10 tips to professionalise your Excel workbooks.

 

People that know me will tell you that I’m an Excel geek and I’m ready to admit that I love finding out all the new funky features Microsoft pile in at every new release.

It’s not just an academic interest though; as an accountant I spend my life in excel whether it be budgeting, forecasting, management accounting or organising a project. Often clients will call me in to sort out issues they are experiencing with budgeting and forecasting or they’ll want me to set up systems to solve a particular problem.

However I’m the first to admit that Excel does have some drawbacks. Some of these are functional problems with the system, but in my opinion the vast majority of problems encountered with the software are actually of our own making.

In this post I’m aiming to give you some tips to help you avoid these issues and hopefully make your complex excel workbooks more robust and accurate.

Tip number 1just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

They say a little knowledge is a good thing and as my excel skills have increased over the years I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon.

When people only have basic knowledge they use simple techniques.

When they start to get good at excel then they are desperate to use their new found knowledge so they pack in as many functions, features and formats as they can.

The interesting thing is that the most advanced excel users will actually use less of these.

Advanced excel users live by the acronym KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid). They understand that whilst they know exactly what is going on most people wont and that often the people inputting into the spreadsheet will be basic users. Consequently they go out of their way to make it as simple and user friendly as they can.

Tip 2Include an info tab.

Due to your stunning Excel work you’re probably going to get promoted or headhunted. You may be producing a workbook for someone else to use or you may go on holiday or (hopefully not) get sick.

In any case whether it’s planned or not the fact remains that there is a 99.99% chance that someone else is going to use your workbook in some capacity at some point.

I always include an ‘info’ tab at the front of the workbook. This tells users what the book is designed to do, where the information comes from, how it is processed and who it goes to. If I’ve made significant assumptions then I’ll also detail these and if there are any processes that people need to follow such as exporting a bank statement for use in the workbook I’ll usually have a ‘how to’ guide in there.

Including an info tab means that your workbook is much more likely to remain in use and your colleagues will be able to work out what’s going on.

Tip 3separate out data, processing and reporting.

If you are guilty of holding these three items all on the same page then you’ve probably come across issues when you try to change the formatting of a report, add or remove columns and rows or just due to the sheer complexity of the sheet.

One of the key methods of reducing the likelihood of errors is to have a separate report tab, a tab for data processing and a tab for data entry.

By keeping things separate you can make changes to your reporting without worrying that you will be compromising any formulas or base data. Similarly if you regularly paste data into your sheet you know that you won’t be pasting over important formulas or ruining your report.

Tip 4Colour code your tabs.

A simple colour coding based on function helps users understand where to find things.

If the whole department (or even better the company) use the same standard then you’ll find that it’s easy for any user to pick up any workbook and instantly know where the base data is held and how to find the reports.

Check out tip number 10 for more.

Tip 5give your workbook to someone else

One of the best ways to work out whether you are on the right track is to hand your workbook to a colleague and ask them to work out what is going on.

Don’t give them any instructions just let them get on with it.

By getting a colleague to look over your workbook you’ll find there will be things they don’t understand that to you seem obvious. This is because you’ve designed the thing and are way too close to see the issues.

This comes from my work as an interim where I know that I won’t be around forever and often people will hand my work on to someone else with no handover. I figure that if anyone can pick up my workbook with no instructions, understand what it is trying to achieve and also work out how to do it then my work is done.

Tip 6Separate out your formulas

Look we know you’re great at formulas and you can nest 16 levels of whatifs.

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should (see tip 1) and you should really stop showing off.

Having massively complex formulas in a single cell just makes it harder to unpick when something goes wrong. Instead look at having formulas in separate cells so that each can be understood and checked when errors arise.

Tip 7Don’t you dare use a white font on a white background.

Just don’t.

It makes it much more likely someone will overtype your data or formulas, will delete the row it is on or won’t be able to find what you are pointing at.

If you have to then hide a row or column but please use tip 3 so that you actually don’t need to hide anything. Hiding stuff should be done sparingly because it just increases the likelihood of unintended consequences.

Using a white font on a white background to hide stuff is as dumb as a dumb thing.

Tip 8enforce version control.

Having many versions of the same spreadsheet flying about the company is a recipe for disaster. The problem is that everyone turns up at a meeting with a different set of numbers that are supposedly from the same source.

If you need to have many people inputting then think about using sharing services like Onedrive or give them individual tabs for their input that you can then paste back into your master version.

It’s sensible to make sure that complex workbooks have a single owner. That person is responsible for making structural changes and making sure that input gets into the right place. They are the go to person for questions problems and issues.

Also make sure that you number your versions so that you know which is the latest.

