Meting Out a Metaphor

Management accountant Jonathan Nicholls of JNN Associates guest blogged for me in July 2013. He'd asked me to help him to explain typical operational problems faced by business owners. He wanted to simplify this into a single info graphic that compared the problems of normal business operations, with those of the ideal model that he helps them to achieve.

This video reflects what running a business is like for most of us. The greyed out bit at the bottom illustrates a lack of information – our systems and reporting are not good enough to tell us what we need to know. The game is exciting as we don't have much time or space to make a decision.

How iNKLiNGS developed a visual metaphor for a hard-to-explain concept

My name’s Jonathan Nicholls and I am a chartered management accountant.

There we are, I’ve said it. Wasn’t so hard was it?

Actually it can be a problem when talking to the owners of SMEs and their managers. Most hear the word ‘accountant’ and think of annual accounts and tax and keeping HMRC off their back. Cue glazed eyes and needing to refill drinks.

This is not generally an issue with large corporations, who typically spend 1-2% of sales on the types of services a management accountant can provide.
— http://www.jnaa.co.uk/276/

This perception is very different to what a management accountant actually does. It helps the business to:

  • run more smoothly,
  • make more money,
  • operate more efficiently,
  • sell more easily, and ultimately –
  • be worth more.

A management accountant can be seen as the nervous system of a business, sensing opportunities and threats in the world around it, monitoring and regulating its internal workings, and processing this information to allow it to make decisions that affect its health and survival.

The work of a management accountant encompasses:

  • strategy,
  • decision support,
  • planning,
  • communication,
  • systems and processes,
  • controls,
  • metrics and KPIs,
  • timely management information [not 9 to 21 months after it is needed!],
  • insight,
  • ‘a-ha’ moments,
  • challenging assumptions, and
  • finding solutions.

It is a true business partner. It brings a range of tools, techniques, and commercial awareness to the business – maybe the combination of logical left brain to with the creative right brain.

I was talking to Narjas Carrington of iNKLiNGS about the challenges of communicating some of these ideas in a simple, easy-to-understand way. Something that would resonate with owners of SMEs.

After some thought she came up with Tetris as a possible visual metaphor. My initial reaction, as is the case for most people hearing something new and different, was sceptical. But as she explained more it became clear that she had something. We had a coffee, thought about it, bounced ideas off of each other and gradually built the metaphor. This willingness to work collaboratively, to produce something richer and more powerful than either would have generated in isolation, was something that I particularly valued.

A common theme for many small businesses is the lack of time and resource. It is a vicious circle – something unplanned happens, the owner reacts to this, they don’t have the time to do the other things they should be doing, which increases the chance of another surprise. The owner reacts again, and time and effort is diverted to this new crisis…

This is what we came up with for my blog article “Why Running a Business Can be a Bit Like Playing Tetris” [http://www.jnaa.co.uk/276/]

See if you can spot the following themes communicated in the Tetris metaphor within the blog article. How are they represented in both diagrams? –

  • Ability to predict in order to shape the future – what level of surprise is comfortable?
  • Ability to capture information about what has happened or is happening – in order to use it to make better decisions.
  • Ability to consistently and reliably produce the same high quality result time after time – quality of processes.
  • Understanding what wants to be achieved and how to do it – the goal.
  • Time available to make choices and actively manage the situation.
  • High levels of excitement versus feelings of being in control.
  • Difference in ability of the players in the two examples.

The last is a trick question – there is little, if any, difference in the skill or ability of the two players. It is the combination of the earlier information factors that makes the difference between a smooth operation and living on a wire.

Of course the level of excitement we want to get out of our day to day operations is the personal choice of the business’s owner. However I would argue that this is probably not the most productive place to seek excitement – these energies can be better spent building the business, developing new products or simply getting some much needed rest.

This perception is very different to what a management accountant actually does. It helps the business to:

  • run more smoothly,
  • make more money,
  • operate more efficiently,
  • sell more easily, and ultimately –
  • be worth more.

A management accountant can be seen as the nervous system of a business, sensing opportunities and threats in the world around it, monitoring and regulating its internal workings, and processing this information to allow it to make decisions that affect its health and survival.

The work of a management accountant encompasses:

  • strategy,
  • decision support,
  • planning,
  • communication,
  • systems and processes,
  • controls,
  • metrics and KPIs,
  • timely management information [not 9 to 21 months after it is needed!],
  • insight,
  • ‘a-ha’ moments,
  • challenging assumptions, and
  • finding solutions.

It is a true business partner. It brings a range of tools, techniques, and commercial awareness to the business – maybe the combination of logical left brain to with the creative right brain.

I was talking to Narjas Carrington of iNKLiNGS about the challenges of communicating some of these ideas in a simple, easy-to-understand way. Something that would resonate with owners of SMEs.

After some thought she came up with Tetris as a possible visual metaphor. My initial reaction, as is the case for most people hearing something new and different, was sceptical. But as she explained more it became clear that she had something. We had a coffee, thought about it, bounced ideas off of each other and gradually built the metaphor. This willingness to work collaboratively, to produce something richer and more powerful than either would have generated in isolation, was something that I particularly valued.

A common theme for many small businesses is the lack of time and resource. It is a vicious circle – something unplanned happens, the owner reacts to this, they don’t have the time to do the other things they should be doing, which increases the chance of another surprise. The owner reacts again, and time and effort is diverted to this new crisis…

This is what we came up with “Why Running a Business Can be a Bit Like Playing Tetris” [Jonathan Nicholls' blog article on jnaa.co.uk]

See if you can spot the following themes communicated in the Tetris metaphor within the blog article. How are they represented in both diagrams? –

  • Ability to predict in order to shape the future – what level of surprise is comfortable?
  • Ability to capture information about what has happened or is happening – in order to use it to make better decisions.
  • Ability to consistently and reliably produce the same high quality result time after time – quality of processes.
  • Understanding what wants to be achieved and how to do it – the goal.
  • Time available to make choices and actively manage the situation.
  • High levels of excitement versus feelings of being in control.
  • Difference in ability of the players in the two examples.

The last is a trick question – there is little, if any, difference in the skill or ability of the two players. It is the combination of the earlier information factors that makes the difference between a smooth operation and living on a wire.

Of course the level of excitement we want to get out of our day to day operations is the personal choice of the business’s owner. However I would argue that this is probably not the most productive place to seek excitement – these energies can be better spent building the business, developing new products or simply getting some much needed rest.

When you look at a sportsman at the top of their game you may notice that they always seem to have more time than other players – it is almost as if they can create a bubble around them in which time seems to be distorted and stretched out.


Source: http://www.jnaa.co.uk/276/