As finance and accounting professionals are increasingly called upon to drive strategic initiatives in complex and uncharted territories such as environmental, social, and governance (ESG) reporting, blockchain technology, and digital currencies, their ability to find and develop creative solutions will become paramount.
And as artificial intelligence (AI) takes over more of the "traditional" accounting tasks, finance professionals will also have to embrace more strategic, creative, and innovation-orientated roles as a way to stay relevant in the machine age.
"Finance professionals are now required to go far beyond the technical layers and financial data to provide clients with dynamic and tailored solutions, which calls for a more creative and fluid mindset," explained Mohamed Zayne Nabbee, ACMA, CGMA, group financial manager at Creative CFO, a global finance consultancy based in South Africa.
Yet in a sector that has long been characterised by linear processes and the rapid delivery of very specific and tangible outcomes, shifting into more abstract and creative modes of thought might require a different set of techniques.
FM magazine spoke to Nabbee and Gabriella Goddard, coaching director at Brainsparker Leadership Academy in the UK, to find out how finance professionals can develop and hone their creative thinking abilities — and equip themselves for the complexity and uncertainty that lies ahead.
Diverge your thinking. When confronting a challenge, it's important to diverge your thinking before you converge into a solution, Goddard said. Divergent thinking involves generating various ideas or approaches to a challenge in a short space of time. The characteristics of divergent thinking include allowing ideas to take shape in the absence of criticism and overanalysis.
"Expanding the range of possibilities can lead to new connections, and one of these could trigger that 'aha' idea," Goddard explained.
To do this, begin by posing a question about your problem, starting with "How might we …?" For example, "How might we use AI to speed up the expense approval process?" "This type of question inherently implies that there is a solution and gives you the perfect frame for brainstorming multiple possibilities," Goddard said.
Another way to expand the range of possible options is to use mind mapping, she noted. This is a radial diagram in which you write the central problem in the middle of a blank page, then you create branches off it with different possible answers.
Each branch can then be further expanded with additional details.
"Mapping your ideas out in this visual format not only increases the quantity of ideas you generate, but it can also reveal new connections that you hadn't thought of before," she said.
Schedule time for unstructured thinking. At Creative CFO, professionals are encouraged to block time in their calendars for brainstorming and creative, unstructured thinking. These sessions could be dedicated to brainstorming for a specific client or organisational challenge, or to developing new models or financial tools for broader use.
According to Nabbee, it's important to make sure these sessions take place on a day in which there are very few technical sessions or technical meetings, so that the mind can be allowed to relax and move into a less output-orientated, fluid mode.
"Also, make sure that these creative or free-flow sessions are visible on your shared calendar and communicated to colleagues, so that you are not interrupted and won't have any technical demands to respond to during this time," he said.
Clear your mind before going into these sessions and try to avoid having any preconceived ideas or expectations around the outcome, he added.
Take a leaf out of Disney's playbook. When approaching or solving problems, it's easy to get hitched to one viewpoint, Goddard cautioned. One way to break out of a single view is by following the Disney Method, a technique developed by neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) expert Robert Dilts. NLP is regarded as a psychological approach to changing thoughts and behaviour that involves analysing strategies used by successful individuals and applying them to personal goals.
According to Goddard, Dilts modelled the way American entrepreneur and film producer Walt Disney came up with his ideas — and one of the primary aspects of the Disney Method is that it forces you to look through different lenses, she said.
"First, you look at the problem through the eyes of the Dreamer and create a vision of the ideal outcome," she explained. "Then you move into the Realist and brainstorm how to turn this imaginary idea into a tangible action plan."
Finally, you step into the Critic and explore the potential risks and weak spots of the idea. "As you move though these stages sequentially, any ideas that make it through to the end will have a higher chance of success."
For finance and accounting professionals who are being tasked with creating new frameworks and structures that meet the demands of the digital age — as well as the complexities of social and environmental pressures — the daily use of creative thinking techniques could yield unexpected and impactful solutions.
— Jessica Hubbard is a freelance writer based in France. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.