The original is version 1 (v1), Small changes increment the number after the full stop (V1.1) and large changes mean that it gets a new version number (V2.1). Alternatively at least append the workbook name with the date it was produced.

Tip 9understand where you want to go before you set out.

As with any project it’s best to sit and have a good old think about what you want to achieve from your workbooks before you start building formulas.

I’ll often mock up the reporting page first and get the users to sign up to it or suggest changes.

Once I have my destination set then I know what things I need to do to get there.

I’ll know what data I need to collect, how I need to categorise it, what time frame it needs to span and how I need to manipulate it.

I should also have a clear idea as to how the consumers of the information see the workbook being used in the future.

On a side note, just because people say that the workbook is only going to be used once you shouldn’t believe them.

I find that if you do a great piece of analysis once you’ll get the same request three months down the line so bear that in mind when you are building your ‘one off’ ad hoc report.

Tip 10 – the best one of all; use the FAST standard.

FAST is an attempt to produce an internationally recognised standard for producing complex workbooks in Excel (or any other spreadsheet for that matter).

You can find a link at the end of the article

Although there is some pretty dry stuff in there, there is also some exceptionally useful ideas that make life an awful lot easier if you put them into practice.

At the very least, download the standard, read it and then use it to produce your own company standard. I promise this will reduce the number of errors you experience and make your life easier.

So there we are, a few useful tips to make your workbooks less random and a bit more professional.

If you’ve got any particular questions then please do comment and I’ll do my best to answer.

The Advert

I help my clients with their finance issues.

I’m a professional interim and one of my areas of expertise is in budgeting and forecasting.

If you need some help with your process or want to look at new ways of doing things then contact me here and we can have a chat.

 

The FAST Standard

Getting what you pay for

The price might look attractive – but there’s a reason

Buying content should be pretty simple, you've got an article you want about fitting cycle brakes so you find someone online, agree a fee and job done.

Or is it?

The problem is that a lot of companies selling content online aren't really bothered about quality, they are much keener on getting through a huge volume of work.

Often, to get the price down they will farm out the work to overseas 'boilerhouses' where people who's first language isn't necessarily English will ping out articles culled from dubious web sources.

Even so it's cheap so that's OK isn't it?

Well not really.

The problem is that you'll need to factor in the cost of spell checking the document and adjusting the grammar.

Then you'll need to fact check it.

Then you'll probably need to make sure it includes the keywords you asked them to include in the first place

Then you'll probably want to insert some life into what was written as a bland and inoffensive article to make sure you that you couldn't get annoyed with it

Then you may be thinking to yourself that actually it would be better to have written the article yourself!

We write engaging, original content especially designed to prove interesting to your customers and drive traffic to your site. If you'd like to speak with us regarding our services then give us a ring!

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There’s no such thing as a free lunch – 6 ways that free cloud apps aren’t free

We’ve all heard the expression that ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’ but it’s true that a significant amount of people think that the cool app that they have just started using in the cloud is somehow magically paid for by the fairies! This post is designed to help you spot some of the ways that cloud software companies will use to part you from your money.

The cloud has brought a huge amount of really useful tools within reach of even the smallest companies. I confess to having love for Mailchimp, TeamworksPm and GoogleDocs. I’m getting into a load of others too and I’m using them all on their free plans – but  ‘FREE’ doesn’t always mean free.

So how do companies charge for their services? Here are some of the business models;

1 – Subscriptions – This is possibly the most up front method that a company will use. You pay a set amount from day 1 of using the product. That’s it. Nice and easy to understand but often companies won’t give you a free period to see if you like it. Consequently if you sign up, enter all your data, train your staff then find out you don’t like it then you’re stuck. Bigger developers will use this and probably ally it with sales people.

2 – Advertising – This is the easiest to spot and is the method used by companies like Facebook. Seen all those annoying ads next to your profile? Well they are paying for your software. Marketers pay to advertise next to people who share similar interests and values to the product or service they are trying to sell. This is sometimes combined with the subscription model so it’s free with ads or if you pay a subscription the ads disappear.

3 – Reduced functionality – Want our app for free? Yes of course but if you want to do all of the cool stuff that it is capable of then you’ll have to pay. Apps like Prezi and Batchbook and TeamworkPM will give you the ‘lite’ version to get you using their product but when you want to do something a little more advanced then you’ll have to buy a subscription. This is a great way to get into an app but beware – some may not let you export your data if you decide to move away later.

4 – Restricted activity – This is the easiest to disguise. The app works absolutely fine in all respects but only up to a certain level of activity.  Want more users? Want to upload more times in a month? Want to send out more invoices? Then you’ll have to pay. Apps like Box and Dropbox use this model.

