‘Tis the budget season

Budgeting brings out the best and worst in people. There are few exercises that reveal so thoroughly one’s priorities, personal agendas and beliefs about the political structure within which one is working than submitting a budget. I’ve concluded that preparing a successful budget for an organization is more about interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence than any best practice logical process.

In an educational session last summer, we were taught strategies for managing personnel based upon personality types (sound manipulative to you?) The speaker, whose book promotions I now receive weekly (see “What’s the Value of a Name,”) had categorized challenging workplace behaviors into 7 stereotypes, and provided advice on controlling—excuse me—supervising each type.

The process of getting to a useable number in compiling budget submissions from various departments requires unraveling motivations to get to the base numbers to which organizational priorities can be applied. While I have the privilege of working with a group of high quality program managers who are very aligned regarding the direction of this organization, the various characteristics of budget challenges creep into each of us at one time or another. I’ve created my own stereotypes to use as a tool to start the deciphering task:

  • Social Justice Champion: Priority is the protection of one’s projects or personnel without regard for competing projects and personnel, organizational priorities or the revenue required to support them.
    Symptom: All expense budgets are increased by 30%+ without corresponding revenue changes.
    Action: Cut expense budgets across the board by the cushion the preparer assumed would be necessary to get to base numbers for discussion.
  • Boy/Girl Scout: Priority is to be prepared for all possible contingencies.
    Symptom: Revenue reserves are budgeted and costs proposed to address several projected threats.
    Action: Work with the scout to identify one most likely outcome instead of budgeting for all threats occurring simultaneously.
  • Inside the Box: Priority is process and preservation of the status quo.
    Symptom: Massive detail is provided to support what the numbers would be if we do exactly what we did last year.
    Action: More work is required here to identify strategic possibilities for program change and introduction of new priorities.
  • Politician: Priority is positioning, recognition or influence.
    Symptom: Elements of the strategic plan or pet projects of the executive are well highlighted.
    Action: Chances are, what’s in the budget is pretty well aligned with organizational priorities identified by the Board. See what’s not sufficiently addressed that’s more operational or mundane.
  • Martyr: Priority is getting the project done even if it kills them.
    Symptom: Drastically cutting initial projections to achieve budget goals and promising that we can still get the job done without the resources.
    Action: The challenge here is putting realistic budget numbers back in to have adequate resources to achieve priorities (or adjusting priorities to be realistic given the resources available.)
  • Bulldog: Priority is world domination (or at least office domination).
    Symptom: Serves as your sergeant at arms to twist everyone else’s arms and get every last cushion out of the budget proposal.
    Action: Needed for professional skepticism. However, complete control can mean inflexibility for the coming year – set some limits.
  • Realist: Priority is establishing the numbers against which they’re going to be measured in the coming year.
    Symptom: Resists political pressure to change their numbers despite all of your best arguments.
    Action: Thank them – you’re going to be measured against those numbers too.

In the end, skills in budgeting are probably no different than those needed to for successful project management in any organization. Multiple perspectives need to be synthesized to balance the budget and arrive at agreement on priorities. I feel lucky to work with those in my organization.


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