by Dallon Christensen

Work Your Plan; Don’t Sweat Your Budget

Nov 21, 20112 mins
BudgetingIT Leadership

The annual budgeting process produces too many headaches. Here's how to make the plan more relevant.

It was with some sadness that I learned of Jeremy Hope’s recent passing. Mr. Hope’s name is not at the top of many finance professionals’ minds, but we owe him thanks for highlighting the problems we face in our annual budgeting process. He and coauthor Robin Fraser’s ground-breaking book “Beyond Budgeting” should be required reading for any finance executive responsible for an annual planning cycle.

Mention the word “budget” to an accountant or finance director, and the most pleasant reaction you will likely see is the rolling of eyes. Budgeting carries many negative connotations, including excessive conservatism (i.e. “sandbagging”) or top-down directives that have little basis in reality. Today’s budgeting also burdens finance departments with detailed and cumbersome Excel spreadsheets, as I outlined in a previous CFOworld blog.

As I heard a John Deere executive say, “If data were dirt and information were water, we would be buried alive and dying of thirst.” The annual budgeting process overwhelms organizations with complex negotiations, time-consuming iterations, and charges of excessive financial meddling. Fixed budgets also lead to inaccurate decision making. In 2008, my prior employer’s opening budget was prepared in October and useless by November.

When I work with my clients, we develop a rolling five-quarter financial forecast. We forecast cash flow and profits for the next three months and then forecast by quarter for the next four quarters after that. This process allows us to identify key cash shortages or business opportunities over the next three months to develop a plan to address this situation. The four-quarter forecast balances the need to plan for future cash needs with not overwhelming my clients with too much data. The rolling nature of this forecast allows us to use the forecast as a living plan instead of a once-a-year exercise.

Mr. Hope asked the right questions about the budgeting process. It’s up to us to identify the right answers to drive a culture of performance through our organizations.