollar amount and not the specific item the money is being spent on. And, even if the money is being spent on exactly the item that is budgeted, things change. That’s the one certainty in life is that things will change. And, when things change we need to adapt.

So, if we always just spend on exactly what is in the budget we run a risk that we are not paying attention to current circumstances. We may have budgeted a certain dollar amount, but prices may have actually gone down. This is not uncommon at all with respect to technology. That desktop pc we budgeted in November of last year that we are wanting to now purchase in November of this year may now be cheaper for the exact same computing power. That’s just the nature of some things and we need to adjust our spending accordingly. We could argue that the dollars were budgeted, so why not get more for the same dollars. That may be a perfectly valid argument and it may, in fact, be the best thing to do. The point is simply that we should at least be asking the question about whether we should spend the same amount and get more, or spend less and get what we originally planned to budget. Keep in mind that many items work the other way, in the sense that their pricing goes up faster than general prices, so always just ask the question.

Tap Innovative Budgeting Practices

We will be presenting two sessions in a series of progams offered by the American Strategic Management Institute (ASMI) in San Jose on March 16th, 17th and 18th.

The American Strategic Management Institute (ASMI) is one of the nation’s most innovative training providers, combining market research and industry insight to deliver experiences and tools to inspire leaders and grow businesses.

Tap innovative budgeting practices to Achieve Optimal Levels of Operational Performance and Maximize Profits.  Here are just a few reasons to attend:

  • Master the steps necessary to move from traditional budgeting to rolling forecasts
  • Incorporate best practices in forecasting to enhance
  • precision and organizational agility
  • Enhance your forecasting methods to eliminate inefficiencies and waste
  • Rollout advanced planning processes with more dynamic forecasting techniques
  • Utilize budgeting & forecasting methods that will aid in the strategic deployment and allocation of resources

Register and download the brochure and agenda here:

http://registration.asmiweb.com/event.php?id=313

FP&A Focus…’Tis the Season (not that one)

A recent article in Business Finance Magazine about the hottest jobs in finance discussed the fact that, “The hottest position today is financial planning and analysis.”  Tell that to the many professionals in corporate America who make their living in financial planning and analysis (FP&A).  As planning season sets in at many companies they may be looking at having to get through yet another planning season filled with overtime and sacrificing personal time.  And they’ll do all this without any extra help. 

To paraphrase a CFO who was speaking about forecasting, “…everybody is trying to figure out the same thing: today is the 28th of [the month], and I know how much we sold yesterday on the 27th. But if I can figure out what we’re going to sell in [next month], I can truly pound my competitors.”   Senior management at some of the world’s top companies are getting more and more in tune to the importance of the financial planning and analysis function.

Institute of Management Accounting (IMA) statistics indicate that of all of the time spent on the budgeting process, roughly eighty percent of the time involved in the budgeting process is spent on assembling data and manipulating spreadsheets.  The time spent on “value added analysis” represent less than twenty percent of the total time in the process.

Three Quick Budgeting Tips – How to (Better) Survive Another Budget Season

Most of all of the time spent on the budgeting process, roughly eighty percent, is spent assembling data and manipulating spreadsheets.  The time spent on “value added analysis” represent less than twenty percent of the total time in the process.  With this in mind we have a few tips to help you get through this budget season with at least a little less pain than in past years.

1.  Build for flexibility.  Set yourself up to be able to handle multiple scenarios on a moment’s notice because that’s usually about how much notice you’ll get.  Build your budget in a way that will allow you to run different scenarios without creating a ton of work each time you have to create a new scenario.  This may take a bit more time on the front end to design things to handle this, but it will pay off in spades when the boss strolls in with, yet another, scenario to run.

2. Remember the 80/20 Rule and spend your time accordingly. Make sure you delegate lower level work like data input and math checking to the lowest cost resource.  You may be the most expensive resource in your department, so don’t spend your time doing things your staff can do.  Most of us who have done FP&A work for a living have difficulty letting go of checking everything personally, but use good judgement and delegate when you can.

3. KISS – Keep It Simple for Stakeholders. – The input you need from each department requires you to deal with department heads. Remember that they are VITOs (very important top officers) in their own department and the time they devote to the budget should be as little as possible to get the job done.  Limit what input you ask from them to things that they can actually control.  If they can’t affect the number don’t waste their time discussing it with them. 

There are many strategies you can implement to make your budget process as painless as possible.  Check back frequently for more tips and more in depth articles.