Budgeting from the trenches

Have you ever noticed how text books understate the budgeting process? They tend to gloss over the topic as four steps:

  1. Determine revenues
  2. Forecast expenses
  3. Adjust
  4. Communicate

Some text books suggest that that the process has iterations. This general outline of the process rings true, but its oversimplification makes the budgeting process sections meaningless when it comes time to map one out. I have found that undertaking the budgeting challenge is different between organizations. The process design is similar to perhaps how Generals draw up battle plans.tactics_image The available personnel, supplies and equipment are assessed and the desired outcome is clear. However, the details of the approach are dependent on the specific terrain and rely on the latest tools and information. For this reason, organizations tend to see its budgeting strategy as unique.

Strategy is a fair term to use in budgeting as its outcome has a great deal at stake. Every staff member submitting input for calculations or making a request for funds has credibility on the line. Without complete information the profitability of a product, service, region or division is at jeopardy. And, day-to-day performance of the organization can be besieged from the pressure and time consumption when gathering intelligence from the field.

There is a point where this analogy between a battle plan and a budgeting process falls apart: That is, a battle will end and budgeting does not. A budget plan will play itself over and over. This exposes a point of vulnerability in the budgeting process as it was designed for a set of conditions that most likely has changed. It may no longer be sufficient to budget annually. Reporting requirements may change. Consolidations in the industry confuse the financial results. Or, new competitors, products, clients, regions and staff render the plan obsolete. When there is such a difference between the framework and reality, the budgeting framework cannot be trusted for strategic forecasting.

In the wake of the global financial crisis as organizations seek to maximize cash reserves, evaluate expenses and eliminate risk; the budget process surfaces as a key strategy. Those giving strategic input and making decisions have unprecedented pressures to assure accuracy and agility in cost cutting. Those who need to find opportunities for revenue are at a loss for validating an option’s viability. An organization is likely to forgo an opportunity without the ability to articulate its profitability, avoiding the risk of catastrophe.

Today’s battlefield is dynamic and most participants are deep in the trenches. We know that this gloomy economy will end and we intend to abandon the trench to take new ground. Our challenge is timing and selecting the method to move forward. While we are trenched, let’s review the budgeting tools and design a system giving us the agility to adapt to the changing markets, locate opportunities and operate effectively.

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