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The rise (and fall?) of the one-pager - summarizing gone wild and the role of the finance business partner

By Henrik Ekstrom | GROUP CFO, FINANCE TRANSFORMATION, Finance Business Partner, Financial Modelling |
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Can I get that on 1 page, please?

Not an uncommon question this day in age. The one-pager (or placemat) has for sure found its way into most organisations and is in fact a very useful tool for discussion. It is also a good challenge to the creator to really distill knowledge and information and cut out anything that is not necessary or useful. It has its place as a high-level descriptor, discussion guide and as a summary for executive management and board members. The questions it raises are:

  • whether we are really doing a good job distilling or whether we just, in this era of distraction, are getting too lazy to absorb information that we should have before we make decisions?
  • And even if we distill it well, how summarised is too summarised to where it makes no sense to use for decision making?
  • What’s the role of finance to drive for better decisions?

Distilling is HARD

I agree with distilling knowledge. Cut back on as much periphery and “fluff” as possible and get to the point. Think long and hard before you write, be precise in the words you use, be clear on what you mean and don’t mean. It is a great idea. It is however not easy. Writing short and useful is hard (very hard) and it takes time (a lot of time). Time we struggle to get in the modern workplace as we need to check our e-mail every couple of minutes. This would be a question of skill and also a question on our ability to do, what Cal Newport calls, “deep work” (a book worth reading if you are interested). They are however both skills that can be learned, and they need to be learned if Finance want to become good business partners.

How high is high

Once we have the skill to distill knowledge and write short meaningful comments that carry the essence of what all the information means, the question is when we get to the point when it is so distilled and summarized that it no longer makes sense as basis for the discussion or decision at hand. Imagine summarizing the Gulag Archipelago on one page and ask the reader to decide whether it is a good book or not. No matter how hard we try, one page may just not be enough to get to a well-informed decision. A complex matter may not be suitable to endless simplification. Some things are complex, end of story.

Accountability of the finance business partner

Typically, we are told “there are two things you can do in the case of using information to make decisions. You can push information up to the decision maker or you can push decision power down to the person with the right level of information”. That is sort of right, but information is probably the wrong word. The point of information it to create understanding, those two are not the same thing. The distinction is important because I think we can either throw our hands up and state that leaders are idiots that make these decisions even if we sent them a brilliant one-pager as well as fifteen supportive documents, or we can take a long hard look at our own level of accountability. Pushing information upwards is not very difficult. Pushing understanding upwards can be very difficult. I think this is to be a core responsibility of the commonly named “finance business partner” going forward. Our job is not to provide information (or even explain the information), the job is to create understanding. This is where we go to the new world of finance where, in addition to hard finance skills, we need: distilling, designing/visualization, storytelling, financial modeling (i.e. understanding of drivers and scenario thinking). Skills harder to evaluate as they are not “right and wrong” type of skills.

The essence in three bullets

  • Distilling knowledge and information is hard and takes time and finance needs to be better at it
  • However, a complex matter should not be simplified to the absurd. If it doesn’t fit on a page, don’t make it
  • Finance needs the typical skills talked about when discussing “finance business partnering” in order to help create understanding of decision makers

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