Budgeting Behavior

Staffing is a rapidly changing, people driven business, so I have always struggled with the role of the budget in managing the day-to-day operations over the course of an entire year.  While I know budgets are necessary, they can also exert a negative influence on management decisions and employee behavior that can be traced back to the budget process itself.  Jack Welch’s view on the budgeting process may seem a bit extreme, however; it does highlight the pitfalls of a poorly conceived budgeting process.

“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; it hides opportunity and stunts growth. It brings out the most unproductive behaviors in an organization, from sandbagging to settling for mediocrity.”

Jack is not the only one to express those sentiments.  Many companies have seen their budgeting process stifle innovation and undermine management collaboration.  Does your budgeting process spend too much time negotiating and positioning future expectations, and too little time discussing how the business is actually going to grow and outmaneuver the competition?

If the answer is yes, then I would encourage you to challenge your budget process.

Here are some ideas to help ensure that the budget plays an appropriate role in the planning and management of a staffing business.

Respect its limitations: Even in stable economic times trying to predict company performance over a twelve month period is next to impossible, but that is exactly what many budgets attempt to do.  By respecting the accuracy limitations of the budget, it becomes clearer how the budget should be used as a business tool.

Focus its purpose: There are different legitimate reasons to create a budget, but you need to question the purpose of your budget.  Do you want to use it to prioritize your short and long term investments, benchmark compensation, drive innovation, or provide an accurate initial forecast?  If you say all of the above, then it’s likely that your budgeting process will have contradictions that will undermine its accuracy and long term usefulness.

Manage investments separately: Whether or not a company decides to make a major investment should not be decided solely by an artificial budget schedule.  By relying too much on the budget framework managers can lose their initiative for new investments or make investments that are no longer appropriate.  Instead, justify each investment separate from the budget with a solid business case backed up by a targeted ROI.

Minimize the link between budget and compensation: Unless the purpose of the budget is to solely provide benchmarking for compensation, then the link between the two needs to be minimized.  The reason is simple.  Regardless of your intent around the budgeting process, if it’s linked too strongly to compensation then that will dominate all aspects of its creation.  The budgeting process will begin and end as a compensation negotiation.

Incorporate Rolling Forecasting: While it may be interesting to see how close you are to budget next September it doesn’t tell you much beyond that.  Conversations around the financial trends of an organization need to reach beyond the difference between budget and actual.  Instead create rolling forecasts that incorporates the facts on the ground with updated projections of financial performance.  You will have more accurate financial projections while at the same time encourage productive business conversations among the management team.

In the end, budgets influence behavior, but whether that influence helps the company become more competitive is a hit or miss proposition.  By taking a step back and questioning the budgeting process, managers may find new ways to measure their business and motivate their team outside the boundaries of an excel spreadsheet.