Practical Budgeting Advice:  Put Your Money Where Your Strategy Is

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The budgeting cycle for 2017 is fast-approaching.  What types of goals will your organization have for 2017?  Revenue growth?  Cost reduction?  Both?

Two easy ways for executive teams to attempt to increase profits is to 1) lay off employees to reduce costs or 2) reduce prices to take away market share from competitors. But these are merely short-term fixes. An organization cannot reduce its costs and prices and also achieve long-term sustained prosperity.

Entrepreneurs know the age old adage “you need to spend money to make money.” However, belt-tightening an organization’s spending can be haphazard. Rather than evaluating where the company can cut costs, it is more prudent to switch views and ask where and how the organization should invest to increase long-term sustained value. This involves budgeting for future expenses, but the budgeting process has inherent deficiencies.

The Problem With Budgeting 

Companies cannot succeed by standing still. If you are not improving, then others will soon catch up to you. This is one reason why Professor Michael E. Porter, author of the seminal 1970 book on competitive edge strategies, Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors, asserted that an important strategic approach is continuous differentiation of products and services to enable premium pricing. However, some organizations believed so firmly in their past successes that they went bankrupt because they had become risk-averse to changing what they perceived to be effective strategies. Wang Labs, Borders Books, and Blockbuster Video are examples.

Strategy execution is considered one of the major failures of executive teams. Dr. David Norton, co-author of The Balanced Scorecard: Translating Strategy into Action, has reported, “Nine out of 10 organizations fail to successfully implement their strategy. … The problem is not that organizations don’t manage their strategy well; it is they do not formally manage their strategy.” In defense of executives, they often formulate good strategies – their problem is failure to successfully execute them.

One of the obstacles preventing successful strategy achievement is the annual budgeting process. In the worst situations, the budgeting process is limited to a fiscal exercise administered by the accountants where the budget is typically disconnected from the executive team’s strategic intentions. A less-poor situation, but still not a solution, is one in which the accountants do consider the executive team’s strategic objectives, but the initiatives required to achieve the strategy are not adequately funded in the budget. Remember, you have to spend money to make money - right?

Value is Created From Projects and Initiatives, Not Strategic Objectives

A popular solution to failed strategy execution is the evolving method of a strategy map, with its companion balanced scorecard (Figure 1). Their combined purpose is to link operations to strategy. By using these combined methods, alignment of the work and priorities of employees can be attained, without any disruption from restructuring the organizational chart. The balanced scorecard directly connects to individuals regardless of their departments or matrix management arrangements.

Figure 1 - The Balanced Scorecard

BSC.jpgAlthough many organizations claim to use dashboards and scorecards, there is little consensus on how to design or apply these tools. At best, the balanced scorecard has achieved a brand status but without prescribed rules on how to construct or use it. For example, many companies claim to have a balanced scorecard, but it may have been developed in the absence of a strategy map from executives.

The strategy map (Figure 2) is arguably many orders of magnitude more important than the balanced scorecard. Therefore, when organizations simply display their so-called scorecard of actual versus planned or targeted metrics on a dashboard, how do the users know that those measures displayed in the dials, commonly called key performance indicators (KPIs), reflect the strategic intent of their executives? They may not! At a basic level, the balanced scorecard is simply a feedback mechanism to inform users how they are performing on preselected measures that are ideally causally linked. To improve, much more information than just reporting your score is needed.

Figure 2 - Strategy Map

sample-strategy-maps-2-638.jpgOne source of confusion in the strategy management process involves misunderstandings of the roles of projects and initiatives. For the minority of companies that realize the importance of first developing their strategy maps before jumping ahead to degining their balanced scorecard KPIs, there is another methodology challenge. Should organizations first select and set the targets for the scorecard KPIs, and subsequently determine the specific projects and initiatives that will help reach those targets? Or should the sequence be reversed? Should organizations first propose the projects and initiatives based on the strategy map’s various theme objectives, and then subsequently derive the KPIs with their target measures afterward? 

