I had a wonderful experience flying cross-country last weekend. It wasn’t because the flight was on time, or that I had a delicious meal, or that I serendipitously ran into an old friend. In fact, the flight was late, the peanuts were . . . well, peanuts, and I kept to myself for the duration of the flight. I didn’t even “get a lot of work done” in the traditional sense – no tangible output in the form of memos, presentations, models or analyses.
What made the flight so special, rather, was the white space – time unblemished by emails, calls, tweets, texts, TV, meetings, and other distractions. And, that white space was the ideal window for a much-needed dose of deep, uninterrupted thought, which can be so fleeting in our always-on world.
In the course of working with customers, we at Tidemark frequently hear those in finance lamenting about the lack of time they have for strategic analysis and reflection. In many organizations, the finance team is expected to shoulder nearly all the burden of a planning process that has become increasingly complex and unwieldy. Hamstrung by the inflexibility of legacy systems, finance is forced to develop time-consuming, error-prone workarounds in Excel to plug gaps in their planning systems. Finance also sends and resends emails to employees in operations in an attempt to collect guidance for the plan, typically resulting in wasted time and lackluster input. On top of this, the finance teams in these organizations are saddled with the responsibility of fulfilling the consistent drip of data requests from both executives and individuals in other departments. Finance’s role as sole executor of the plan and gatekeeper of the data leaves little room for white space.
Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, recently penned a blog post entitled The Importance of Scheduling Nothing in which he explains his practice of blocking off 90 to 120 minutes of “nothing” into his schedule each day. For Weiner, one of the chief benefits of this practice is facilitating the shift from tactical to strategic thinking. Weiner asserts that true strategic thinking requires “uninterrupted focus; thoroughly developing and questioning assumptions; synthesizing all of the data, information and knowledge that's incessantly coming your way; connecting dots, bouncing ideas off of trusted colleagues; and iterating through multiple scenarios. In other words, it takes time.” The problem for many finance teams is that they infrequently find “time for nothing” between the fire drills of developing plans and fulfilling reporting and analysis requests.
Among the financial organizations we’ve worked with, the most progressive strive to “do nothing” more often. They understand that those periods of white space allow for the kind of deep reflection, questioning and synthesis that ultimately give rise to the insights and innovations that can truly transform their businesses. That is why sometimes, doing nothing is everything.The most effective way we’ve seen finance organizations tackle these limitations is by pushing planning and analysis further outside of finance into the various functions of their companies. You can almost hear the exhale from both sides: finance is freed from tedious, monotonous tasks to think more strategically and employees in operations are empowered to answer their own questions. In this paradigm, finance is no longer a one-man band, but rather the orchestra conductor of company-wide planning and analytics processes. Finance is no longer relegated to answer the question, “How are we performing?” Instead, it has the privilege and challenge figuring out, “How can we perform better?” To borrow language from Peter Drucker’s oft-repeated quote, finance now has the white space to contemplate whether the company is “doing the right things” versus solely evaluating if it is “doing things right.”