5 – Time limited – Everything but for a trial period only. The trial period is designed to let you have a look, play, get some stuff going and form a habit. Once it gets switched off then you can’t access your stuff and you miss it. Videoscribe use this but to be honest 7 days trial is too short in my opinion.

6 –  Composite methods – Some or all of the above. You’ll find that the more you pay the more users you can add, the more functionality is available and the more like a custom made application it becomes.

The cloud has led to a massive increase in the amount of apps available. The quality is variable to be honest but the one common theme is that they haven’t all been designed out of the goodness of people’s hearts!* If you are unsure then carry out a Google search, do lots of research and work out how you’ll use the service or alternatively see the advertisement below.

Let’s be fair, some of these companies have spent millions bringing to market a superb application that will make your life a lot better so they deserve to be paid for their effort and they are honest and upfront about the whole thing. (look for a page on their site called ‘Pricing’ or ‘Plans’). Some though aren’t totally transparent and users only find out what they have to pay for when it’s too late.

Advertisement

This is what I do for companies. If you are thinking about buying software then call me first. I give an independent and impartial view as to whether it’s a good move for you or not and it’s a lot cheaper than making the wrong decision.

 

*  Yes Linux,open office etc. HAVE been designed out of the goodness of people’s hearts but in general the majority of the stuff you come across in internetland will be trying to work out how to get into your wallet.

Isango8 - providing project management and accounting support for SMEs in the South and South West

To compromise or not? that is the question

Seemingly simple decisions can get stuck in the mud and seem to be intractable when you are working on a project. The inspiration for this entry comes from a talk given by Sophie Personne at a networking event I attended recently. Sophie runs an excellent local business called Sophisticated Singles and spoke eloquently about the power of compromise.

Sadly compromise is something that is often lacking in project meetings with political game playing, resistance to change and downright obstinance all playing a part, so how can you push decisions through when things get tough? Here are a few tips to help you on the way.

Tip 1 – Speak to people privately. Sometimes taking 5 minutes out of a meeting environment can help people understand the other’s point of view. Simply taking time to listen can often show up misunderstandings that actually would be masked in a meeting room.

Tip 2 – Find out the real reason. Often people will dig their heels in on an issue for an unrelated reason. I remember one project where an accountant absolutely refused to budge on an issue. It turned out that this was as a result of management not spelling out where he fitted into the organisation post project. Once he’d been given clear sight of his future position he became a positive and valuable team player.

Tip 3 – Understand the impact of everyone’s suggested course of action. If a course of action has no impact on the project, won’t cost anything but makes people feel more included then why wouldn’t you adopt it? Sometimes sitting down with each side and spelling out what the consequences will be can often produce a compromise position easily.

Tip 4 – Use peer power. If people can see how their actions are affecting others then often they will at least compromise or sometimes back down entirely. In a group setting spell out what effect the impasse is having on the rest of the team.

Tip 5 – Get the project sponsor involved. Sometimes whatever you do people refuse to back down. Get the sponsor in to sit people down and clear the blocker. This needs to be used sparingly because the power of the sponsor and the shock of them getting involved tends to wane when they turn up every day to mediate on minor disagreements!

Tip 6 – Get an outsider in. Often people that work together every day will react differently (and be much more grown up) when an outside agency becomes involved. Get an independent (ahem!) professional in to do a project review and see how that moves things along.

If you need help with your project then get in touch for an initial chat and we’ll see if we can get your team to compromise!

Isango8 - providing project management and accounting support for SMEs in the South and South West

What buying behaviour is and why you need to know

We all want people to buy what we are selling right?

But I’m a firm believer that we can’t make people buy they have to choose  to buy.

If we understand how people choose to buy then we can put in place all the information they need to make a positive choice. Buying behaviour is all about the steps people go through when they are making that choice.

Think about the last thing you bought. How did you decide who to use or what product to buy?

Oddly, although we’re all different, research has shown that humans make buying decisions in the same way. We may take longer or shorter time, gather more or less information but we still go through the process.

There are 5 steps in this process and the great news for businesses is that understanding these steps allows them to make it easier for the consumer to choose their product or service.

