Dutch productivity guru Marcel van den Berg is one of the most anticipated speakers at the Finance Indaba Africa 2016. We sent our senior editor Toni Muir to chat to him and ever since the interview she’s been raving about Marcel’s incredibly practical approach. Read Toni’s write-up and be the judge.
Marcel's five top productivity tips:
Nurture your attention
Attention is as delicate as an egg. Easily broken, very hard to put back together. But look after it and it’ll grow and thrive.
Silence those pings
Turn off all visual and audio notifications on your desktop or mobile devices. The ping is far too addictive and tempting – you’ll want to go and check.
Lower your expectations
Realise you’ll never get everything done. Instead, make the best choices about where to deploy the capacity and energy you have to get the best results.
Only be online for tasks that absolutely need online access. Get unplugged and offline when you need to fully concentrate on being creative.
Don’t use email as a ‘to-do list’
If you do, you’ll end up having a to-do list written by others, sorted in the wrong order!
We’ve all had days when our inboxes just never seem to empty, when we don’t get the time to do any or many of the items on our to-do lists, we spend precious time in what turns out to be a pointless meeting, and where we feel utterly flustered by the end of the day because we haven’t been nearly as productive as we needed to be. According to Marcel van den Berg, specialist training company Think Productive’s director for Western Europe, who will be speaking at this year’s Finance Indaba Africa, the key to being productive is… being in control.
“The word ‘productivity’ is interesting because it implies something. We define productivity as achieving what you want to achieve with the least effort, or having the ability to achieve what you want to achieve with the least effort,” Marcel says. “Productivity is about reducing stress, worrying less, achieving more and enjoying what you do.” In this regard, it’s also important to be clear about what you want to achieve, and knowing what the two or three main drivers of results in your job are, he adds. “You can relate it back to Steven Covey’s ‘big rocks’ analogy: the big things you want to achieve in life you must put first. The trick is learning how to do that.”
Something Marcel pegs as equally important in being productive, is knowing when to stop and take a break. He explains that the eight-hour work day dates back to the industrial age, when much of the work was physical. Today, most of us knowledge workers use our brains to work, only that the brain cannot work effectively for a period as long as eight hours, or sometimes more. “It also needs to rest,” Marcel says. “If you rest, your brain is capable of producing better results. Though the thought of rest does feel counter intuitive.” In addition, the brain has a limited capacity to make decisions. “It’s not that you aren’t willing, it’s just that your brain’s ability to take decisions is over. It’s called decision fatigue,” he explains. “That’s why some people try to eliminate unnecessary decisions, as it affects productivity. Doing something like this saves thinking energy.” You get people, for example, who choose their entire week’s working wardrobe before the week begins, or plan out their meals in advance, or who even eat the same meals day after day to avoid having to make such fairly mundane decisions. It all comes back to attention management, Marcel says, when and how you use your attention to create the biggest impact.
You’ve surely heard the expression, ‘work smarter, not harder’ more than once. It’s all very well to say this, but what does it actually mean? “If times are busy and there’s a lot to do, the first thing that people naturally do is think they can deal with it by working longer hours,” says Marcel. “But that’s the wrong approach because there’s no end to that. So putting in more time is not the answer.” According to him, it’s more about doing the right things, and thinking about what will create the most impact, as well as how you can manage your attention and use your brain in the best way possible. Thus, you need to look at output. “It’s arbitrary how many hours a week you want to work, so you have to be smarter about work and do things that will add value to your work,” Marcel says, citing the 80-20 rule as a good example. You also need to be critical about what you have to do and what could – or should – be delegated, he adds.
So how did we come to get mired down in this productivity dilemma in the first place? What are we all doing wrong? “I don’t think we are doing things wrong, per say, I think it’s just that we’ve never been taught how to work,” Marcel says. “We learn a profession but never how to work or how to organise our work. We might watch how our colleagues or superiors do things, and learn from them, or figure out a way of doing things that works, but very few people automatically develop a way that gives them a feeling of being on top of things.” Marcels says that when he first came across the principles of productivity he was upset because they are, in essence, quite easy to comprehend – though applying them is another thing. “It’s not rocket science,” he says. “These things can have a tremendous impact when applied. I don’t understand why we don’t learn them in school or university, or sooner in life.”
