How to Let Data Drive Conversation, Not Destroy It

09/25/2023 06:56:21 +0000

One of the common challenges faced by Finance is that no one cares about the numbers as much as they do.

A bi-product of the above challenge is that Finance-folk are often criticised for talking about the wrong data in the wrong way. Data destroys the conversation, eroding the business partner relationship that follows. In order to play a relevant part in the conversation, Finance needs to respond.

I read a great article called 'The Power of Data for Meaningful Conversations' and I nodded my head throughout. In fact, I was thinking 'YES, YES, YES'!! Read it for yourself, but here are some of the key points:

  • Use data as a facilitation tool [1] to:

  • Discover commonalities to bring groups of people together

  • Leverage strengths by identifying, using data, where they lie

  • Break down biases by widening perspectives

  • Desensitise emotional topics focusing energy on solution vs blame

  • Make sure data is valid and authoritative. [2]

  • Use visuals

[1] this takes time, especially for those new to facilitation. We want a conversation, not a monologue. If the communication is all one-way, what really is the purpose of the meeting and can it be achieved in a different, more efficient way? A detailed agenda including allowing discussion time in your meeting is so often overlooked (are you trying to cram too much information into the one meeting?) but essential for success.

[2] What do you do when your data is unreliable? Many of us deal with what feels like highly customised legacy systems with acquired entity systems bolted on with the whole ecosystem held together with sticky tape. If you often worry that your numbers aren't right, strip it all back and remember:

  • use source information

  • reconcile to a validated or audited figure

  • apply materiality (if there is a reconciling difference)

  • the possible range of error due to unreliability and how you have determined the range

Coming back to these basic principles is really helpful for those sharing financial data particularly during crunch times like budget period, year-ends, etc when emotions are heightened and a lot is at stake.

Using data effectively goes a long way to progressing the business partner conversation.

Do your stakeholders' eyes glaze over when you start talking?

However, it dawned on me that something was missing in the article. This being: you must have a story to tell. Without a relevant story, the numbers are useless.

Before you read on, know this. The story is not the numbers. It's words. It's insight. It's describing the business' focus and how that translates into drivers of performance. It's understanding the tensions that exist between the industry, your customer base and what goes on internally that allows to you shift the conversation from information to insight. Only then can you describe how that is reflected in the numbers, and most importantly, the relevance (the 'so what') of that information for now and in the future.

How to tell a relevant story supported by financial information?

Here are 10 questions to ask yourself:

1. What is the purpose of the financial document you are preparing?

2. For whom are you preparing it for? What decision do they need to make?

3. What is the current business strategy (and how does it contrast with the previous business strategy)?

4. What is the industry context? How are the customers interacting with the industry?

5. What do your customers care most about?

6. What is the business doing to deliver this year's strategy? What are the key drivers underlying that activity?

7. What does that indicate about future performance? How might that influence future activity that needs to be undertaken to meet future performance targets? What other opportunities and levers of performance are available?

8. What are the sensitivities you need to be aware of when you share this? What does the story imply about individuals' performance?

9. What are the numbers behind your answers to #3-7?

10. How do we package the story and the numbers to get the message across? Spreadsheet and words? Graphs and no words? A combination?

In business partnering, the business wants insight and value. Not numbers. They want the story behind the numbers. The great thing about stories, is that people remember them.

Make your conversations count.

What conversations are you preparing for now?

Author: Alena Bennett

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 [email protected]
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 ⓒ 2023




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