Belfast Telegraph

Forecasting during uncertainty

Andrew McAuley
Andrew McAuley
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The last number of years have presented unique sets of challenges for businesses, whether that be navigating the aftermath of Brexit, the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing energy costs, or spiralling inflation and the associated cost of living crisis.

This has led to business leaders making decisions that would have been unheard of a decade ago, and brought with it an ever-increasing level of uncertainty.  Businesses dislike uncertainty, as it makes budgeting and forecasting difficult. As we move into 2023 here are a few points which may impact the accuracy of the budgeting process.

Firstly, make your assumptions clear.  When performance is compared to budget or forecast, it will be much easier to understand variances if the underlying assumptions were well documented and can be clearly understood.  As a budget is based on information known at a point in time, performance will no doubt vary as circumstances inevitably change.  As a result, being clear on what the assumptions were when the budget was set will be helpful in explaining variations throughout the year.

The second thing to consider is the quality of the data.  You can only have an output of good quality information if good quality data is being input at the start.  It is worth considering whether simply taking the 2022 results and adding on a percentage will result in the best quality information, partly because of the risks of using 2022 and indeed earlier years as reasonable comparators.  2022 was a year of political upheaval and supply chain disruption; 2021 was an abnormally strong rebound year for many; 2020 was the year most impacted by lockdowns and 2019 is sufficiently long ago that it is no longer relevant.  A zero-based budgeting approach will require more investment to complete but will pay off in terms of the quality of the budget produced.

Finally, and possibly most importantly, communication is key.  Whilst there is usually a lot of communication between departments during budgeting season, this has the potential to drop off during the year, resulting in targets set at the start of the year becoming less of a priority.  It is important that performance against budget is continually reviewed and discussed between departments.  This is even more critical during times of uncertainty when circumstances can change so rapidly.

Budgeting and forecasting is never easy at the best of times let alone in the midst of uncertainty.  However, being clear about assumptions, ensuring the quality of the data, and having strong communication throughout the business should make the budgets as robust as possible, the business able to identify, and address differences from the budget as quickly as possible and make it easier to explain variances to stakeholders.

While spending the time to make a detailed budget may seem hard to justify given the uncertainties which exist the benefits that come with it will make it worthwhile.