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Let me tell you the story of the curious case of missing financial control.

In one organisation we worked with, the objective was to develop the autonomy and capability of various business units, located in separate properties around the country.   The company ran multiple properties, around the country, where each property was designed to be a profit-making profit centre.

So we naturally worked with and talked to the various Property Managing Directors running these autonomous units.  When we explored how the Managing Directors managed their costs, income and profitability, we were puzzled.  We were puzzled by the Managing Directors reporting quite differing views on their extent of control of their finances.

  • In around a third of situations, they said they felt really in control of their finances and were able to control, manage and influence them.
  • In another third, they felt they had reasonable control and visibility, but were frustrated by the financial systems, which were complex and inefficient.
  • In another third they reported that they felt completely out of control and had little visibility of what was going on.

What was going on?

The first group, “I feel in control”, were not a problem, but stood out in contrast to the other two groups.

The second group, “financially frustrated”, could be explained by problems in the financial systems, or perhaps training or development for the business units.

The third group, the “we can’t see what is going on and can’t control things”, puzzled us: especially considering that the other two groups existed.   There problem was not a frustration with the systems but a feeling of a complete lack of control of their finances.  So, naturally, we spent more time with some of these Managing Directors investigating what was going on.

To cut a long story short, it turned out that, yes, the finance systems were cumbersome.  Yes, there were options for training.  However the finance systems were supported by regional Finance Partners.  These regional Finance partners were there to bridge the gap between the Head office and the properties: their role was to help the Property Managing Directors in their region.

Being more that helpful…

The problem was these regional finance people were being more than helpful.   In fact, the Regional Finance Partners were doing as much as they could to shield the Managing Directors from the complexity and difficulties of the frustrating and complex finance systems.  They wanted to be helpful.  However, this helpfulness was to such an extent that they were actually limiting what the Managing Directors saw.  As a result The Regional Finance Directors were making the Property Managing Directors feel as if they did not have control of their finances and therefore had lost their accountability.

The helpfulness was going too far: Rather than simplifying the visibility of the finance systems and improving the Managing Director’s accountability, it was doing the opposite.  It was limiting their accountability.

We nicknamed this “Helpfully stolen accountability”.

Helpfully stolen accountability

Accountability was being taken away from people, in an altruistic attempt to shield them from the frustrations and inadequacies of the finance system.  However, the effect was not to make people feel protected, but rather to make them feel dis-enfranchised and unaccountable for what they were responsible for managing.

The irony was that the regional Finance People were trying their best to be helpful.  They were shielding the Managing Directors from the complexity and trying to make things as simple as possible.  In the  process, however, they were actually going too far, and effectively removing the sense of control and financial autonomy from the property managing directors.

As a result, the Managing Directors felt their ability to make informed decisions was limited.  They did not have enough of the context to diagnose what was going on.  They had responsibility for the finances, and the control of their resources, but they had their accountability helpfully taken from them.  As a result they felt dis-empowered in their decision-making process.

The solution

Well the solution was now relatively straight forward: a combination of approaches that addressed the issues of all the more problematic groups of Managing Directors and helped the regional finance partners appreciate what their role was.

The important piece was that we diagnosed and then framed the problem appropriately, before we started looking at solutions and taking decisions about what to do.  It would have been easy to head for training or for the frustrating finance systems.   In reality the issue was helpfulness, or an overdose of it.  The solution allowed us to improve the quality of information that helped decision-making, in the properties.  That benefited the Managing Directors and the finances, and the Finance Partners had a more productive role.

Often, the first and obvious solution, the presenting symptom, is not the underlying cause.  Sometimes you have to look at the behaviours and motivations as well as the results. Often it is about improving the quality of conversation and information that goes into decision-making, a piece that we specialise in.

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