We do not discuss it. We rarely acknowledge it. We live in a society that focuses on cooperation and building value. In many situations, talking about power or politics has extremely negative connotations and is frowned upon.

There is good reason for that. Striving for power is very often perceived as Machiavellianism, and that in turn is correlated with counterproductive behaviors such as manipulation, dubious management practices, and putting individual power over the interests of the organisation. Somehow, we have arrived at the conclusion that not discussing this problem is a way forward. We prefer not to talk about power, because we do not want to be perceived as the bad guys.

But the problem does not go away. People who were born with (or acquired early in their lives) power-related skills progress unchallenged. Worse than that, sometimes we let power slip out of our hands, and without deliberate efforts we can’t get the power back. This, in turn, makes us underpowered in relation to our responsibilities. We are thrown off balance, and we cannot contribute what is due to the company.

CFOs are particularly vulnerable

The chief financial officer (CFO) is sometimes considered to be more powerful than the chief executive officer (CEO), because the CFO controls the money, but we don’t necessarily talk about that either. CFOs act as financial stewards, deciding which departments thrive, which projects are within the company’s budget, and which are too expensive and should be blocked.

However, if CFOs do not have a deep understanding of the company’s business — perhaps because they are not up to date with the most recent market and technology changes — their power is severely limited. Despite possessing expert financial skills, a CFO who focuses on just the numbers creates a serious power imbalance that can damage the relationship with the rest of the company.

Transparency and perspective to the rescue

To prioritise projects accurately, CFOs must fully understand the nature of proposed projects and view them from a much broader perspective than a purely financial one. Wardley Mapping provides techniques for gaining that perspective.

A Wardley Map is a diagram that combines a chain of dependencies (about something customers need) and product evolution, which is an aggregate of many characteristics (including uncertainty). An example below is about electricity consumption. We can, for example, instantly ask what “adjusting to power availability” means, what kind of risk and other characteristics that should have, and how investment in this component will serve our customers better. Importantly, it is an opportunity to understand value being delivered in addition to financial details.

A Wardley Map

Making a diagram like this a mandatory step for projects above certain financial thresholds forces an honest discussion about the purpose of the project and the roles of engaged individuals. That eventually resolves any power and responsibility mismatch because it equips the CFO with a broad business perspective.

Establishing such a spend control mechanism definitely lies within the CFO’s domain and should be standard practice.

Learn outside the box

It is not useful to be a financial expert, or any expert for that matter, unless that expertise is put to work for the benefit of the organisation. The willingness to learn and to extract knowledge outside of your primary domain is one of the key aspects that makes experts potent. CFOs who deeply understand the business — not just the financials — ensure that their power matches their responsibilities.

Learn more about mapping in Chris Daniel’s Leading Edge Forum paper, “Mapping #5: Restoring the Proper Balance of Power.”