I’m sure you can guess the difference between predicting the winning lottery ticket number and the other examples. I’ll state it anyway. It’s because in these other examples we can draw from historical data, analytical research, individual’s input based on their experience, and a vast array of data to more accurately determine what is likely to happen. Once you know this information you can begin to do some planning for these possibilities or scenarios. Seems pretty logical, right? We know how much information is being captured today by companies about their customers, employees’s insights, internal operations and external market conditions that there’s obviously not a problem with lack of data to do this predictive analysis. Yet, in a lot of companies today this practice does not happen with regularity. Companies aren’t using their most valuable resources available for forecasting – their people and their data – to develop this in-house capability.
Look, I don’t need to tell you the advantages of knowing what’s likely to happen and how an organization can exploit this knowledge. If you’re an investment bank in 2006 and have a large amount of CDO’s and mortgage-backed securities on your books it might have been helpful to hear from these traders and other knowledgeable people in your operations that these speculative instruments were bound to go belly up. In hindsight the information was all there but there wasn’t a culture in place to gather this feedback. Prescience. Only helpful to the enterprise if there’s a platform in place to capture these insights and communicate them up the corporate tree so all are aware. Without this kind of enterprise forecasting platform the enterprise won’t die…not overnight that is. But, in the long run, it might suffer from multiple missed opportunities which could lead to a slow death by a 1,000 cuts.
The more unbiased participation you can glean from the relevant stakeholders and knowledge experts the more likely you’re going to be able to predict what will likely happen. The key is reaching out into your workforce across functional areas, remote operations, corporate support units, to gather feedback as far out into the future as they can most accurately predict with some likelihood which can then be leveraged by business unit managers, executives and other stakeholders to make decisions NOW based on this feedback. If you know something’s likely to happen in the future, say a hurricane, are you going to remain in your home if your home is in the hurricane’s direct path? No, of course not. You’re going to do everything you can to save all of your earthly possessions – maybe even your home, if possible – and get out of there. You’re acting now. Not waiting for the day of the hurricane to do something about it. This is the basis for business forecasting.
Only in obtaining honest, unbiased feedback from your workforce will you be able to trust this information to take action on it. If it’s not unbiased – meaning the figures that are produced from this effort were top-down dictated (think sales manager telling their sales rep what their next quarter’s sales figures MUST be vs. what this sales rep believes the figures WILL MOST LIKELY be – it ends up with little use for decision making. It becomes a performance contract.
This is not your mother’s forecast. You should not be repeating the same process you’ve gone through in your annual budget cycle. This forecast process has a different intention (insights for decision making) than the budget (annual objectives typically tied to performance contracts) and therefore needs to be designed and administered differently than the budget. With a forecast, benefactors of this process include more than just the executive management team but also the actual contributors to the forecast and their managers. This is because there’s now a formal means of submitting honest and real feedback about what’s really coming. Managers can then take that information and have a real discussion about the difference between what the direct report said was likely to happen and what the targets are. That gap between the two is where the real golden nugget of value exists in delivering a forecast. This changes the conversation from “this is your target, now go get it done” to something like “your targeted number which we captured in the annual budget is different than your newly forecasted number for the same thing…let’s discuss this difference and see how/if we can make up the shortfall”.
Think of the Titanic and the benefits of an early detection system. Would it have been helpful to identify that fatal iceberg well in advance of its arrival??? Duh. It was later learned that the captain of the Titanic saw the hulking iceberg well before the actual impact but, because of the sheer size of the Titanic and how much open sea was needed for it to veer off course, it was too late to veer away. This is just like your business. If the Titanic knows that it can only change course with at least 500 yards of open sea in front of it then the captain should at least be forecasting and re-forecasting in increments of 500 yards because that’s the space it needs to react. Otherwise, we know what can happen. Your business forecasting time horizon and the frequency which you update the forecast, or re-forecast, should be planned similarly.
Other related resources:
Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done by Larry Bossidy & Ram Charan
Implementing Beyond Budgeting by Bjarte Bogsnes
Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip & Dan Heath
Lastly, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. There’s no simple way to go about doing this right. Every company is different with its own politics and culture. The key is to get started with some small wins and build from there. I’d suggest you start in an area of the business that could benefit from a forecast more than others. What department needs the most help? Partner with IT and/or Finance depending on where you sit in the organization and make it happen. Get a quick win and expand. Baby steps.
Business Analytics software @ IBM
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