These are the steps that people go through when they are thinking about buying something;

  1. Recognition – people realise there’s a need either on their own or they get prompted.
  2. Search – when they realise there’s a need our prospective buyer will do an information search. They’ll probably do an internal search ( memories of good/bad experiences, recommendations that friends have made, ads they’ve seen) or they’ll do an external search by checking Google or asking around. They’ll look at all the features of something they want to buy and maybe subconsciously will rank them in order of importance.
  3. Matching – they’ll make up a short list of possible buys and then match them against the ranking that they made up in the previous stage.
  4. Choice – They’ll form a short list and then make a choice based on the results of their matching process
  5. Purchase – they actually go through the process of buying

However there’s something important that businesses need to know. A buyer can choose to either re-start or leave the process at any time. So if your prospect gets all the way through to stage 5 and your purchase process isn’t smooth and intuitive then they can easily drop out and go and find another supplier. Similarly if no product gets through the matching process they may go back and do another more detailed information search.

Stage

What buyers do

What you need to do

Examples

Recognition

Realise there’s a problem – decide whether to do anything about it

Prompt people to realise there’s a problem or create a need

Insurance, car cam belts, gas boiler servicing

Search

Look for information on solutions both internally (memories) and externally, develop assessment criteria

Make sure you are around and that they can find information, make sure that you are memorable so that you are stored internally

Google, tourist information,key fobs, Meerkats, loyalty schemes

Matching

Assess features and benefits of each against their criteria developed in stage 2

Ensure your benefits are clear and that you compare favourably. Factfind. Give incentives or bespoke

Mobile websites, comparison sites, comparison charts

Choice

Decides which (whether) the product sufficiently matches the criteria

Spell out how your product meets the need, answer request for further information, bespoke your service

Statement of benefits, Car websites

Purchase

Goes through with the purchase then evaluates their experience and stores it in memory for next time

Make sure it’s easy to buy

Repeat orders, shopping lists

The process is longer or shorter depending upon how important the purchase is. The more important a decision, the more consequences or the more expensive then the more information the buyer will seek. Would you look to do a structural survey on a shed? Probably not. The consequences of getting it wrong won’t be as disastrous as choosing which house to buy and it doesn’t cost as much money so consumers won’t look for as much information and won’t view as many alternatives.

As an aide i’ve included some questions below, see if it gives you any inspiration for marketing your business or product

Stage

Questions

Recognition

  • At what point do your customers realise their need?

  • Is location important (A kebab shop outside a pub)?

  • Is timing important (Buying a cycle helmet with a new bike)?

  • Can you induce need (Telling customers that they need to get their boiler serviced)?

Search

  • How would a customer find out about you?

  • Are you memorable?

  • Would they recommend you?

  • Are there any places that people always look for your service?

  • Are there any times that they look for information?

Matching

  • How do you show your customer that you match their criteria?

  • What methods are available to help the ‘ticking off’ process

  • Is the customer able to bespoke your service?

Choice

  • Are you able to spur a customer into choice?

  • How do you avoid your customer going round again?

Purchase

  • Do you make it easy to buy?

  • Are there any blockers to buying?

  • If there are can you remove them or make them easier?

  • Is it easy to repeat buy?

These are the steps for a personal purchase and we’ll usually make them in isolation but often the business buying decision can be the same or similar. It may have more formal steps, it may be longer but it’ll still contain the same basic methods although it may well include more people in the decision making process.

If you tailor your service or product to the way that people buy you should have happier customers. Happy customers will come back (because of their information search) and you’ll have a busy business. Everyone’s a winner!

 

Isango8 - providing project management and accounting support for SMEs in the South and South West

Windows 8 – my favourite workarounds

Right let’s be honest Windows 8 isn’t the best. (I’m trying to be diplomatic)

When it first appeared I absolutely hated it. This was a fine example of a company taking it’s user’s thoughts on board and launching them straight into the bin. I’ve started to get used to it and some of the features I love (but only some). I find it difficult to understand why a company will take probably the best known user interface and stamp on it with a big fat muddy boot (rant over).

To be fair W8 works fine when you have a touch screen but if you are a desk based person then it’s rubbish.

On the plus side there are a series of workarounds that can make your life less traumatic.

First off if you’ve got Windows 8 then download the update Windows 8.1. This is a sign that Microsoft knows it’s made a boo boo. For those of you that hate the fact that MS got rid of the Start button then you’ll find it returns when you download it. You can find out more about W8.1 here http://windows.microsoft.com/en-gb/windows-8/meet

Tip 1 – remember the scroll wheel. When you are on the ‘Charms’ ( I know, I know) screen then the scroll wheel is really useful for moving from one end of the icons to the other

Isango8 - providing project management and accounting support for SMEs in the South and South West

This is the hideously named ‘Charms’ screen

Tip 2 – reorganise your charms. Move the ones you want the most to be front and centre of your home screen. Simply click your mouse on them, hold and drag the icon to where you want it to be.