Graham Allcott, founder of Think Productive, cottoned onto this glaring need, launching the company in 2009 in the UK. The company has seen superb growth in a relatively short time, and now has offices in the US, Canada, Australia and Western Europe – the latter being the entity where Marcel fits in. Think Productive’s courses focus only on the topic of productivity, covering personal productivity, meetings and emails, and its client bases ranges from small organisations, universities and government institutions right through to multinational companies. The training model uses the analogy of a ninja, taking nine identified characteristics thereof and showing knowledge workers in today’s economy how to apply these in their everyday working lives. One of these, for example, is ruthlessness. Marcel explains: “Nowadays, when there is so much coming towards you, you have to be ruthless in making choices and determining to what you pay attention. For a long time, time management was the order of the day. Nowadays the focus is on attention management because our attention span is not eight hours, it’s two to three that we are at our very best.”
Zen-like calm is another ninja trait, and pertains to having a clear and open mind. “People carry a lot of stuff in their heads,” Marcel explains. “The brain is not capable of carrying all these loose things around and cannot prioritise to bring things up at the right times. This is why your brain will remind you, in the middle of a meeting, to stop at the supermarket for something on the way home, for instance. It’s much better to use your brain for creativity and new solutions, or putting together business proposals. So we tell people to get everything out of their heads and teach them a system to do this, which allows them to be more present in the now and to give their full attention to that they’re doing at present.”
Marcel says there is a lot of momentum for skills development such as this, though it’s initially difficult to sell the concept, as most people don’t want to admit there’s a problem or that they could use a bit of help. “Many people we encounter love their work but are fed up with all the other things that come with it, like emails, meetings, document drafting, and so on, and are looking for a better way of dealing with those less-enjoyable aspects. People feel great relief when their email inbox is emptied, like it’s a burden they didn’t realise they were carrying. We’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response to the training programmes,” he says.
Marcel will be presenting at the upcoming Finance Indaba Africa, and promises to touch on some of the characteristics of a productivity ninja. The session will include both conceptual and practical aspects. “We always start with the psychology, the thinking model and concepts, but then delve into the practical so people know straight away how they can apply it. I usually try to challenge people in the way they think about their work, and we always end up laughing at ourselves,” he says.
“As SAICA we are very excited about the Finance Indaba Africa which will be held on 13 and 14 October 2016,” says Terence Nombembe, CEO of the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA). “The event is a great initiative from CFO South Africa, where we can showcase excellence and the value CAs(SA) can contribute to society.”
SAICA CEO Terence Nombembe calls on CAs(SA), particularly those in business, to register for the Finance Indaba Africa at the Sandton Convention Centre on 13 and 14 October, where SAICA will be a platinum partner along with dozens of other exhibitors, partner and sponsors ranging from ERP providers and recruiters to accounting bodies, banks and professional services firms. “I am very glad we are collaborating comfortably with CFO South Africa around the Finance Indaba. This way we can take the country forward.”
What can visitors to the Finance Indaba expect from SAICA?
“First of all, there will be a network of like-minded people gathered in one place,” says Nombembe, who wants to use the event to call on CAs(SA) to get more involved with the integrated reporting framework advocated by the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC) and supported by the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC). “As SAICA we will be able to share thought leadership with topics that will enrich our members in the work that they do. The Indaba should be a platform to consolidate and showcase examples of success stories that CAs(SA) are involved with in the trenches,” explains Nombembe.
Collaboration with CFO SA
SAICA’s commitment to the Finance Indaba is evidence of a new wind blowing under the leadership of Nombembe, who moved from his position as Auditor-General to become SAICA CEO almost three years ago. “Our focus has been on encouraging collaboration within SAICA itself, thus enabling us to operate better as a collective. We have also started looking at collaboration with other like-minded players and strategic partners. We do realise that we can effectively support nation building and be everything to everybody if we work collaboratively with others,” indicates Nombembe.
It is clear that he recognises that most South African CFOs are SAICA members. Working with CFO South Africa is a logical way to equip SAICA members to get better at what they do and become pioneers of thought leadership. “The collaboration with CFO South Africa, especially around the Finance Indaba Africa, is a true example of the level of comfort that SAICA has about working with others for the common good of the profession.”
The SAICA CEO envisions that the annual Finance Indaba will be an important agenda setting event for the Institute and its members and associates. “The ability to pull together such a big number of finance professionals for an event like this is hugely significant,” he says. “There are many opportunities for topics, not only in 2016, but also going forward. What we then need to do as SAICA is follow through afterwards, because we cannot achieve what we need to in half a week. The Finance Indaba can be a trigger to get people thinking, thereafter, we need to follow up with implementation, leading to the next Indaba in 2017.”
