In a world of "persistent uncertainty," the ability to remain nimble, to detect oncoming events, to learn quickly from experience and to respond with agility may mean the difference between success or failure for a business, according to a leading CFO strategist.
"There are more questions than answers," says Janice DiPietro, national managing partner of consulting services at Tatum LLC, the CFO services provider now owned by Spherion Corp., the staffing agency.
Just to name a few:
- Will the economy "double-dip?"
- Which way will unemployment rate tick next?
- How long will consumer demand stay slack?
- Is the housing market coming back, ever?
- How will the first wave of healthcare reforms be felt? and
- What about the fallout from Tuesday's election?
Many corporations are already "knee-deep in 2011 planning and budgeting," she says. So it may be a perfect time to plan for the unexpected.
But for CPA finance and accounting executives, planning for uncertainty may go against their grain, DiPietro says. "We're used to cold, hard, concrete facts and numbers. When you start to think about the 'what-if's' in addition to the 'what is’, you stretch your comfort zones."
For some companies and their finance functions, reworking the planning process could involve a deep dive into the data and information reporting systems. It requires continuous monitoring and an organization attuned to constant learning and re-learning. "Are we getting the right data to make decisions?" she says. "Are the things that affected our planning last year and the year before in the system today?
"If we're doing things in this planning cycle the same way we've been doing it for years, then we probably need to step back and take a look at the process," she says. "The world has changed. Have we?"
The uncertainties that need to be factored into the planning equation are hard to list completely.
But DiPietro starts here:
- State and federal agendas and policies (and it's not just taxes)
- Consumer demand
- Price pressure from competitors
- Credit markets and interest rates
Within your own company:
- Ability to maintain margins
- Cost of healthcare and other benefits
- Maintaining morale and productivity
- Managing working capital
- Ability to forecast results
The planning process for 2011 requires "a new mindset," she says. It must remain fluid, with frequent, planned checkpoints for possible course adjustments. She says finance and accounting executives must "rethink what is a 'given’, like the need to hire."
In the new planning paradigm, DiPetro says the process must be cross-functional; it's not about the financials alone. And it'd be a waste of time if it all didn't result in alignment across the company, with every business unit, department and division working in sync.
DiPietro is clear: The new planning process for the new normal "needs to be more than just about finance," she says. "You need to get line leaders involved to describe the impact of the economy on the customers. Without that, where are you?"
WHAT'S YOUR ANSWER? What do you think? How is your planning process changing? What are the key factors in your forecasts? E-mail your comments to Rick Telberg here.
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Rick Telberg is president and chief executive of Bay Street Group LLC, advisors in marketing, management and strategy.
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