Tip 3 – to find the program you want then just start typing on the charms screen and W8 will bring up a list that matches like this (click on the image to see a bigger version)

Isango8 - providing project management and accounting support for SMEs in the South and South West

Search from the start menu

Tip 4 – Learn some handy shortcut keys. Here’s some of the ones I use most:

  • What to shut down? Pressing the windows key and ‘I’ at the same time brings up the stupid settings thingmy (press Esc to make it go away
  • Opened a program you didn’t want? Press the Alt key and F4 to shut it down. ( this closes the program so save your work if you need to keep something)
  • Want to move between programs? Hold down the Alt key then press tab, each time you press tab you’ll move to another open program, let it go and the one you chose will magically appear
  • Zoom in or zoom out. Hold down Ctrl and turn the mouse wheel
  • Want your desktop? Press the windows key and ‘D’ at the same time. If you’re already on the desktop then it’ll show you the start/charms screen.
  • Visit this place for more keyboard shortcuts http://windows.microsoft.com/en-gb/windows-8/keyboard-shortcuts

Tip 5 – right click on the start button – you did download W8.1 right? Well when you do you’ll get a funky new device from MS called a start button (what a great idea).  Right click on it and you’ll get a list of the most commonly used features like signing off and shutting down. Smashing.

windows button

ooh look! What a great idea from Microsoft

Tip 6 – and this is the best one. Use it. Seriously Microsoft is trying to force its way into the mobile/tablet arena and they won’t drop W8 so we’re stuck with it for a while. The best bet is to start using it, exploring the functions and getting to know the cheeky little fella. Just be comforted by the fact that everyone else hates it too.

windows

The Windows key – bet you wondered what it was right?

tab

The tab and Alt keys – now you know why they are there!

 

This post isn’t designed to make you a W8 wizard. All I want to do is take some of the pain away. There’s some great communities on the web that will be able to tell you much more than I.

To get you started there’s another really useful article on customising the whole Windows 8 experience here http://www.networkworld.com/community/blog/how-customize-windows-81-start-screen-and-keyboard-shortcut-tricks

Good luck!

12 principles of estimation best practice

Estimating is a key skill in ERP implementation projects. It’s vital to get a clear sight of how much your project is going to cost and how long it will take but what are the best practices for this vital skill?

Magne Jorgensen produced the top 12 estimating best practices and I’ve taken these and added in some of my real world experience and suggestions as to how you can manage the process.

(1) evaluate estimation accuracy, but avoid high evaluation pressure – Studies have shown that giving people a bonus or basing their appraisals on a good estimation track record actually decreases their ability and accuracy. Treat the estimation process as a collaborative effort and you’ll get better accuracy and a happier, more committed team.

(2) avoid conflicting estimation goals – It seems an obvious one but telling your analyst that you need a supremely accurate cost and then telling them that it mustn’t come in over X will make their work less reliable. Go for accuracy and not political expediency.

Thomsett (1996) gives an excellent example in his ‘software estimation game’

Boss: Hi, Mary. How long do you think it will take
to add some customer enquiry screens to the Aardvark
System?
Mary: Gee . . . I guess about six weeks or so.
Boss: WHAAT?!!!! That long?!!! You’re joking, right?
Mary: Oh! Sorry. It could be done perhaps in four
weeks . . .

We’ve all been there right?

(3) ask the estimators to justify and criticize their estimates – Very often a firm will have a culture of perfection and not being able to admit mistakes. In a project environment this is often disastrous. The truth is that any cost prediction will have shortcomings. Ask your estimator what these are and then take a view as to whether you mitigate or look for more information.

(4) avoid irrelevant and unreliable estimation information – Sometimes people include information in their estimate that is unreliable purely because they have nothing better to go on. The truth is you are better off understanding that there is no data rather than basing a decision on something that could be misleading.

(5) use documented data from previous development tasks – If you’ve done work in the area before, or even if you had a project in the company that wasn’t the same you can still use the lessons learned documentation to inform your estimates for the new project. You did do a lessons learned document didn’t you?

(6) find estimation experts with relevant domain background and good estimation records – Music to my ears. Get in an expert even if it is only to help with estimation. Studies show that experience of the software you are putting in is great but across a number of different platforms is even better.

(7) Estimate top-down and bottom-up, independently of each other – Don’t let the golden idea of how long a project should take affect the bottom up process of analysing out how long each task will take. Do both completely separately and you’ll get a much clearer view of the likely cost/time implications.

(8) use estimation checklists – if your software provider or partner has a checklist then so much the better but if not then sit down at the start of the analysis phase and think about all the bases you want to cover. You can add things in along the way if you forget something but make sure by the time you get to the point of choosing your software that you have covered everything in your original list.

