As a result Jason Lin, CFO at Centage Corporation says CFOs are losing sleep over the end result. This is so far from ideal, which is why I’m offering these five recommendations to help financial teams sleep better.
1. Instill confidence in your data
I totally get why finance teams lack confidence in their budget data. Last year’s actuals are typically re-keyed into a budget spreadsheet, and manual data entry inevitably leads to mistakes. Worse, it’s incredibly difficult to spot where, in a series of spreadsheets linked together with macros, a zero may have been left out or numbers were transposed. And once the data is entered, it’s used for what-if scenario planning — i.e. predicting the future — which takes the budget even further away from the “truth.”
Finance teams can get a lot more sleep if they ditched the spreadsheet and replaced it with a tool that can pull data directly from their GLs. Not only will the data be accurate (and teams spared countless hours of data entry), the budget will be a replica of how the business is organized, making scenario planning a lot more accurate. Of course, the predictions may still be wrong, but at least the effects of those assumptions on the financial statements will be realistic.
2. Avoid forecasts that have major variances versus actuals
This is a tough one because there are so many external variables that can affect the actuals. What will the economy do? Will interest rates go up? Will new tariffs drive up manufacturing costs? How is that upcoming election going to shake out? In all honesty, attempting to predict market conditions in Q4 2020 in the summer of 2019 is a bit unrealistic. No amount of effort will change that reality.
My best recommendation: move to a rolling forecast that’s updated monthly, or at least once a quarter. Not only will it lessen the variances, but it will also allow teams to spot trends that have the potential to affect the goals set (positively or negatively) much earlier.
3. Test your assumptions for accuracy
I realize what a big ask this recommendation is. This issue of testing your assumptions for accuracy will never go away because, as mentioned above, there are way too many factors that affect performance but are way outside of your control.
While you can’t control what will happen, you can anticipate potential variances and put plans in place to respond to them. Scenario planning and what-if scenarios are your saving grace here. For instance, you can test the impact on your P&L if sales decrease by, say 10%, or if the cost of oil spikes. You might not like what you see, but at least you’ll know ahead of time the potential outcomes so you can warn the executive team upfront, and make contingency plans if your assumptions aren’t correct.
4. Meet your budget deadlines and be boardroom ready
When I hear the concerns of CFOs about meeting deadlines I like to tell people what Steve Player, noted business author and Program Director for the Beyond Budgeting Round Table (BBRT) North America, has to say about it. To paraphrase his viewpoint: starting earlier is a terrific way to build more errors and delays into your budget. Again, in the summer of 2019 you are attempting to predict what Q4 2020 will look like. Do you know the outcome of the 2020 election? Do you know whether we’ll continue to see massive flooding in the South and Midwest? How will either of these events affect your actuals?
The solution is to shift your focus to a continuous process. If you believe in planning, why not do it monthly? It makes no sense whatsoever to start earlier and earlier when it’s not humanly possible to predict what the world will look like 18 months from now.
5. Break down your company silos
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that when budgets are created in silos, they won’t mesh with one another. Marketing will spend the summer months coming up with campaigns to launch the following year, while sales will review their customer and prospect pipeline and make their own plans. There is no connection between the two.
Financial teams have two options to address the issue of silos. First, implement a collaborative budgeting tool so that teams can see how their plans affect one another. If sales is pinning a revenue number of an increase in new SMB logos, marketing needs to know that, and to allocate part of their budget for an SMB customer acquisition campaign. Second, view this as an excellent opportunity to take a more leadership, hands-on role in the business. Bring the two teams together, and help them to create a tighter plan.
I realize that some of these suggestions can seem blasphemous; finance teams have always created budgets, stayed in the back office, and put stakes in the ground in terms of assumptions. But given the pace of business change, the old ways aren’t cutting it anymore. These tips reflect the reality of business planning today.