One of the roles of the FP&A function is predicting future business performance and help business leaders prepare for an unplanned future through forecasting and decision support.
Although anticipating the future is challenging given today’s fast-changing environment, looking ahead is increasingly essential.
The world is far, far more complex than we think. Unknown unknowns and known unknowns have replaced the routine, the obvious, and the predicted.
Resultantly, many of the assumptions on which important future business decisions are based are easily refuted with the passage of time. For example, one of the most common outcomes of the typical business planning process is a hockey stick forecast.
These forecasts usually show significant business growth and profitability prospects. The last few years of actual results are flat, and then magically shoot up for future years just like the blade of a hockey stick.
It’s a rare experience to come across a forecast that shows a downward spiral of business performance.
Businesses leaders often present a positive outlook of enterprise performance even if the odds of achieving their bold aspirations are slim. This is emblematic of human’s limited ability to accurately predict the future.
In his book The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb demonstrates how humans suffer from the delusion of knowing. We underestimate what the future has in store.
In the same manner, we tend to develop a tunnel vision while looking into the future, making it business as usual, when in fact there is nothing usual about the future.
Instead of acknowledging our unknowledge of the future, we continue to project into the future as if we are experts at it, using tools and methods that exclude rare events or outliers.
Although these rare events are most of the time external to the organization, they play a significant role in influencing the operational and strategic performance of the business.
The problem with many business performance forecasts is that they tend to focus on a single point destination or outcome, including a few well-defined sources of uncertainty ( known knowns) at the expense of others that do not easily come to mind.
The goal is not to predict or forecast all improbable events but rather to have an open mind and acknowledge that the likelihood of your actual future being different to your predicted future is considerably high.
Think of new products that failed to hit the mark with customers, projects that experienced cost overruns or took longer to complete, companies that failed to survive their forecast horizon etc.
The list of forecast horror stories is endless. I am sure in 2003 the thought of Lehman Brothers going under five years later was a laughable idea and outside the company’s projections.
Mitigating the tunnel vision
When it comes to forecasting, most of us adopt the inside view to assess the future performance of the business or any other project.
In other words, we tend to plan and forecast based on the information in front of us, neglecting some sources of uncertainty outside the plan itself. Daniel Kahneman, the well-respected psychologist has termed this WYSIATI – What You See Is All There Is.
As a result, we produce plans and forecasts that are unrealistically close to best-case scenarios. However, there are many ways for any plan to fail, and although most of them are too improbable to be anticipated, the likelihood that something will go wrong is high.
The cure for tunnel vision is taking an outside view of that which is being forecasted. Optimism bias often gets into the way of accurate forecasting leading to some of the horror stories mentioned above.
Thus, to avoid falling victim to optimism bias it’s important that you go through all the statistics of projects or initiatives similar to that being forecasted. This will help you identify an appropriate reference class and use the statistics to generate a baseline prediction which acts as an anchor for further adjustments.
Measure your forecasting error
Even though the world is complex and constantly changing, many planners are still adopting a simple view of the world as evidenced by their click and drag forecasts projecting into the long term future. Simply extrapolating projections from one year into the next is a mistake.
The accuracy of forecasts is more important than the forecast themselves. Do you attach possible error rates to your forecasts and measure the actual error rate after the forecasted horizon has passed? As the projected period lengthens, the larger the cumulative forecasting errors.
Despite evidence of enormous forecasting errors in the past, there is an ingrained tendency in us to ignore failure statistics and believe we are suddenly better at predicting the future compared to our uncomprehending predecessors.
Should we therefore discard predicting the future altogether? No, we first need to acknowledge that what we think we know about the future is not all there is. Our comprehension of the future is limited. From there on we can plan while bearing in mind such limitations.
In other words, we should stop overestimating our known knowledge about the future. We may be good at predicting the ordinary, but not the irregular, and this is where we ultimately fail.