School yard bully
Collaboration is a keyword in the thinking of SAICA’s leadership, which is keen to shed the image of ‘school yard bully’ that dictates to other organisations by the sheer power of its impressive membership. “There is no benefit in playing an elitist card in society,” Nombembe says. “Collaboration is a culture we have been working on at SAICA. We started working with every accounting body when the Forum of Accounting Bodies (FAB), was founded, of which SAICA chaired the first meeting. It is meant to brush aside the competitive posture that neutralises effectiveness.”
In the bigger scheme of things, it doesn’t make sense to compete with other accounting bodies like ACCA and CIMA for every yard, while the qualifications might be complementary, he says. “If you look at issues of regulation and standard setting, there is a lot that binds us together. We also work together comfortably on an international level within IFAC, so it would be hypocritical if we could not work together locally.”
One of the themes of the indaba is the Future of Finance. What is Nombembe’s take on that?
“Finance is the backbone of success of any enterprise in the world. That fundamental position ought not to be watered down,” he says. “At the same time the future is in integrating financial capital with other capitals, like human capital and issues of society and environment. In the end those are all issues of sustainability. Financial capital is one element and that is why the CA(SA) is viewed as a significant player in facilitating sustainability. The future of business needs to be driven by finance people who look at the bottom line with a view of creating sustainable value through all the six capitals.”
There is a long way to go still, even within the SAICA ecosystem, Nombembe admits. “Very few members have embraced this reality. The Finance Indaba is an opportunity for this awareness to be driven home. Not to force people into something they don’t like, but we need to make clear that CAs(SA) and CFOs cannot be operating in the back office and only make an appearance when numbers need to be discussed.”
Perhaps one of the greatest passions of Nombembe is the potential that CAs(SA) have in order to shape society and to be role models.
“If I look at my own development; I was fortunate to be part of a university where Prof Wiseman Nkuhlu, the country’s first black CA(SA) and prominent member of the panel of judges for the CFO Awards 2017, was teaching. I was also part of the accounting community in Umtata when he established his firm. Especially the two CAs(SA) he produced, Sabelo Magwentshu and Wakeford Dondashe, were role models to all of us in that community, as we could relate to them as brothers, talk to them and shake their hands.”
Role models should always be people who are in close proximity to you as a CA(SA) or aspiring accountants, says Nombembe, steering the conversation towards the contribution SAICA members can make. “Teaching is an important thing that CAs(SA) should be considering, even if it is just guest lectures. Members, regardless of their occupation, can play a significant role at school and university levels. It is all about telling stories of how we have progressed to CAs(SA). That always relates to our young people and provides them with the courage to keep going.”
What it comes down to is mobilising the intellectual capacity of CAs(SA) for the greater good, something that doesn’t happen enough yet, says Nombembe. “We do request our members to find time to give back. The country needs us. The SAICA brand is not only about the qualification. It is also about how stakeholders view us as being responsible citizens. The little that CAs(SA) can do, for example could be to donate some of our little time and money to ploughing back to the vulnerable communities. That will make a massive difference, as long as we do it communally as a collective. This will sustain our vision at SAICA of "responsible leadership." We need to mobilise our members in business in a manner that will enable them to participate effortlessly. All we need is a little of your time.”
Representation of goodness
Nombembe acknowledges that he is setting himself tough targets and even calls the job of SAICA CEO more difficult than when he was Auditor-General. “At SAICA we need to deal with a combination of stakeholders, including our members, who collectively have great potential to make a difference. By virtue of their position in society, CAs(SA) can play a big role in problem solving and social cohesion. Our members are very talented and enlightened. Without interfering with their primary roles, we want to demonstrate that they can make a great contribution to good governance, a growing economy and nation building. We have the ability to expose rich talents to schools, for example. As SAICA we have a great natural geographical footprint, not only in South Africa but globally, which as CAs(SA) we need to use as a representation of goodness in accountability, transparency, integrity and credibility.”
Nombembe says that soon after he joined SAICA, he realised this job was harder and more challenging than he imagined. “You would naturally think SAICA members have a natural affinity with the profession, but people are busy and many CAs(SA) are not doing the technical work that they were trained to do. Being a CA(SA) in today’s society boils down to how to use the ability to think in a structured, creative way. That is why the CA(SA) is well-placed to be leading from the front in terms of integrated thinking. The role that the CA(SA) plays needs to be elevated and exposed – and we need to move beyond financial reporting.”
Pointing to SAICA nation building pilots in schools, Nombembe says the Institute has “demonstrated that CAs(SA) can bring order where there is disorder”. There is a lot of potential. Something as simple as participating in school governing bodies can make a big difference. We have seen an amazing impact in the most dysfunctional schools. Something that is very easy for a CA(SA) makes a world of difference where the need is greatest. We are also extending these nation building projects to vocational colleges, public health institutions and municipalities – and make a mass impact on skills development, public sector accountability and getting small business to be a catalyst for economic growth. We need to turnaround economic stagnation.”
