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Finance leaders had to toss their pre-COVID-19 plans, so what's next? Continuous planning, says Planful's CEO

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed May 19, 2020
It is said that plans are subject to the mockery of forces beyond our control. Finance leaders have tasted that firsthand. As Planful's Virtual Tour kicks off, I ask CEO Grant Halloran how customers are responding - and why continuous planning matters.

myth vs fact

Planful stirred the pot on diginomica last fall, provoking what we felt was a necessary conversation in As recession talk heats up, finance has an opportunity to lead. Now, as so many financial plans are thoroughly disrupted, it's time to stir that pot again.

On the eve of the Planful Virtual Tour, I asked CEO Grant Halloran: is this the moment where companies finally push through resistance to continuous financial planning?

But first - how is Planful faring? Halloran says in recent weeks, the sales pipeline started moving again. The move from crisis mode to forward planning has begun:

We've had a really significant increase in sales activity just in the last three weeks, as we've seen businesses start to be a bit more optimistic. They are pulling their heads back out from the short-term adjustments they had to make.

Now they're starting to look beyond that, and ask, "What do we want? How are we going to actually fortify our business going forward?" It's obviously been a challenging time for everybody. But overall, I'd say, our customers have responded pretty well.

"Our customers are right in the thick of it"

Planful's cloud/remote workforce helped them focus. Most of their employees were already remote and, let's face it, cloud-based software delivery is where you want to be right now. As for serving finance leaders, I hear again and again that CFOs are running scenarios at a fever pitch - very different than the quarterly plans of old. What is Halloran seeing?

It's been interesting. On average, Planful usage has gone up 25 percent across the board. Some customers have gone up 100 percent above their average usage since around March 20.

Halloran sees a parallel between California's early shelter-in place-days, as the stock market melted down in the background, and a wartime ambush: "It's incredibly frightening. It's uncertain; you don't know what's coming from what direction. You have no information, and it's fog smoke. It's crazy." With much respect to medical first responders, finance teams have an early response role as well:

Our customers are right in the thick of it. It's the finance teams that are actually the ones that are the first responders inside those companies, to go build scenarios. Go and reforecast and do their best to try and make sense of what's going on for the executive team. Prospects of ours have had to hunker down, and we get pulled into these immediate sort of projects as well.

The financial planning conundrum - weighing the factors we don't control

For some time, Planful has advocated "continuous planning," despite the process/data/tech obstacles companies must overcome. Obviously, now isn't the time to take a victory lap. But: surely Halloran's team sees today's circumstance as a potent justification? Halloran says we're going through a paradigm shift all right, but in a vastly compressed timeframe:

Changes in how businesses behave or how consumers behave usually takes a decade, where you adjust to new behaviors... What we started to see here is this paradigm shift occurred in weeks, not months - weeks.

It also highlighted that the things we control are far outweighed by the things we don't control. I think that's been an incredibly horrifying and shocking realization for a lot of executives and CFOs.

A lot of forecasts are just plain wrong:

When is the economy going to be back up and running? What's going to happen with business confidence in spending? What's going to happen with higher unemployment - what will be the effect of that on consumer spending? Or a longer-term question: how is society going to fundamentally change? It's very difficult to make a confident prediction. And therefore, I would contend that you're going to get a lot of those decisions wrong.

Getting decisions wrong - not a comfortable position. How to respond? Halloran says the answer lies in how quickly we adapt:

The strategy isn't to hope we get these decisions right. I think the right strategy is to assume you'll get them wrong. Yes, you may get some directionally correct. But precision-wise, you're going to get most of these decisions wrong.

Therefore, what we're going to see is companies start to realize they have to be much more agile, much more incremental in the way they run their business, which leads back to this position of continuous planning. We've got to be ready to course correct the company over the next 36 months - way more often than we would have otherwise done. And how you are going to do that unless you modernize your back office?

No objections here - at diginomica, we've made plenty of wrong decisions. Perhaps our redeeming quality is adapting quickly. But that's easy for an upstart team to say.

Modernizing the back office - debunking the myths

For large enterprises, "modernizing your back office" can suck the life out of your agile momentum. Halloran pushes back: this can be done far more quickly than we think.

One of the myths about adopting technologies in the cloud is that it takes a long time. And that that's not true. For example, I'll give you a SmartyPants, the vitamin company. They were up and running with the continuous planning methodology in twenty days, implemented by a partner of ours called Cogenics.

The message to heads of finance is: now's the time to act. You can be up and running and modernize these parts of your business very quickly. [Editor's note: SmartyPants is presenting at the Planful Virtual Tour on Wednesday, May 20 at 1pm US ET - a replay will also be available].

SmartyPants is a new Planful customer; they applied a follow-the-sun methodology to get a global team up and running in three weeks. And what was driving their implementation push?

I think it's an urgency around visibility. They're in a very dynamic business anyway. There's a lot of competition, a lot of margins, a lot of supply chain variability. Even pre-COVID, they had a lot of reasons to want to adopt cloud FP&A. But really for them, they're trying to be a leading-edge company. They want to be a modern company and adopt everything in the cloud.

Frankly, I think more and more companies coming out of the COVID situation will go full throttle on cloud adoption. You're seeing it in the front office with customer experience with the Salesforces of the world. And we certainly see it - just in the last couple of weeks, we've had way above the normal amount of inbound sales activity.

My take - Planful Virtual World Tour on deck

With the Planful Virtual World Tour kicking off, I'll hold a full take on continuous planning until I hear from more customers. For now, let's tackle one of the big announcements from the show: Planful Now. What's that about? Turning quick Planful implementations into a packaged solution - and a structured methodology. Halloran explains:

The message with Planful Now is that we've worked really hard on our platform. And we've worked very hard on our methodology with our partners, to be able to effectively guarantee to our customers that we can be up and running with these use cases in under thirty days.

That includes bolted-in integrations, where you can suck the data off your operating systems or your financial systems, and actually start doing those processes inside Planful in that thirty day period.

Halloran acknowledges that you aren't getting your entire FP&A program up and running in thirty days. Planful Now is about getting a high impact use case up and running during in a short timeframe. This screen shot outlines some of the use cases Planful is packaging into quick rampups:

Planful use case
(via Planful)

Another Planful customer, the Boston Red Sox, is one I have a rooting interest in - they are also presenting at the Planful Virtual Tour Wednesday. I can see how The Red Sox would want to run frequent scenarios right now, including revenue contrasts based on social distancing options inside of Fenway Park, digital merchandising campaigns, and so on. I look forward to hearing what they are up to.

It makes sense for Planful to advocate a Planful Now program of quick wins and improved data visibility. But modern tools are only part of that winning equation. Culture and process change remain the sticking points. Halloran picks that topic up in his latest diginomica piece, Creating a continuous planning culture.

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