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Making the Most of Your Numbers

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shutterstock 1049412674Frank came to me and told me that he had "downsized" his bookkeeper. She hadn’t balanced the checkbook more than once a year in who knows how long. And there were a lot of checkbooks. You see, Frank ran a nonprofit and his board had, long ago, been worried about the stability of banks, so they’d invested about $100,000 in pretty much every bank in town to stay under the FDIC limit at the time. The monthly financial reports for their 7-figure nonprofit were about 50 pages thick, and despite that no one could really tell how much they really had, or where they were headed. Spreadsheets upon spreadsheets were used to analyze and distribute financial information, but none of it was clear – and some of it was inaccurate.

Full of financial frustration, Frank came to me with three main questions:

  1. Can you help us see what we have, and where we are going?
  2. Can you simplify our system?
  3. Can you lower our overall cost of financial operations?

And we did.

Frank’s problem, though perhaps extreme, isn’t rare. Financial frustration happens in business, government, nonprofit, and even in corporate settings. The fact is that most of the underlying challenges that cause financial frustration also cause other business measurement problems. It turns out that numbers are numbers, whether dollar signs are on them or not.

Why We Want Our Numbers to be Right

Leaders with “number problems” typically have one or more of six motivations for wanting them to be right:

  1. They need numbers for orientation: “Where are we? How are we doing? What do I have? What do I owe?”
  2. They need numbers to measure risk: “What threats are out there? Where are our weaknesses? Can I pay my bills on time?”
  3. They need numbers for decisions: “Do I have enough to get this project off the ground? Is it time to close this branch office? Can I afford a new hire? Is it time to retire?”
  4. They need numbers to plan: “If we do X, will we get Y? Can we get profitability to look like A if we do B?”
  5. They need numbers to track progress: “Where are we compared to where we were, and where we want to go? Has this change produced a positive, negative, or neutral result?”
  6. And yet, some leaders are in much more of an existential crisis: “Can I trust the numbers in front of me?”

The problem is, many leaders don’t have the right numbers, or the right sense of the numbers in front of them. Their numbers are confounded.

The Four Challenges with Numbers

Overall, there are four main things that confound “the numbers” in any organization with number problems. The first two are technical challenges; the second two are business plan challenges.

Challenges 1 and 2: Technical Challenges

  1. Bad data (information / bookkeeping / recordkeeping, etc.)

The first thing that causes financial frustration is bad data. Perhaps there are information gaps – things that were recorded inconsistently. Perhaps there is duplication. Perhaps things aren’t classified correctly. Perhaps there are offsets that make it look like nothing happened (add one on this side, subtract one on the other, it looks like zero, but that may not be the whole story…). This makes it hard to make informed decisions, data-driven decisions, and get clarity about what is going on. Decisions get made on faulty information, and this compounds errors and problems down the road.

  1. Poor Process

Bad data typically grows out of inconsistent, unclear, and/or cumbersome recording and storage processes that lack error checking and correcting processes. Any time someone has to copy something over by hand, the risk of error rises significantly. Perhaps an instrument isn’t recording something properly. Perhaps an extra step is required to record something, and so when things get rushed, that gets missed. Perhaps there are two databases with similar information that aren’t connected to each other, and choosing which information is correct is a toss-up. Perhaps tasks that should be separated for security are done by the same person. Perhaps there is no easy way to see whether something has been recorded erroneously. And so on.

Challenges 3 and 4: Business Plan Challenges

  1. Rear-view mirror driving

It’s hard to drive forward safely when the only tool you have is the rear-view mirror. (I know, I’ve tried… ask me sometime about no wiper fluid on the Tri-State Tollway in the Chicago suburbs on a snowy day…) But that’s what most of us try to do if we only look at our traditional accounting reports. Those reports show us what has already happened, not where we are headed. Those reports (and other historical information) can be the most helpful when we can use it to show where we are going – as projections, predictions, and plans. Rear-view mirror driving happens when we only use the reports of things that have happened to try to make decisions. To truly lead, we need reports that help us look forward, not just backward.

  1. Measuring the wrong stuff

Measuring what matters and what has impact, without taking time, energy, and focus away from those very things is a challenge even for the most experienced. We tend to measure what is easy to measure, and struggle to take stock of what is harder to measure. Nevertheless, one of the things that often gets leaders into financial frustration is measuring the wrong stuff. Sometimes the “wrong stuff” is the “right stuff” out of context – like tracking hours worked, without tracking revenue earned from those hours. Other times, the “right stuff” is just missing entirely, like realizing that the organization is not tracking how much repeat business is happening in a repeat-business-driven company.

Solving Our Numbers Problems

We have seen six drivers for the questions we ask of our numbers. We’ve seen the four major challenges in getting the numbers right. What are the solutions?

  1. Figure out what you need to measure. For most businesses (even nonprofits), this is profitability and cash flow at minimum. But each business is different, so there are different things that need to be measured and tracked.
  2. Make sure your process for (a) measuring, (b) analyzing, (c) reporting, and (d) responding to your information is sound.
  3. Clean up your records wherever you find messes.
  4. Make sure someone in your organization is using information to look ahead to make data-informed decisions. Preferably, this happens at the highest level.
  5. Adjust as needed to changing conditions. Something that was important may not always be important. Some things will always be important, of course, but be flexible!

Interested in finding solutions to your numbers problems?

At the L M Thomas Group we specialize in helping leaders make data-informed and data-driven decisions to move their organizations forward. We can help you pinpoint what isn’t working, and design solutions that fit your budget and goals. Let’s grab coffee or a Skype call to talk about how we can help you! (Message us below to set one up.)



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Matthew M. Thomas

Matthew M. Thomas, EPC, is the President of the L M Thomas Group.

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