Finance and technology: five top trends
Cloud, mobile, cyber security and data & analytics are considered the most relevant technological trends for finance professionals of the moment. But, argues KPMG’s Frank Rizzo, those trends are so 2016! So buckle up and get ready for the future of finance as he shares the new technological revolution’s five hottest trends.
“I have always had a passion for technology,” says Frank Rizzo, who is in charge of the technology sector and of data & analytics at KPMG across Africa. Frank is a popular speaker at CFO South Africa’s events, combining ultra-current insights with an easy presentation style that will be on show at the Finance Indaba Africa 2016. We asked him about his love for technology and discussed the five ‘new wave’ technology trends finance teams cannot afford to ignore.
“In my school days I was already messing around with computers,” says Frank, when asked how he ended up as an IT expert. “When the internet just started, I was one of the few people in my environment who saw the possibilities,” explains Frank, who was wise enough to first qualify as a chartered accountant, before specialising.
Frank is excited about the work KPMG has started doing with startups, an approach borrowed from the UK. “We are part of a technology hub in Braamfontein, Johannesburg with Wits University. It is a place to meet, work and share notes. We have a desk there where people can come with questions and request assistance around registering a business, tax and other practical issues.” He believes the next giants will be future clients “if we build relationships with them now. Often startups have great ideas, but no business insights.”
As start-ups and corporate finance teams alike need to stay ahead of the curve, Frank is happy to list the five most exciting trends of the moment:
1. Internet of Things
“The prediction from Gartner is that there will be 20.8 billion devices by 2020, whether they are in the car, iPads, mobile phones. All these devices will generate data. On a personal level, we are moving towards the quantified self, on a business level towards the quantified consumer, which has great ramifications for supply chain and the production process.”
2. AI & cognitive computing
“This is the next level data & analytics. Think about the things that IBM Watson, Facebook and Google are doing already, or the suggestions that Amazon provides you with of books you should read. The forecast is that this will be a 5-billion-dollar industry by 2020. In South Africa a lot of companies are involved in data & analytics, but they are still in the descriptive phase: reporting and visualising. Only a few companies are using the predictive power of cognitive computing, for example Discovery, which is using telematics and predictive models to link driving behaviour to determine the likelihood of claims and pay-outs.”
“The most relevant example is blockchain, with Bitcoin being the most famous example. It is about info that needs to be trusted, that is stored in the cloud and cannot be messed with. All South African banks are doing proof of concept on Bitcoin. They don’t want FinTech companies to eat their lunch, but it is also an offensive move as the banks can explore working without their current big in-house systems. A prediction from the end of last year was that large financial institutions would spend 1 billion dollars on blockchain in 24 months.”
“There are two different stories. The industrial application of robotics is not new. But now we can use AI in robots, like Baxter from Rethink Robotics, and show it what to do at a production line. It can learn, which is very cool. The cost of one Baxter is just below minimum wage in the US. We are also seeing robotics at a digital level, which can revolutionise customer service as robots can be used in chat boxes and call centres.”
5. Virtual and augmented reality
“We all know this now from Pokémon GO. The most exciting aspect of this for business is augmented reality, whereas virtual reality is very much aimed at gaming and entertainment. With augmented reality you can walk into your warehouse with special goggles on, linked to your ERP system, and see how old your stock is. Engineers can see which part of a machine is going to break next when they use their goggles.”
“Today, the key challenge is the data deluge, especially when you work with data from outside your own organisation,” says Frank, when asked how CFOs should deal with all these trends. “Executives need to filter what is relevant. When describing the properties of data & analytics, experts talk about the three Vs: volume, velocity and variety. From the beginning, KPMG has added two other Vs to that: value and veracity. There is also a lot of rubbish data around and you cannot rely just on Twitter feeds. You need to be asking the right questions and be able to test the data and you need people who have the technological background, understand the data cycles, but also understand the business. That is still quite difficult to find.”
Finance departments need to transform to deal with the changes, says Frank. “The CFO needs access to different skills. Younger people who have grown up with a different mindset can gather information from many different sources and analyse data on the fly.” Good external advice is also crucial, with KPMG offering a package that not many can. “Our biggest asset is our multidisciplinary approach,” says Frank. “For a number of clients, we have been able to use data & analytics to look at their tax and find savings, for example. Tapping into the skills from our different departments is what sets us apart from other big firms.”
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