(9) combine estimates from different experts and estimation strategies – Two heads are better than one or put another way you want the most expertise from as many different areas and with as many different points of view as you can. Get them all together then aggregate to give you an overall view.

(10) assess the uncertainty of the estimate – The only thing you can be certain about is that there is a certain level of uncertainty (with thanks to Rowan Atkinson). Estimates are only a guide but what you can do is put numbers around key points of your forecast to give you an idea as to how risky the project is.

(11) provide feedback on estimation accuracy and development task relations – this goes to points 5 and 6. If you want to identify who in your organisation is a particularly good analyst of projects then you also need to be developing them. Feedback is a vital component in this. Similarly feedback into a lessons learned document the results of your estimate versus the actual costs. You are keeping a lessons learned document right?

(12) provide estimation training opportunities – as above really. Good experienced estimators have been shown to be much more useful than a statistical model but they have to come from somewhere so start getting people involved in projects. if you are paying an outside consultant to come in and do this for you then make sure you allocate an internal person to shadow them, learn and develop the skills for in-house use.

Using these best practices when producing your project estimates will help give you the confidence that you are on the right lines and produce a better outcome.

If you’d like some external help with producing a cost estimate for your project then please do contact us -we’d be happy to help

References:
Jorgensen. M., 2004. A review of studies on expert estimation of software development effort. Journal of Systems and Software, 70(1–2), pp. 37-60.
Thomsett, R., 1996. Double Dummy Spit and other estimating games.American Programmer 9 (6), 16–22.

Isango8 - providing project management and accounting support for SMEs in the South and South West

What should be in the board pack?

A Board of Directors has a series of responsibilities that can only be discharged properly by having access to the right information – but how do you decide what should be in the board pack?

One of the difficulties of sitting on a board, especially if you are a Non Executive Director (or NED) is that the focus needs to change from the day to day running of the company to a more strategic and oversight role. This is where many NEDs suffer because it’s a natural reaction, especially if you have many years experience in a managerial capacity to want lots of in depth material. It’s a reaction that can prove counter-productive because lots of detail can lead to a loss of focus on the job directors are there to do.

So how do you decide what needs to be included in the board pack?

This is almost like a ‘piece of string’ question because companies are all different. Larger companies may have more onerous reporting requirements and a bigger board but there are some general rules of thumb that can help.

Executive Summary – and it really should be a summary. It’s sponsored by the MD whose aim should be to give the board an overall high level view of what has happened since the last board. It’s the entree if you like to the more meaty reports from the leaders in the functional areas. Of course often the MD feels they are the most important person in the room and will try and write a novel but that’s not the point of the exercise. It really is only the precursor to the main event. Keep it to a side of A4 if possible.

KPIs – this again should be a high level report based around the key drivers of the business. The KPIs themselves should be chosen well in advance by the board and should be a result of their understanding of how the business runs and what they key drivers are. A really well designed KPI report will include around half a dozen metrics that will encapsulate exactly how the business is doing and will again fit on one side of A4. In an ideal world each of the functional departments will have a KPI that they will report on in subsequent sections so that the whole pack forms a pyramid.

Finance – Above all the board are the keepers of the shareholders’ money so a finance report is a key component of a board pack. Remember though that your FD is a numbers man/lady and they’ll want to include information down to a low level. They really should only give you the information one level down from the KPI’s and then use this as a method of stimulating questions because it’s the discussion in a board where the real value lies.

Marketing – for any company the driver to success has to be an effective and active marketing department. For companies that practice a customer focused methodology then it’s crucial as marketing will influence everything from product development right through to after sales servicing. Of course marketers are fantastic salespeople and will love to tell you everything in great detail. Again they need to be focused on providing a level of information appropriate for strategic discussion and not how many hits the website has had.

Operations – This is probably the area where companies will differ the most but of course it is also the engine room of the business. This report needs to be all about how the firm goes about it’s work. What’s working well and what not so. What does the company need to do differently and what investment needs to be made to make things better?

Compliance – often firms need to report out to an external body such as OFSTED, CSCI etc. It’s important that these bodies are given comfort that their concerns are given prominence at board level but also that the firm internally considers matters of compliance all year round and not just at reporting time. Again this needs to be at a high level and could take a similar form to the risk register.

Risk/Audit – The Directors are custodians of the firm so they need to be mindful of risks that may turn up in the future, assess these and mitigate where required. A comprehensive and updated risk register is the key here and again forms the spur to discussion. Similarly they need to plan an audit and work on the findings and the level of information will naturally change just before and after an audit.

