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Adventures in Finance: 5 More FP&A Tips From a Polar Explorer (Part 2)

Polar explorer Ben Saunders covered in ice and snow

Business is a marathon, not a sprint—and today’s companies need to weather many obstacles and adapt to change along the course. The key to survival? Insightful planning. And no one understands the value of planning more than Ben Saunders, a polar explorer whose job—and life—depends on the planning cycle. After we announced Ben as the keynote speaker for our annual Adaptive Live user conference, we called him and asked: What can a polar explorer teach FP&A teams and finance execs?

Last time we shared the first of 10 planning tips—and a little backstory on Ben. Below are the final five planning tips for your finance organization.

Ben Saunders, a U.K.-based endurance athlete and polar explorer

Ben Saunders, a U.K.-based endurance athlete and polar explorer, has logged a record-breaking 3,730 miles trekking across the polar regions.

6. Course-correct if you veer off track
To keep up with the pace of change and accelerate corporate performance, finance teams need to arm business partners and executives with actionable insights to make more informed decisions faster than ever.

In Ben’s words:
On the big solo expeditions I’ve done, in a weird way I’m kind of the CEO, but I’m also the product—the thing that the business is all about. I’m the one out on the front lines, therefore my own thinking is often clouded by everything from stress to exhaustion to fear. So this is kind of a paradox: On a solo expedition I’m more reliant on the team than ever. In Antarctica there were two of us, so we were our own little team—and we’d obviously discussed the conversations we had with the bigger support team. When I was alone, it was me, and I was totally reliant on the support team.

Communication was vital. Coming back to course-correction: That ability, that accuracy and honesty of communication—especially under pressure—was so key to teamwork, which is what the Scott Expedition was all about.

7. Use quality data to make informed decisions
Forecasting sales revenue—and walking the lengths of Antarctica while pulling a sled with nearly a quarter-ton of food and supplies—requires having clean, quality data so you can improve decisions.

In Ben’s words: It started with us trying to figure out how much food we would need for a roundtrip journey from the Antarctic coast to the South Pole. We’re pulling all the food we need, but on the way out to the pole we can leave depots and bury a little case of food and fuel. I thought this would be simple calculations. But, as soon as you leave one of these depots, the sled gets lighter so you start traveling faster. And there’s a cumulative fatigue as the journey goes on; we’re literally losing weight every day. There’s also altitude. There were so many factors, particularly around our speed, so it became this incredibly complex calculation where suddenly data was absolutely crucial. No one had ever done this, so we had bits of data from previous expeditions, but we were having to extrapolate.

We spent months wrestling with this very complex set of calculations. I’m sad to say, it was in a giant Excel spreadsheet—I’ve never seen so many formulas in one spreadsheet in my life—and clearly it was a calculation we still didn’t get quite right because we ran so low on food that we had to call for more to be flown to us when we turned around at the pole. That calculation was central to the whole thing. If we had better data at the start we could’ve avoided calling for that resupply flight. We would’ve had a healthier safety margin. So if we had better data at the start, we could’ve avoided a lot of risk—we could’ve avoided a six-figure bill to have more food flown out to us.

Data was absolutely at the heart of what we did and how we tried to make decisions. And the quality of data that we had—and some of it was quite poor because there was so little precedent to what we were doing—but the quality of data that we could access and the quality of the calculations we were doing were absolutely vital to our success, and to our survival.

Watch this video and take a peek inside the mind of polar explorer Ben Saunders.

8. Don’t let failure stop you in your tracks
Ben’s first expedition to the North Pole didn’t go as expected. In addition to encountering polar bears and suffering frostbite along the way, he and his travel partner didn’t complete the goal. But that didn’t stop him from trying again—and that resilience is just as valuable in today’s business world.

In Ben’s words: In the immediate aftermath of that expedition, I felt totally crushed. I was 23 at the time, and I kind of went out there pretty naive, thinking that I was fit and tough and experienced—and it totally blew me away.

It took me awhile to realize that actually, this hadn’t been a failure. We hadn’t achieved the goal that we set out to achieve, but we got closer than anyone in history to achieving this goal. So it took me awhile to realize that I had so much experience under my belt and so much to be grateful for from that experience. The only real failure would’ve been not to have attempted it in the first place and to have been deterred by the fear, the self-doubt, the desire for security—all those things that I had to confront and overcome.

9. Challenge conventional wisdom—you may find efficiencies and opportunity
It’s easy to stick with what’s comfortable—especially when it comes to technology and systems. But when finance teams are only spending 17-20% of their time supporting decisions due to lengthy data gathering practices, sometimes big results call for stepping outside your comfort zone.

In Ben’s words:
My expedition teammate Tarka L’Herpiniere lives in the French Alps and is a competitive ski mountaineer—a niche sport that’s driving a lot of innovation in skiing, particularly around very lightweight gear. I’d been using relatively conventional Norwegian skis that were just seen as the standard. It’s like using an Excel spreadsheet when you think: Why would you use anything else? This is what everyone uses. And Tarka came along with these really radical, super lightweight, relatively short, relatively wide, carbon fiber skis—and they weigh almost nothing. And I saw these skis and said “Why on earth would I risk this project on this completely newfangled bit of technology?” And these skis were amazing! That led to such a massive step change in our efficiency. And this expedition was ultimately an exercise in efficiency: extracting maximum mileage from our physical capability.

I think it was really important to be open to ideas from different fields—from things that might sound absurd—and to test things out with as little prejudice as you can. Be open to challenging these preconceived notions, open to challenging strategies, methods, techniques, and equipment, and things that have served you very well for a long time. Just be open to questioning, because you never know where the next big opportunity for improvement might come from.

10. Find someone who believes in you
Mentors and coaches can help you discover qualities and develop skills that will lead to future successes, so seek out other people’s wisdom in life adventures—or look to your CFO and finance leaders for guidance as you navigate your career.

In Ben’s words: When I was a kid I loved adventure. I loved being outdoors, loved challenging myself and testing myself. John Ridgway was, looking back, one of the first genuine mentors that I had. [Ben spent a year at the John Ridgway Adventure School in Ardmore, Scotland, working as an instructor/assistant to Ridgway—a man known for successfully rowing across the North Atlantic in a 20-foot wooden rowboat in a 92-day, two-man journey.] What I found was someone who was very good at using his own experiences, his wisdom, to get other people—especially me—thinking very differently about how they viewed their own potential as a human being. I went to this adventure school expecting to put this guy on a pedestal, and I came away from this year thinking that maybe I could do something in this space. Maybe I could actually do a journey like this.

On some levels, being a polar explorer seems like quite a random career path. Actually, looking back, there’ve been some really key moments and individuals who’ve been fantastic coaches and mentors who had real faith in me and my potential.

To get more planning insights, read tips 1-5 in part one of this blog series, “Adventures in Finance: Planning Tips From a Polar Explorer (Part 1).”

Adaptive Live annual user conference - Journey to Insights,
To learn more FP&A tips and hear Ben Saunders give his exciting keynote,
“Journey to the Arctic: A Story of Fulfilling Boundless Potential,” join us at the annual Adaptive Live user conference April 25-29 in San Jose, CA. Get your tickets now.

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