The annual budgeting process has been around for decades and still forms part of the performance management framework for the majority of organizations. As the economic environment has evolved and become more dynamic, has the budgeting and forecasting capabilities in your organization also evolved and adapted to this change?
Unfortunately, for many organizations, the annual budgeting process still rules. Despite the evident drawbacks of the traditional budgeting process and developments in financial planning technologies, there is still widespread reluctance by top management to embrace alternative planning processes. The traditional annual budget used by many companies is static in nature, not aligned to strategy setting and execution, and focuses mainly on cost reduction as opposed to value creation.
In today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous economic environment, in order to make effective decisions, management must be able to understand and respond quickly to the impact of competitive forces and rapid changes affecting their businesses. They must be able to look into the future, assess risks and potential opportunities and proactively manage them. Different decisions require different time horizons and planning capabilities.
The problem with the annual budget is that it distorts this long-term visibility and stifles innovation. Much emphasis is placed on the current fiscal year, which is normally twelve months. As a result of this short-term focus where management is driven to achieve the predefined annual targets, a culture of predict-and-control becomes prevalent. The focus is on making sure that the forecast numbers are achieved.
What do I mean by the above? In the traditional budgeting and forecasting processes, management come up with an annual performance targets, mostly financial, broken down in a twelve-month period. Every month, actual results are compared against planned results and variances (Monthly and YTD) identified. The computation for the monthly forecast therefore becomes:
The problem with the above approach is that the forecasting process is disconnected from the specific drivers of the business. It fails to understand that the purpose of forecasting is to map the strategic direction of the organization, identify risks and potential opportunities, and coordinate future activities. It is not a performance evaluation tool and a re-validation of the company’s commitments. When forecasting is used as a performance evaluation yardstick, chances are that management will purely focus on achieving the targets set at the beginning of the year.
What is critical to note is that forecasting should be based on real business demands and the real business environment. At the same time, rewards must be according to the value created and not based on meeting set financial targets because the later can easily be gamed.
Does this therefore mean that the traditional annual budgeting and forecasting process should completely be abolished? Some scholars and professionals have called for a complete elimination of the entire process raising some of the issues already mentioned here. I personally believe that combining a number of practices such as driver-based planning, rolling forecasts, Strategy Maps and their associated Balanced Scorecards is key to addressing traditional budgeting and forecasting drawbacks. No one practice offers a remedy for all these issues. Remember enterprise performance management (EPM) is the integration of various managerial techniques to support strategic decision-making and improve performance.
The Benefits of Implementing Rolling Forecasts
Enables Management to Adapt to a Changing Economic Environment
One of the mostly mentioned disadvantages of the annual budget is that it is static in nature and ignores changes in the market place. Targets are set based on the various assumptions identified at the beginning of the year and by the time the final budget is signed-off, most of these assumptions are out-of-date and irrelevant.
For example, in many companies, the annual budgeting process lasts on average between three and six months, and sometimes even longer. The process is back-and-forth with revision after revision. In today’s volatile economic environment, a lot can happen in the six-month period which has far implications on the strategic performance of the business. Because of the amount of time taken to agree and sign-off the final budget, these changes are not factored in.
Implementing continuous rolling forecasts offers a remedy for this issue of adaptability. Most continuous rolling forecasts are prepared at least four to eight quarters past the current quarter’s actual results. This gives management greater visibility into the business and prepare agile responses to changing market conditions.
Even at the time of budgeting, at the end of the second quarter of the financial year, you would have already gained insights that relate to first half of the next fiscal year and this immensely reduces the time required to produce the final budget.
Management need to be able to look at what is possible, rather than merely react to what has occurred. Hence the need for forward-looking forecasts which act as early warning systems when you have drifted off-course.
Allows Management to Perform What-if-Analysis
Most budgeting and forecasting processes are a series of one-off annual or quarterly events. They are prepared based on historical data imports from the company’s ERP system thereby ignoring the key business drivers of the business. Plans are often extrapolated from historical performance and end up being a simple accumulation of financial trends.
With rolling forecasts, management are able to focus on key assumptions and drivers of strategic performance, model possible future outcomes and identify the events that might trigger them, evaluate the impact of these events and design contingency plans to remedy the negatives.
Unlike budgets that may have hundreds of line items to focus on, continuous rolling forecasts focus on the strategic key business drivers. This reduces the amount of time spent on planning and frees up time on other initiatives that drive greater value and high performance. Because rolling forecasts challenge management to have a continuous business outlook, the focus is on leading indicators which helps the organization identify future performance gaps and re-adjust.
Shifts Management’s Mind-set from Annual Planning to Continuous Planning
Traditional budgeting often creates a fixed performance contract that limits an organization’s ability to be responsive to ever-changing market conditions. Because of this, there is natural tendency for management to ignore changes after the fiscal period even if they do have negative impact on the performance of the business.
On the contrary, rolling forecasts help management eliminate this annual mind-set, are aligned to business cycles and help managers continuously look into the future and proactively design counter-measures to remedy the drawbacks of the annual budget.
As already mentioned, it is time-consuming to produce the final budget and get it signed-off. By the time the budget is finalized, the market has changed dramatically and its assumptions are out of date. Because the budgeting process is an annual exercise, there is no room to adjust the levers that drive business performance.
Quoting a great quote by one of the Chinese Philosophers, Lao Tzu:
A good traveller has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.
The same applies to businesses. The fiscal year end must not be the destination. It is therefore imperative that management considers all scenarios when making key strategic decisions. By implementing rolling forecasts and continuously updating the forecast to reflect current business conditions, management will be able to mitigate the risks of traditional budgeting and forecasting inaccuracies.
In order to fully benefit from rolling forecasts, the budgeting and forecasting capabilities must form part of the organization’s integrated enterprise performance management (EPM) framework. Additionally, there must be strong executive buy-in with regards to use of rolling forecasts to drive business performance. This buy-in is key to ensuring greater acceptance of the use of rolling forecasts by the organization’s business unit managers.
I welcome your thoughts and comments.