This topic always seems to attract interest, I guess since so much of business is spent doing it and then living with the consequences. The most common problems with budgets is that either people just look at the past and add on a bit for inflation (or the expectation that they will get cut back so better to start high) or else they double guess whoever will have to sign off the budget. “We better not go in asking for more than X or they’ll think we’re mad”. Another common mistake is to work the percentages based on benchmarks – it is just a version of setting budgets based on historical precedents. “Other businesses like us typically spend 2% of revenue on R&D so we will so the same”. Interesting to know but not the way you set a budget.
A budget, any budget, is an investment in the future that is intended to have a positive outcome. That is where you start – if successful what is this worth to us? The next thing is to look at the tasks that need to be accomplished and the realistic costs. “Task related budget setting” has to be the baseline.
Then you see how this can be funded, over what timescales and the effect on cash as well as P&L and balance sheet. Not so hard.
Adjust accordingly – if the budget outweighs the benefit (or is uncomfortably close) then re-evaluate the benefits not the budget. If the benefits by far outweigh the budget but there is an issue with funding then look at alternative ways of funding or alternative timescales over which the budget is invested – but don’t re-evaluate the budget.
Finally, when you are happy with all of that, then you look again at the budget. As I suggested before, do the plus 10% or minus 10% test. If you spend an additional 10% where would you spend it? If you had to cut 10% where would you cut it? This tells you a lot – where are you scimping, where might you have some slack (in which case put it in a contingency budget).
This leads on to the final two stages – risk management and procurement. Look at each individual task within the budget and evaluate the risks on two axis – how likely are they to happen and how big a financial impact? Decide what you need to do about the high likelihood/high impact. Then apply sensible procurement disciplines – have you compared alternative suppliers or ways of doing it? Do you understand how your suppliers costs are made up and examined ways of reducing them.
It is not that complicated and it is not that hard. But is a whole lot better than “last year’s budget plus 5%/what we spent last time/what our competitors do”.
The next time you are in a budget setting or review meeting go through this simple process:-
• Task related budget
• Plus or minus 10%
• Risk management
I guarantee a better discussion and budget outcome!