Projects/special reports – there are points throughout the year where something may be happening that requires The Directors attention. It may be the findings of the remuneration committee or a large company wide project that is occurring but whatever it is the board need a good high level overview of how things are progressing.

PESTLE – this really goes to the heart of what the board are there to do. It doesn’t need to take the form of the ubiquitous PESTLE (Political,Economic,Sociological,Technological, Legal and Environmental) format but there needs to be an appreciation of the firm’s place in the world and the external factors that could affect it. After all if The Directors don’t understand where the rocks are how will they steer the ship?

It’s also really important to think about how this information will be consumed and used. SME NEDs often only get one day a month paid and will be expected to attend a meeting for half a day. The pack needs to be light enough that it can be read and understood within an hour or so. It needs to strike a balance between enough detail for good understanding but not too much that it takes an age to read because trust me – people won’t read it. Remember also that we are all different. I hate paper information, some people love it so be prepared to provide it in whatever way is most comfortable for your individual Directors.

Consistency is important as time spent looking for where the latest sales figures are will put people off but also mean that they have less time to actually understand the numbers. Keep a consistent format and style for each report each month and make sure that the pack is distributed at the same time every month so that the directors know when to expect it.

The aim of the board pack is to educate and inform but also to stimulate debate. As a general rule of thumb one quarter of the meeting should be given over to presentation of the reports for each area and three quarters should be allowed for discussion because as started earlier this is where the real value is added. The overriding message has to be focus,focus,focus.

Although there is no ‘standard’ board pack, following the guidelines above should get you most of the way towards a good level of content for your company to make the most of it’s Board of Directors’ talents.

Isango8 specialise in information presentation. If you’d like us to help you reformat your board pack and identify your KPIs then please get in touch for an informal chat and we can tell you how we can help.

 

Isango8 - providing project management and accounting support for SMEs in the South and South West

The top 5 signs that your project might be going wrong

As a non executive director you’ll probably have oversight of a number of projects during your tenure but how can you tell if things are going awry when you are remote from the project team? These are my top 5 signs that things might be going wrong.

One of the great things about being a non executive director is that you have the opportunity to take a detached higher level view. This gives you a chance to spot things that look out of place when someone much closer and more invested in the project may not be able to see the signs.

There’s an old saying that ‘there’s nothing new in the world’ and in the universe of projects that’s especially true. One thing that shines out from the reams and reams of literature on implementations is the consistency of the type of problems that projects face. The good news is that NEDs can use that consistency to spot when their firm may be facing issues.

There are really only 3 ways in which a project can be classed a failure – the system is late,  over budget and it’s not to the specification required. Here I present my top 5 ways to spot if any of these is on the horizon.

5 – High spending very early on. Projects, especially those that need infrastructure will incur higher costs early on for things like servers, cabling etc. but staff costs should generally be higher towards the end when you are entering the testing/training phase. If your project has used up a very high proportion of its budget or the spending is not matching the project cash flow predictions then it’s time to ask questions because it may well end up using up all of the money when it’s too late to turn back. Make sure a ‘Cost to complete’ is included in the project reports that the board should be getting regularly from the project team.

4 – Things mysteriously disappear from the schedule. I have honestly seen software houses just leave things out of a project report because they decided it was too difficult to deliver. They hoped that if they didn’t mention it then people would forget that they’d asked for it in the first place! Good organisation is the key here. Make sure that when you receive project reports they include all aspects of the proposed implementation and that the risk register is kept up to date.

3 – Missing early deadlines. Through the life of the project there will be mini deadlines that crop up. Producing a system for a ‘look and feel’ demonstration system for instance. It’s usually a sign of how the company providing the goods does business and it’s folly to think that this leopard will change it’s spots halfway through a project. If your provider starts to miss early deadlines then you need to start exercising the firm’s authority and exert proper control over targets.

2 – The project sponsor goes AWOL. One of the key critical success factors cited in the literature is full high level back up from the project sponsor. Unfortunately they are generally very busy people and often, although the project is the focus of their attention on day one, by the time they get halfway through your sponsor will have moved on to more pressing matters. The difficulty is that this is the point at which their input is most needed. As a NED the sponsor is also your direct link to the project so get them to focus. If something else is taking them away then reassign the task.

1 – Lack of clear direction. This is my absolute number 1 priority for any project big or small. The great thing for a NED is that this can be seen right from day 1. If you read the project description and there is no clear and unequivocal statement of what actually will be achieved by investing the firms money then your project will fail. This is also the point where a good NED can add the most value. Challenge (in a constructive way obviously) all the way to the point where the contract is signed. Make sure that the proposed system is properly and completely planned and scoped so that everyone has a clear sight of what the company want to achieve. If you don’t then you can expect trouble!

