Unit4
Blog

The Questioning Mindset – it’s importance and relevance for FP&A

Posted by  Amrish Shah

What is this article about?

This article focuses on why I think that a better questioning mindset is critical to FP&A.

Why is it important?

Is it not the case that answers are more important than questions? Yes – if we lived in an environment of stability. But as humans we like to explore. A fundamental cornerstone of exploring is questioning and exploring. In addition, the world around us – and in business – is changing rapidly. As decision makers struggle more to make sense of such a world they need help. As F&A is directly supporting business decision making and makers they can help by asking better questions!

A second reason is a defensive one. With the rise of easily available information and transparency, the present and the future presents a threat to the value of expert knowledge, also for FP&A. This means one way for FP&A to stay relevant is by being able to help the organization formulate different kinds of questions than in the past.

What are concrete examples of what we mean by a questioning mindset and better questions?

First some key principles that I believe define a healthy questioning mindset.

One: intention; it’s not about being the smartest;

Two: effectiveness; it’s about impact;

Three: change; an effective question sets the wheels in motion for possible change;

Four: impartial; it’s not about who but focused on the what/how.

A good question, for example:

  • Challenges existing assumptions
  • Is not positioning for one correct answer
  • Opens up what-if possibilities
  • Leads to more good questions
  • Is neither too silly nor too obvious
  • Draws people in, makes people care

Are there ways to stimulate the required mindset and asking questions which are more effective? I would call out four for now.

  • Curiosity and observation: without the willingness to be these, it is unlikely that insightful questions will surface.
  • Effort and training: like anything else, more effort to learn about the art of questioning and practicing habits to develop these is likely to lead to better performance over time.
  • Diversity: surrounding oneself with diverse perspectives also helps stimulate new ways of looking at things which is critical in being able to develop more insightful questions.
  • Language and framing: learning to use neutral language or language that stays away from judgement is also a great way to make questions more engaging.

Risks to watch out for

If it all sounds so easy why is it so difficult? Partly it may be to do with the inefficiency with FP&A service delivery in the past. Meaning that too much time has been spent in doing the basics in sub-optimal data / systems / process environment.

A second cause could be to do the historic development of finance and finance professionals. Simplistically, the accounting profession has at its basis compliance and control and this lends to conventionality as opposed to the required creativity for a questioning mindset.  

A third reason is distraction. In a world that increasingly demands “agility” and “flexibility” and with so much information around us, it is hard to focus in a disciplined way to arrive at relevant questions.

However, I believe the biggest factor is an organizational one. Questions, no matter how neutrally stated cause discomfort. They tend to make us re-assess some fundamental assumptions and world views. They strike at the heart of accountability. Naturally, in a political environment that an organization is, that can lead to fear which can then lead to resistance.

What can address the aforementioned risks?

Firstly, improvements in technology will help dramatically lower the time taken to generate information, allowing better quality opportunities and challenges to be defined.

Secondly, a greater focus on Management Accounting and Decision Sciences as part of the skillset will help build FP&A functions staffed with talent that is more predisposed to a questioning mindset.

Thirdly, allowing the idea of exploration in question forming to be given sufficient time can help shift the balance to improve the quality of questions. And to create an environment where creativity is stimulated.

As for the last – organization resistance – the accelerating pace of disruption, changing consumer behavior and digitalization will only spur a need for organisations to build cultures which are more responsive, more comfortable with taking risk and more focused on learning and adapting. All elements of an environment where a questioning mindset can be nurtured.

Summary

Change is inevitable. And a process of change – a story – starts always with a question. I hope this article has shown how it is incumbent on FP&A to feel at ease of needing to ask more effective questions. But that that starts with having the desire and willingness to do so. But having the right mindset on its own is not sufficient, the organization environment has to be conducive to let such a mindset flourish.

Amrish Shah

Amrish Shah, of Indian origin, born in Africa, a British national and now residing in The Netherlands, is a seasoned and senior finance leader with over 20 years of financial management experience in international organizations. Some of the companies he has worked for include Unilever, O'Neill Group, Staples, Royal Wessanen, Kao and he is currently working in a senior FP&A transformation capacity at EndemolShine.

A qualified Management Accountant with CIMA, he has held regional finance leadership positions since 2001, based out of The Netherlands. He has held both staff and line roles, managing teams of up to 40 people. He has a clear belief in the value of finance at both strategic and operational levels to the organisation and is passionate about, amongst others, organisation decision making, organisation culture, high performing teams, leadership in general, organisation and finance transformation, change management and talent management.