How to improve your forecasting templates through initiatives

Forecasting  concerns

Despite its tremendous importance, forecasting remains one of most disliked processes in many companies. Part of the problem are the forecasting templates themselves. They are extremely complex and cumbersome. Today, I want to look at a simple technique that can improve the usability of the forecasting templates while also increasing the ability to gain insights from them. A few months ago, I provided another technique that involved the time-horizon. Let’s take a look!

Forecasting templates

Typical forecasting templates follow a certain pattern: Across the columns we can find the different months of the fiscal year. The rows feature hundreds of G/L accounts:

Budgeting Template
Graphic 1: The traditional forecasting & budgeting template

Let’s be honest: this type of template is really difficult to use. First of all, there is an excruciating amount of detail. The structure also does nor provide a solid picture of our business. Think about it: Business managers do not think in terms of G/L accounts. You don’t believe me? Thought-leader David Axson once proposed to try this approach at home to see how difficult it really is. This is what our personal forecasting template would look like (oh…please….don’t try this at home….):

Forecasting Template
Graphic 2: The family forecast?

We can argue about this, but I doubt that our families would appreciate it. My wife Jen would certainly send me off to see a shrink…

Initiatives

Let’s stick to the example of the personal forecast. If you think about it, most of us intuitively follow a different approach. We use projects and initiatives to structure our thoughts. Many people typically start budgeting or forecasting by creating a list of initiatives they are planning to do. Then they figure out the associated amounts:

Family Budget
Graphic 3: Initiative planning at home. A better approach.

This forecasting template provides us with a mental framework that is easy to follow. The naked account list on the other hand does not provide us with any help. We simply think about amounts without being forced to ask ourselves more intricate questions like why, what, where, etc.. And this is what often makes the process so difficult, especially for non-financial people.

Revisions

The beautiful thing about using initiatives in forecasting templates is that it makes revisions a lot easier. Let’s say we want to cut our expenses by 5%. Using the traditional line item approach, this will become a difficult if not random exercise (how would you know in the first place?).

Budgeting Template

Where do you start? Most of us would probably be tempted to reduce a few numbers here and there. The data is just too complex. Contrast that to the approach in the next screen shot. This is a lot easier to deal with. The initiatives provide context. All expenses that are not related to a project have been captured in the ‘Sustain Operations’ bucket.

BudgetingTemplate

You can immediately sit down and review the different initiatives. Questions like: “Which initiatives are really critical?” come to mind. Ranking them provides additional context.

Next you could drill down on each initiative and review the different expense types. Notice that the use of initiatives speeds up the process while also providing better insights.

Your forecasting templates

Take a look at your corporate budget. Where can you incorporate initiatives and projects in your forecasting templates? Granted this approach does not work in all situations but it is a relatively simple thing to do. But most cost centers can probably benefit from this approach.

P.S.: The screenshots were created with Cognos Insight.

Annual Budgeting – Our favorite season?

BUDGETING

Yes, it’s that time of the year. The time that is often filled with pain and fear. No, I am not talking about Halloween but about the corporate budgeting process. Much has been written about the annual budget. And most of the written stuff is not positive. Jack Welch alone has provided us with a few memorable quotes such as:

“The budget is the bane of corporate America. It never should have existed.”

“But the budgeting process at most companies has to be the most ineffective practice in management. It sucks the energy, time, fun and big dreams out of an organization. (…) And yet (….) companies sink countless hours into writing budgets. What a waste!”

WHAT IS A BUDGET

In theory, a budget should actually be a rewarding and important process. Why? Let’s look at the purpose of a budget: It should outline how we want the future to look. It details planned actions, outlines investment areas etc.. When you think about it, these are very important tasks. And it should not be that nerve racking. Budgeting and planning allow us to sit back, look at our past achievements and provide us with the opportunity to lay out a path towards future success. Doesn’t sound too bad, right?

THE PROBLEM

Indeed, the annual budgeting process is anything but popular. No wonder. It is usually very difficult and the resulting value is dubious. So, what’s wrong? Many things. Here are a few statistics that I pulled together from various articles, books and conferences. Depending on the specific sources, number tend to vary a bit here and there. But the general trend is the same.

  • Over 70% of all budgets loose their validity after the first quarter of the new fiscal year. The speed and volatility of our global connected world renders many assumptions useless.
  • And estimated 94% of all executives do not have confidence in the budget numbers. They believe the numbers are either outdated, they are padded or they are meaningless. Huh?
  • 75% of all companies need more than three months to complete the entire cycle. Even three months is a long time these days. Responding to changing market conditions becomes very difficult with these long cycle times. Also, think about the enormous amount of resources that are invested into the process. Do we really want to spend all that time only to find that the output doesn’t actually reflect reality?
  • Over 75% of all budgets are believed to be sandbagged. Gaming the numbers remains a popular competition: cost center managers exaggerate expenses to protect their turf. Sales managers express negative market views to maximize their earning potential. Not good.

TIME FOR CHANGE

It’s time for a change! In the next few weeks I will share a few ideas for making the budgeting process more valuable. On Thursday, business advisor Mike Duncan will discuss the overall purpose of the budget. He recently wrote a nice article called Six Ideas for Setting Successful Budgets.

If you have stories and best practices to share, please get in touch with me.