The one about no perfect answers


Welcome to Salmon Theory, a newsletter about philosophy, strategy and hope.

My name’s Rob. Thank you for your attention. Let’s do this.

🔍 Here’s the thing

I’ve only recently started to think and care about financial matters.

Not only my personal finances, but finance in general.

From how the markets work (fucking bonkers).

To how it affects business decisions (there is so much we don’t see).

And, indirectly or not, how it also affects marketing and strategic advice.

This is why I found this interview with Alastair Thomson quite refreshing.

He’s not only a lovely guy, but a smart cookie too.

You can check him out on Twitter.

Or you can check out his book on cash flow tips.

He shows me a side to my profession that I often overlook.

Partly because it’s not my job per se.

But despite all that, it’s useful to see what others in organisations see.

In some way, it helps us empathise with how decisions get made.

And also how we can have more effective “big person” conversations.

(For better or for worse, money conversations are big person conversations.)

Without further ado, ladies and gents: Alastair Thomson.

Welcome, Alastair. How did you get to where you are?

I studied Law before becoming an accountant. When I graduated, a couple of recessions ago, there weren’t any training places for aspiring young lawyers. But thankfully the big accounting firms were still hiring.

As luck would have it, I got top marks in all my Tax Law classes at university, so imagined it would be a good career path. Ironically, I’ve never worked in the tax part of the accounting profession. Still not sure if I missed a great opportunity or if the field of tax advice dodged a bullet…

Why do you do what you do?

I try to help business owners make better financial decisions so they can grow their businesses, realise their income goals and achieve their business and personal ambitions. Often, money gets in the way of that. The lack of it, obviously, is something I encounter a lot, but sometimes, paradoxically, too much of it can be a problem too.

For me, it’s like solving a wonderful puzzle. How do we go from where we are today to wherever the client wants to get to, as quickly and in as few steps as possible? You might think this is a strange thing for a finance person to say, but the problem is rarely exclusively, or even mostly, financial.

Of course, sometimes the bank facility isn’t big enough to support the company’s working capital needs, or the client is using an overdraft when they’d be better with asset finance. But the reason the business owner hasn’t already retired to the south of France with millions in his pocket is almost certainly not a purely financial problem. So I spend a fair amount of time outside “traditional finance”. If I help a marketing person deliver better results, even if sometimes that means spending more to get a greater return, the financial numbers ultimately look after themselves.

Being able to explain to clients why decisions like that are good business decisions often flies in the face of what they’re used to hearing from accountants, who mostly just tell them to cut costs. Challenges like turning around a business from loss-making to profit-making, or helping clients grow their business rapidly before selling out for more than they thought possible, gives me a great buzz. That’s why I do what I do.

And it’s not always “big things”, like selling a business for millions. One client’s biggest ambition is to be able to switch off and enjoy Christmas with their family and children this year without worrying incessantly about their business cash flow. Solving that puzzle will give me as much satisfaction as helping someone sell their business for millions, because enjoying their first worry-free Christmas in six years is more important to this client than anything else in the world at the moment.

How do you speed your brain up?

Caffeine mainly. I love tea and coffee. Just don’t get me started on the proper way to make tea! If you think I’m a bit nerdy about accounting, you’ve never seen me make a pot of tea.

How do you slow your brain down?

This is an interesting question. A big part of what I do is help business owners take the 350 things they’re worrying about, and collapse that down the three or four key drivers which lie at the root of most or all of the 350 things.

You can work with three or four things, and are more likely to be able to leverage performance in those areas than you could across 350 activities simultaneously. With a to-do list of 350 items, the best most of us can manage is what a former colleague of mine used to call “random acts of management”.

To calm my thinking down, I ask myself whether what I’m doing at that moment will matter to my client in three to five years’ time. If it won’t, odds are I should be getting my head out that space and focusing on something that will. I do this with clients too, and it’s interesting how quickly you make progress working on a small number of strategic issues than a huge number of mostly trivial ones.

Which two fields should talk more to one another? What should they talk about?

I’m a big supporter of the Arts (very widely defined) and think arts and science should talk to one another much more. The education system’s obsession on STEM is a huge mistake, I believe. Not that STEM subjects aren’t important in their own right. Of course they are. But they encourage lazy, incomplete and unrealistic thinking, especially when there’s an interface at some point with human beings.

Humans aren’t always rational, in fact I might say they rarely are. People don’t make decisions by sequential thought processes which, at each stage, have only one objectively correct answer. And much of the world is subjective, not objective. Worse than that, STEM encourages the view that there is only one right answer for everything, we just need to find what that perfect answer is. Even though that’s demonstrably untrue in just about every walk of life outside a science lab.

Arts can conceptualise multiple potential outcomes, all of which can be “right”, depending on the context and characters involved. That seems much more representative of the real world than sterile, seemingly objective (although in practice, usually biased as hell), supposedly data-driven (albeit with some of the dodgiest statistics you’ve seen in your life) models which claim to guarantee the right answer 100% of the time.

If there was one thing for science and arts to discuss it would be to help science conceptualise multiple potential outcomes. Ironically, all the very best scientists can do this. Only third-rate scientists, engineers and, I’m sorry to say, accountants, think every problem has just one perfect answer 100% of the time. [ed note: and strategists!]

There’s absolutely nothing 100% of humanity agrees is the right answer to everything. Yet that’s the world STEM teaching equips you for.

What’s something everyone could do with a bit more of?

The Arts. Take your pick: music, theatre, literature, dance, design, history, photography, painting, dress-making and many, many more. Although there isn’t one perfect answer to everything, all the perfect answers to anything can be found somewhere in the Arts.

What’s something everyone could do with a bit less of?

Data. We have too much data about things which don’t matter and it’s starting to clog up our brains and slow us down as a species. Less data, but of much better quality, generally leads to better decisions. In fact, I’ve found the poorer the business, generally the more data they have, as everybody scrambles to produce a detailed monthly report which shows the problem isn’t them, but someone else. So much so, it’s become something of an early warning indicator for me over the years.

What’s more, to a high degree of probability, the person with the most data is usually the root cause of all the problems too, but they’re insufficiently self-critical and self-aware to see it for themselves. So, through a process of twisted and convoluted logic, they try to convince themselves and everyone else that whoever the biggest contributor to the company’s impending demise might be, it’s not them.

What’s the last thing you changed your mind on?

When I was younger I had a real aversion to Aussie rockers AC/DC – they had too hard an edge to them for my taste. Recently I’ve decided that was completely wrong and AC/DC are in fact one of the greatest rock bands there’s ever been.

Everyone’s a bit mad. How are you mad?

I’ve got a very silly sense of humour. If something triggers me, I quickly end up looking like Peter Kay in a “Car Share” out-take with tears streaming down his face. I try not to do this during office hours, but I’d be lying if I said that ambition was always achieved.

What gives you hope?

People. In all their glorious diversity. Even people who think science is the answer to everything.

Thanks Alastair!

You can follow Alastair on Twitter.

Or check out his book on cash flow tips.

(It sounds as nerdy as I hope it is.)

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Stay safe. Stay sane. Send replies, I like hearing from you. 😘


PS: See you on Twitter.