Rethinking the Annual Budgeting Process




Human beings are creatures of habit. Once they have mastered certain habits, especially bad ones, it is extremely difficult to let go. Even though we are fully aware that the immediate, medium-term or long-term consequences of our bad behaviours are dire, we still cling unto them. Could this be because of our ignorance or maybe lack of understanding of what is at stake?

The annual budgeting process has been around for a very long time, and organizations across the globe have been using budgets to allocate scarce resources, monitor and manage performance. In a perfect stable world, the annual budget process works. Unfortunately, a stable economic environment is a thing of the past.

Volatility is the norm today

In the majority of organizations that operate an annual budgeting cycle, the final budget is fixed in nature, covering a specific time period. Finance executives and business managers spend a significant amount of time inputting and debating the final budget. As soon as the final budget figures are agreed, IT department uploads the budget on the company’s accounting and finance system. Nothing changes after this, except comparing actual performance to budget.

The challenge for many finance executives is which approach to use to prepare the budget. Base plus or zero base? Many make the grave mistake of using prior year’s actuals as the base for formulating the current year’s budget and then make arbitrary adjustments. This approach is acceptable in an environment where market conditions are stable, predictions are easy to make and key budget assumptions remain valid for the entire budgeted period.

Unfortunately, volatility is the norm in today’s global economy. Increasing global pressures, uncertainty, ever-changing consumer behaviours and disruption are all rendering initial key budget assumptions invalid by the time the final budget is completed.

The result is often an outrageously inaccurate budget with little management commitment and minute relevance to the organization’s strategic plan.

This new dynamic global economy calls for modern approaches to budgeting, planning and forecasting. Organizations need to be adaptive, ever ready for unpredictable events and quickly responsive to changing marketing conditions.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman talks about the Knowing Illusion.

The core of the illusion is that we believe we understand the past, which implies that the future also should be knowable, but in fact we understand the past less than we believe we do.

What we see is all there is. We cannot help dealing with the limited information we have as if it were all there is to know. We build the best possible story from the information available to us, and if it is a good story, we believe it.

Paradoxically, it is easier for us to construct a coherent story when we know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle.

The fact that we think we have a clearer understanding of the past does not automatically mean that we are capable of comfortably predicting and controlling the future. Learning from the past is a reasonable thing to do, but it is also important for us to understand that this can have some dangerous consequences.

If we lack knowledge of all the information there is to know, the limited information we have on past performance can mislead us during budgeting and planning processes and negatively affect future outcomes.

Link Budgets to Strategy

Despite the widespread challenges of the annual budgeting process and prominent rise of the beyond budgeting proponents, the annual budget still has a place in the hearts of many finance executives.

They are not yet ready to ditch the budgeting cycle completely, it is too risky for them to run the business without a financial plan.

Rather than ditching the budgeting process entirely, implementing driver-based budgets and rolling forecasts can help organizations address the challenges of the traditional budgeting approaches.

Although most of the variables in the budget are financial, it is important to also take into consideration non-financial information as this is key to developing an understanding of business performance drivers and constraints.

Very few organizations make an attempt to link budgets with their strategy, in fact the planning process is influenced more by politics than by strategy. Leading organizations are using the Balanced Scorecard to strategically allocate resources.

Linking budgets to strategy helps management and their subordinates identify the organization’s critical success factors and how they relate to the KPIs used to measure company success. This in turn, will help them design initiatives needed to close the gap between current performance and desired performance.

Aligning spending with strategy also helps fund only those initiatives deemed strategic and with the potential of propelling the organization forward. This is in direct contrast to the base plus and zero base approaches which allocate resources on the basis of chart of accounts line items, resulting in the funding of non-strategic initiatives and wastage of resources.

Implement rolling forecasts

Compared to traditional budgets which cover a fixed period, rolling forecasts allow organizations to get a vision of the future and support improved decision making. By using rolling forecasts, the company will be able to project performance four to six quarters ahead.

Each quarter the plan is reviewed, and key decision makers are able to understand problems, challenges and trends sooner than later, and change directions or fund strategic projects based on current economic conditions. Instead of reacting to changing business conditions, executives will become more proactive in their approach.

One of the advantages of rolling forecasts is that they are driver based. Drivers help eliminate detail when creating a realistic expectation about the future resulting in managers focusing on what is vital for the success of the organization.

With time, the drivers are evaluated to determine if they are still a key predictor of higher performance. If not, new drivers will be identified and selected for monitoring.

As volatility and uncertainty continue to increase, organizations need to be prepared always in order to navigate successfully towards the future.

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