How CFOs are adapting to an increasingly unpredictable world

Finance professionals need to adapt to today’s uncertainty and use it to their advantage, experts say.
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· 5 min read

Until recently, CFOs could look at a company’s past performance and historic business conditions as a way to predict what the future could likely bring and make risk-management decisions based on that analysis.

But no more. Predicting the future using the past is quickly becoming an exercise in futility. The loss of linear predictability is creating increased uncertainty in the business landscape, according to a recent World Economic Forum white paper.

“In an exponential economy, risk has been supplanted by uncertainty which can neither be managed or measured,” according to the January 2022 issue of Deloitte CFO Insights.

This new environment can be especially challenging for finance professionals, traditionally tasked with overseeing risk management and financial planning. As the world becomes more uncertain, the role of finance professionals can change, and they, in turn, may need to develop whole new skill sets and priorities.

“Our contention is that, in the world of linear change, where you can use past data as a signal for what’s likely to come in the future and rely on projections and predictions based on good old-fashioned analysis, it was a fundamentally different job to be a CFO,” said Geoff Tuff, a principal at Deloitte Consulting and co-author of the January issue of Deloitte CFO Insights. “So finance professionals have to be ready to use different mechanisms…to help them make their decisions than they have historically.”

Ears to the ground. For finance professionals to more successfully navigate uncertainty, they may need to be attuned to weak signals of big change, Tuff said. CFOs will need to identify impending change and shifting trends before they are apparent by scanning the horizon, not the past.

“It requires better perception, better signal reading, better reaction to the signals to deal with uncertainty than what has historically been the case with risk,” he said.

To discover those weak signals, finance leaders may need to take a more forward-facing, people-centric mindset, said Chris Ortega, CEO of Fresh FP&A, an Indiana-based consulting firm that offers finance and fractional CFO services to businesses.

“CFOs need to be chief future officers,” said Ortega. “They don’t need to be financial officers anymore.”

Ortega recommended that finance professionals looking to increase their ability to read weak signals build trust within the business first, focus on people, and leverage technology in agile ways to become more “empathetic data-driven decision makers.”

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“It’s incorporating the human element…listening, reflecting, learning, serving, taking the time to really understand the business. That’s what drives the process,” he said.

Tuff also suggested that CFOs could navigate uncertainty by funding exploratory research of all types to get ahead of weak signals.

Gotta move fast. For both Ortega and Tuff, mitigating uncertainty requires quick, incremental action. They recommended trying to avoid big decisions and instead making actionable decisions that can be easily explained to stakeholders and quickly adjusted when necessary. Tuff called these decisions “minimally viable moves.”

“In the face of uncertainty, take whatever path forward you believe to be the right one,” Tuff said. “Boil down your next step to the smallest testable hypothesis and just go do it.”

Small, clear decisions can allow for flexibility and agility. Spending too much time focusing on huge, complex decisions or waiting for more data before acting can potentially expose CFOswhen conditions suddenly change. Taking quick, constant action can also allow finance professionals to see how the market reacts, creating a real-time intelligence-gathering loop without a lot of risk, according to Tuff.

“Because you’re boiling it down to the smallest step forward possible, it’s highly unlikely that you’re actually going to expose yourself to significant either financial or reputational downfall,” said Tuff.

Future is now. Uncertainty and unpredictability can also mean that finance professionals might need to significantly shorten their forecasting and planning time frames.

“There’s no value in doing a 12-month rolling forecast right now with so much uncertainty,” Ortega said. “I can’t have precision for the next 12 months. My precision, at best, is going to be the next 90 days.”

While a clear view of weak signals, a mindset of quick action, and a focus on the near-term can potentially help mitigate uncertainty, Tuff and Ortega both cautioned that finance professionals should also concentrate on assessing which decisions might still require a more traditional approach.

“I want to be super clear here that I’m not saying that we have shifted wholly from a world governed by risk to one governed by uncertainty,” cautioned Tuff. “We’re just seeing a higher proportion of the decisions that we need to be making [are] dealing with uncertainty.”—DA

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CFO Brew helps finance pros navigate their roles with insights into risk management, compliance, and strategy through our newsletter, virtual events, and digital guides.