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agility

noun 

  • the ability to move your body quickly and easily:
  • He has the agility of a mountain goat.
  • the ability to think quickly and clearly:
  • We underestimate the agility of a child’s mind.

When I speak to accounting and finance leaders, it is common for them to ask me for a more complete definition of certain buzzwords. Asking me to add more meat on the bones of concepts and principles and to give clear cases of change. Sometimes it is data literacy, sometimes it is data analytics, but most recently it has been finance agility, that has shot-up the list of priorities during the pandemic.

If we consider the business definition of what agility is, using the generic definition from Cambridge Dictionary (https://dictionary.cambridge.org/), we can refine that to our own CFO specific definition of accounting and finance agility. 

  • ways of planning and doing work in which it is understood that making changes as they are needed is an important part of the job:
    • Business agility means a company is always in a position to take account of market changes.
    • Constant change is the new dynamic of the global economy, and makes agility even more necessary than ever.

A CFO specific definition of agility may be “ways of planning and doing accounting and finance work, in which it is understood that making changes required by the business is a critical part of the job”. The large majority of the business world would recognise the responsiveness, value and importance of the CFOs role during the pandemic, but the same group may not realise the huge challenge required to make such change and the efficiency and sustainability of making continued change.

Learn more about digital finance agility

Many finance teams budgeted once a year, uploaded this budget to a system and reported actuals against this budget. This was the starting point for many performance discussions within the business. The pandemic smashed this approach, with businesses requiring multiple scenario planning that reflected their business in a pandemic situation; retail switching to online, supply chain shifts, logistic issues, consumer behaviour change, changes to the workforce and government stimulus packages. Very few were equipped to do this in month one of the pandemic, too many are still unable to forecast with confidence.

At the same time, reporting went from monthly to weekly if not daily, as actuals were the clearest indication of the “new norm” the pandemic was forcing customers and business to operate in. Some teams were able to deliver this level of revenue analysis, but deep finance business partnering while the finance team were “stepping up” was difficult, as time and energy were put into replanning and changing financial operations overnight. 

Financial operations agility was also tested, as we saw team members picking up paperwork from empty offices to process them at home, a waste of time and resource, not to mention the COVID-19 risk. The need for digitising end-to-end processes could never be clearer.

I highlight the above, not to criticise the phenomenal business saving effort accounting and finance teams have put in (after all, we awarded many of these efforts with our Digital Finance Function Awards in February), my comment is to highlight that making changes required by the business is a critical part of the job and we need to change our mindset, processes, and talent to address this agility priority if we are to deliver on a long term sustainable basis.

Hear from finance leaders who don’t believe in hierarchy, fixed roles and mindsets

And the need for a sustainable approach is a top priority too, with finance teams talking about mental fitness in business more than ever, and finance leaders growing staff welfare concerns and managing return to work successfully.  

Being more agile won’t be easy, it will require learning and change, but the forced change during a pandemic could act as a momentum shift and tipping point to become more agile, and to take a digital-first approach to integrate and automate, instead of relying on human hours and spreadsheets at month-end.  

Yes, this will mean a shift in our leadership, talent and systems, but it is exactly what is needed for ourselves, our teams and our businesses.