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Finance leaders need to embrace "creativity." And fast!

Apr 07, 2016
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Jim Katiz, President and CEO, AFP

Mention the words “finance” and “creativity” in the same breath, and you’ll likely be greeted with a skeptical squint, a doleful eye-roll or a blank stare. Let’s face it—the finance department does not typically carry a reputation of innovation, daring or creativity. But for any business that wants to compete and thrive in today’s economy, that has to change.

Simply put, CFOs and the people who report to them need to start thinking and acting like visionaries—the way many artists, entrepreneurs and inventors do. They need to take more risks, engage in more bold thinking and take a more creative, innovative approach to finance. Today’s nonstop, manic, unpredictable business climate simply won’t tolerate a finance function stuck in the 20th century. Tasked with growing the business in different ways, finance professionals should think differently.

Managing finance in today’s economy requires CFOs to juggle three priorities:

  • Focusing on the future
  • Growing the organization
  • Managing uncertainty.

Balancing those items is no easy agenda, and financial professionals need to use their creative instincts and help achieve their companies’ goals. Here are three essentials for finance professionals to tap into that creativity.

Be willing to fail.

At risk of sounding cliché, what we’re calling the “new” economy is arguably composed of more risk-takers than in generations past. Facebook, Airbnb and Google all share a common trait: they started with little bets that paid off big. More important, these companies made discoveries along the path to their success by taking risks that didn’t pay off. Does anyone recall Apple’s flip phone or Google Lively? Not likely, because these products weren’t around long enough to become colossal failures and tank these two stalwarts as a result. (For it’s part, Google Lively had a shelf life of only six months and cost the company relatively little to develop.)

Continuous development is a critical element driving today’s entrepreneurial, creative business environment. And failing fast is an important step toward that development. Granted, finance is inherently risk-averse, so adopting this mindset can be a challenge. “A program that espouses the merits of ‘failing fast’ can put a few people off. It's not usually what one aspires to at work,” says Christopher Whitlock, VP, executive creative director at Fidelity Investments.

But, he adds, “creative types … are used to having a wastebasket full of ideas that weren't going to go anywhere.”

Be customer-centric, beginning with your own colleagues and executives.

The finance organization needs to be a strong team player. As the eyes and ears of the company, it needs to tap into every department and every piece of the business. And that means treating each part of the business as you would your customer—listening to them, understanding their needs and adjusting accordingly—if it’s in the company’s best interest.

Smart business partners understand this concept. They look at stakeholders and partners as if they were consumers of a product. For the CFO, the product happens to be financial advice and leadership.

Create a culture of continuous learning.

Finance groups are notorious for saying “no,” and that needs to change. Start saying “yes” and practice what you preach by using innovative techniques and technology. Whether it’s leading-edge analytics or design thinking, inculcate a culture of creativity and experimentation by dabbling with new techniques and methodologies.

Design thinking in particular is a concept whose time has come for finance. Tim Brown, CEO and president of IDEO—and a leading advocate of design thinking—describes the concept as “a methodology that imbues the full spectrum of innovation activities with a human-centered design ethos.” In design thinking, says Brown, “innovation is powered by a thorough understanding … of what people want and need in their lives and what they like or dislike about the way particular products are made, packaged, marketed, sold, and supported.”

Practiced around the world among a wide array of disciplines, design thinking helps solve complex problems by combining logic, creativity, instinct, and trial and error to reach tangible goals. Organizations as diverse as Citrix Systems and Stanford University are embracing the principles of design thinking and seeing greater, tangible results. As Fidelity’s Whitlock says, “Design thinking can be applied to bring about cultural change in an organization.”

Creativity, innovation, and thinking outside what we consider the traditional parameters of finance requires challenging the status quo, thinking counter-intuitively, going against the grain and disrupting norms. In some ways, people in finance have a head start because they are naturally curious. Now it’s time to put that curiosity to work and start questioning “why” with more vigor.

And organizations themselves need the flexibility and resilience to embrace new ideas. As Adam Grant, professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School says, “Most people are … quite capable of novel thinking and problem-solving, if only their organizations would stop pounding them into conformity.”

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