Why partnering under pressure is so hard (and what to do about it)
When you look across your portfolio of projects that your team are currently working on, it’s probably fair to say that they are all individually significant. In fact, they’re probably all massive initiatives like system implementation, process improvement and new business projects. They’re also happening concurrently and on top of BAU, using the same resources.
So we shrug, ‘that’s life’. And that’s true.
But as much as we might like to hit the pause button to give us time to run around and do one thing at a time, it’s simply not possible. So we are tasked with finding a way to deliver them all at the same time without dropping the metaphoric ball. To deliver strategy in the context of reality.
When make the shift to strategic business partner, it is often in the context of old processes designed to deal with legacy systems during a time when BAU deadlines are getting shorter and regulatory requirements are getting more stringent. The never ending deadlines, pressure and uncertainty means that it’s crunch time all the time.
How do we focus on another department or function in the organisation, when there are so many challenges to overcome of our own?
It’s a bit like moving house: packing is awful. ‘How did you fit all this in one house?’, you find yourself constantly asking and the ’stuff’ just keeps coming. As tedious and frustrating as this process is, it allows you to take stock and be really intentional about what you move to your new house. When you do move in, despite the mountains of boxes in each room waiting to be unpacked, you know that there are certain things that must be unpacked immediately. Absolute necessities: mattress, linen, toilet paper, toothpaste, towels - these are the things you cannot live without. But then there are the other things that are equally important because they reflect who you are: clothing, make-up, hair product, accessories and even polished shoes. These need to be unpacked now, too.
Like moving house, when partnering with the business, you have to do it all, but it doesn’t need to happen at once.
You need to be able to make the immediate changes that shift the dial, while building out the bigger processes. Of all the steps in the first phase of partnering under pressure, the first 3 are the most challenging and take the most time. Get these right, and the rest will flow:
Inventory: Know what you’re dealing with. Hold a team meeting where the purpose is to list your inventory of projects, initiatives and BAU activity in one place. Have the Finance vision and mission statement at hand.
Challenge #1: terminology: once you start this conversation, you’ll quickly realise that everyone’s definition of a project, initiative or activity is different.
Solution: Address this early in the session and make time in the agenda to agree on criteria that you can use to capture the item. Clarify that at this stage it’s not essential that the project is sized: what is more critical is that the inventory (i.e. the list) is complete.
Challenge #2: clarity of vision: not all Finance teams are clear on their vision and mission.
Solution: Set aside time to do this before step 3 below.
Purpose: Clarify the purpose of each activity: eg regulatory requirement, help the business deliver strategic objectives, process improvement and efficiency, capability build, etc.
Challenge #3: most activities will serve multiple purposes: for example, an ICAAP project could be seen to be serving regulatory requirements. It could also be seen to be seen to be delivering strategy if part of the strategy is about maximising an organisation’s use of capital. The hardest distinctions, and therefore conversations, are those question and challenge the importance of a regulatory requirement against other strategic objectives. Another example might be improving the year-end process. Again, the purpose could be deemed to be regulatory, however it could also be to make the process more efficient and redeploy resources elsewhere.
Solution: Ask the group the following question: ‘What is the primary purpose of this activity, without which we would not undertake it?’. In the latter example, the primary purpose would be efficiency, because without the improvement activity, the organisation could still deliver the regulatory requirement.
Alignment: Review how each activity aligns with your team vision and identify the tangible outcomes.
Challenge 4: bias. Your team values their work, and are deeply invested in delivering quality outputs - that’s what makes them great. However, that commitment coupled with the fact that each activity is important in its own right, makes it extremely difficult for teams to put personal bias aside. Subconsciously they will move into ‘threat state’ and consider their project most aligned with the Finance vision. They will raise risk as a consequence for not doing so.
Solution: Emphasise with your team that the discussion isn’t about deprioritising, it is simply about timing. Reviewing alignment is the hardest discussion of all, so I suggest this is a separate session to items #1 and 2 (which can be completed in the 1 session).
For each of the activities that you agree are the ones that need working on now, break them down to the individual outcomes that need to be delivered in order for change to be evident. We’re talking tangible, visible outcomes that will add value to the business, grow trust and demonstrate mutual respect. Even when you’re room is still only half unpacked.
If Finance are going to be perceived as strategic business partners, what do you need to do now to shift expectations and deliver outcomes even during the context of crunch time?
About Alena: Alena works with leaders and their teams to connect technical and leadership skills so they can deliver to deadline without killing their people. She is a mentor, trainer, facilitator and coach. Contact her today on firstname.lastname@example.org