Above all my advice is to trust your intuition. If something doesn’t sound right, if the project manager becomes evasive or people begin to stare at their feet when budgets or schedules are on the agenda then it may be time to dig a little deeper!

 

Isango8 - providing project management and accounting support for SMEs in the South and South West

Making a sandwich – the project management way

This is a little something I did in some spare time and if you’re a project manager who’s a parent then you’ll definitely recognise the behaviour!

1 client (child) says they would like a sandwich

2 project manager(mum) goes back to client and asks what type of sandwich. client says ‘something nice’

3 Project Manager(PM) suggests peanut butter. Client informs PM that they hate peanut butter

4 PM Asks client what they would like instead then. Client says ‘ something nice but not peanut butter’

5 PM decides to check the cupboard and see what’s available

6 Client says ‘where’s my sandwich?’. PM informs client that they haven’t decided what they want yet

7 Client says ‘oh yeah’ and still doesn’t decide

8 PM calls project meeting with client to feedback the options

9 Client doesn’t like any of them and questions why they are paying their PM a fortune to under achieve

10 Client informs PM that they have just met someone at a networking group (school) who really likes baked bean and banana sandwiches

11 PM informs client that they won’t like baked bean and banana sandwiches because they are squidgy and the client hates bananas

12 Client informs PM that they are the client and they’ll have what they want. As an aside they mention that their networking(school) friend has a PM (mum) who always gives them what they want

13 PM asks client if they want their bread buttered, client promises to get back to PM

14 PM gathers together bread, bananas, two knives(in case one is ineffective), a tin of baked beans, a tin opener, a plate and an assistant PM (little brother)

15 PM asks client if they want their bread buttered, client promises to get back to them. PM Points out that this is a critical path item and work will stop until a decision is reached. Client turns volume up on TV so that they can’t hear what the PM is saying

16 PM tasks APM with skinning a banana. PM selects 2 slices of bread and puts them on the plate. APM begins to pick nose whilst staring out of the window.

17 PM carries out a load test of the knives to make sure they work and starts making a training plan for sandwich eating, puts washing into machine and loads dishwasher.

18 Client calls into the kitchen and asks where the sandwich is. PM informs client that they still haven’t made a decision over the critical path item (bread buttering)

19 Client asks what resource the PM was thinking of using to carry out the operation. PM informs client that APM is pencilled in to do it

20 Client goes ‘humph’ and walks away without making a decision

21 PM explains to APM that nose picking is not optimal for this project and sends them to wash hands

22 Client suggests crisis meeting in which they explain that they are very disappointed not to see the project progress any further. PM explains that the team are eager to progress but are waiting on the mission critical decision on bread buttering. Client says that he can’t understand why the PM hasn’t made such a simple decision themselves. After all their friends PM(mum) would have already done this by now. Explains that they are considering changing PMs as a result. Client decides to take more control of the project and fires APM who is singing in the bathroom. Client decides to butter half of the bread and tells PM that ‘it wasn’t so hard after all, was it?’. Goes to watch power rangers.

23 PM butters remaining bread, skins and mashes banana, puts banana into bread opens beans puts beans onto bread puts top on sandwich cuts into four squares and delivers to client. APM stops singing in bathroom and asks why they have been fired.

24 Client informs PM that they didn’t want it cut into squares as they are no longer a child. PM points to project scope document and says that this was not specified and does not affect the operation of the deliverables. Client makes dissatisfaction with PMs performance known.

25 PM begins training plan by telling client to ‘eat your sandwich and shut up’

26 Client informs PM that they hate bananas and asks why the PM thought it appropriate to provide a squidgy sandwich when they hate squidgy sandwiches. PM explains to client that this was noted on the project risks document right at the start and they would have appreciated some feedback before beginning work.

27 Client informs PM in a full and frank exchange of views that they are in fact the worst PM in the entire world. Further, they are stupid and smell too. They wonder why they didn’t use their networking (school) friends PM who always makes great sandwiches.

28 PM removes the application (sandwich) and places it in a secure offline storage facility(bin). Client decides that a cooling off period(sulk) is appropriate

29 Client contacts PM and explains about a great idea they have for a further project for a tuna and honey sandwich and suggests forcefully that, as the PM performed so poorly in the last project that they complete this new improved project ahead of their other projects (little brother’s sandwich) only ‘much better this time’ as recompense.

30 PM explains to client that they have a large amount of projects (washing, cleaning, ironing) to carry out before they feed ungrateful children. Suggests developing an in house capacity (‘do it yourself’) or failing that utilising the services of their networking (school) friend’s PM.