 We could debate the proper order, but what matters more is that the projects and initiatives be financially funded regardless of how they are identified. Value creation does not directly come from defining mission, vision and strategy maps. It is the alignment of employees’ priorities, work, projects and initiatives with the executive team’s objectives that directly creates value. Strategy is executed from the bottom to the top. Using a fishermen’s analogy to explain this: Strategy management tells you where the fish are, but it is the projects, initiatives and core business processes that catch the fish.

Four Types of Budgets: Operational, Capital, Strategic, and Risk

Figure 3 illustrates a broad framework that begins with strategy formulation in the upper left and ends with financial budgeting and rolling forecasts in the bottom right. The elements involving accounting are shaded in orange. Some budgets and rolling financial forecasts may distinguish the capital budget spending (#2 in the figure) from operational budget spending (#1), but rarely do organizations segregate the important strategic budget spending (#3) and risk budget spending (#4).

Figure 3  - Linking Strategy to Plans and Execution

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The main purpose of the figure is to illustrate that the budget depends on and is derived from two separate sources: (1) a future demand-driven source (operational) and (2) three project-based sources (capital, strategy, and risk).

Ideally, the strategy creation in the upper left uses meaningful managerial accounting information, such as understanding which products and customers are more or less profitable today and are potentially more valuable in the future. With this additional knowledge, the executives can determine which strategic objectives to focus on.

Note that the operational budget (#1) those expenses required to continue with day-to-day repeatable processes are calculated based on forecasted volume and mix of “drivers” of processes - such as the sales forecast, multiplied by planned unit level consumption rates that are calibrated from past time periods (and ideally with rates reflecting planned productivity gains). This demand-driven method contrasts with the too-often primitive budgeting method of simply increasing a cost center’s prior year’s spending level by a few percentage points to allow for inflation. The operational budget spending level is a dependent variable based on demand, so it should be calculated that way.

Regardless of whether an organization defines the strategic initiatives before or after setting the balanced scorecard’s KPI targets, it is important to set aside strategy spending (#3) and risk mitigation spending (#4) not much differently than budgeting for capital expenditures (#2). Too often, the strategy funding is not cleanly segregated anywhere in the budget or in driver-based rolling financial forecasts. It is typically buried in an accounting ledger expense account. And enterprise risk management (ERM) spending must also be included.

As a result, when financial performance inevitably falls short of expectations, it is the strategy projects’ “seed money” and the risk mitigation spending that gets deferred or eliminated. The priority must be reversed. Organizations must protect strategy and risk mitigation spending and allow them to go forward as they are key to competitive differentiation for successfully accomplishing the strategy – and doing it safely.

Put your money where your strategy is!

Managing Strategy is Learnable

Organizations with a formal strategy execution process dramatically outperform organizations without formal processes for this. Building a core competency in strategy execution creates a competitive advantage for commercial organizations and increases value for constituents of public sector organizations.

Managing strategy is learnable. It is important to include and protect planned spending for strategic projects and initiatives and risk mitigation spending in budgets and driver-based rolling financial forecasts. The three types of projects (capital, strategy, risk) lead to long-term sustainable yet safe value creation. Driver-based operational expense planning assures that the correct level of employee head count and spending are in place to achieve planned profits. 

 Please log your comments below and let me know if you agree.  Thanks! 

Posted by on June 15, 2016
Topics: Budgeting
Gary Cokins

Gary Cokins (Cornell University BS IE/OR, 1971; Northwestern University Kellogg MBA 1974) is an internationally recognized expert, speaker, and author in advanced cost management and enterprise performance and risk management (EPM/ERM) systems. He is the founder of Analytics-Based Performance Management LLC, an advisory firm located in Cary, North Carolina at www.garycokins.com . He began his career in industry with a Fortune 100 company in CFO and operations roles. He then worked 15 years in consulting with Deloitte, KPMG, and EDS (now part of HP). From 1997 until 2013 Gary was a Principal Consultant with SAS, a leading provider of enterprise performance management and business analytics and intelligence software. His two most recent books are Performance Management: Integrating Strategy Execution, Methodologies, Risk, and Analytics (ISBN 978-0-470-44998-1) and Predictive Business Analytics (ISBN 978-1-118-17556-9), published by John Wiley & Sons. Mr. Cokins can be contacted at gcokins@garycokins.com .

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