IDU | Budgeting Forecasting and Reporting Solutions: October 2019

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Remove drama from budget cycles

Image result for take the drama out of budgeting
Taking the drama out of budget cycles


Nobody has ever written an opera about organisational budget cycles – but given the amount of human drama they generate, perhaps someone should. The typical budget process is a grim and drawn-out cycle of power games, nagging, resistance, resentment, dread, despair and wasted effort. And all of it, in keeping with the best traditions of high drama, is entirely avoidable.

It begins innocently enough, with our heroes in the finance department preparing spreadsheet templates and sending them out for completion by cost centre managers; and yet the seeds of conflict are already sown, because the spreadsheet is a marvelous tool, but a poor messenger. It is not designed to facilitate the complex and sensitive negotiations that are the real substance of a budget process. Our heroes have an inkling of this and try to compensate with elaborate design; but they can always only respond to the problems that surfaced last year, which inevitably causes a whole new set of problems.

Meanwhile the cost centre managers, on the front lines and grumbling about their generals, do their best to fill in the numbers based on their best estimate of what the future holds. The process is stressful because few of them have much financial training and the spreadsheets can be intimidating, and so in many cases the task falls to the bottom of the priority list until the nagging finally pushes it into the category of ‘urgent’.

As the returned spreadsheets accumulate back in the finance department and people try to compile all the information into a single coherent picture, it becomes clear that there are errors. Our heroes, now growing frustrated and impatient, send them back out again with requests for clarification or changes. Cost centre managers make some corrections, but leave other things unchanged because yes, that is really what they meant. Resentment begins to fester.

After a few rounds of this, with a final deadline looming and everyone at odds, the finance department gives up and makes some changes of its own to bring everything into line. The final budget is not what the cost centre manager asked for, but the reasons for the numbers have got lost; and so they roll their eyes at the waste of time and move on.

Some time later, when told they’re over budget, they retort that they’re exactly on target with what they originally asked for -- if some bean counter decided to override them, that’s not their problem.

And so the circus rolls on: Cost centre managers are disempowered, feel no sense of ownership over their numbers, and resist any attempt to hold them accountable because they are being governed by decisions made over their heads. Instead of being a useful planning and decision-making tool, the budget has become a bureaucratic exercise that feels like a meaningless waste of time.

It really doesn’t have to be this way. In my experience most people really do want to do their jobs well, and they want to be empowered with the knowledge, skills and tools they need to achieve that goal. When it comes to budgets, individual cost centre managers have the best knowledge available in the organisation of what is likely to come their way in the next year – and so they need to be given the leeway to make budget decisions that will be respected. That may involve argument and negotiation, but those are vastly preferable to decisions imposed from outside.

Instead of a vicious cycle of nagging, resistance, disengagement and surrender, it’s possible to build the opposite – a virtuous cycle in which empowerment and clear communication build accountability and a sense of ownership.  It doesn’t make for high drama – but then nobody actually wants to live inside a soap opera.


As published on AccountingWeb  - 24th September 2019

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Want your staff to be accountable for their numbers?

Empower them.


If you want to track the rise and fall of buzzwords over time, the Google Books Ngram Viewer, which tracks word frequency in a vast number of books published since 1800, is a very useful tool.  It reveals, for example, that while “accountability” has been consistently rising in popularity since 1950, “empowerment” only arrived on the scene in the mid-1970s, enjoyed a rapid rise and then plateaued in the late 1990s.

Empowerment vs accountability
Ngram Viewer tracks word frequency


That’s a pity, because at IDU we believe very strongly that if you really want people in an organisation to have a sense of sharing in its success, you need to empower them with the tools that promotes a sense of ownership for their actions and ultimately some true accountability. One of those tools is accurate, timely financial information. 


It’s especially important to deliver this financial information at the level of individual departments – and to deliver it in a way that makes sense to non-financial managers. A typical line manager in most organisations have no more than basic accounting knowledge, if they have any at all. It’s not reasonable to expect them to be able to read ledgers, income statements or balance sheets in the same way as accountants can – and in fact, that isn’t the information they need. 


What managers need to know about is what’s under their control – what is earned and spent in their departments. And they can be most easily held accountable for their financial performance if they’re able to track it in close to real time. This is easier if they have quick access to just the numbers they need, in a format that’s easy to understand and interact with. 


If line managers are empowered to propose their own revenue and spending budgets, then manage and adjust those budgets in real time, they’re empowered to respond quickly and effectively to changing conditions, both within the organisation and in the marketplace.  How much of our travel budget have we spent? Can we afford that high-profile trainer the engineering team has asked for? Who’s pushing the limits on their expenses a little too hard? Are we on track to meeting our revenue targets? With good financial management systems, getting answers to questions like this should be as simple as checking a social media feed. 


A number of things can happen as a result. First, it’s possible to spot and respond to anomalies in time: What’s behind an unexpected spike in sales of a product you weren’t promoting, and is there an opportunity to seize? Why have several clients placed smaller orders than usual? Do we have a problem? When you can ask the “why” questions early and get answers, you have more chance to take the right action. 


Second, it becomes harder to avoid, evade, delay, escape, stall, deny and otherwise hide from reality. If the numbers are there in front of you every day, you can’t be surprised by them; and if they’re equally visible to your own manager and whoever’s managing them, you have an incentive to take care of them. 


Finally, having user-friendly financial analysis and planning systems in place saves time. If managers can add comments and explain variances when they need to request a budget update, for example, the finance department is able to make a quick decision instead of having to delay while they wait for more information and explanations. 


So if you’re concerned about staff who don’t seem to be taking ownership of their own performance – the first thing to do is make sure they have the information they need to make that ownership real.