Forecast meetings are interesting animals. They are basically meetings where you compare what you think the numbers are going to be, with what you want the numbers to be. Over time I have had the opportunity to attend many different types of forecast meetings. Sales, Revenue, Cost, Delivery, all types of forecast meetings. I have found that there are basically two types of forces competing for supremacy at a forecast meeting: The volumetric force, which is the force working to drive the numbers toward what they are wanted to be, and the accuracy force, which is the force driving the numbers toward what they have a higher probability of being.
The volumetric force is the desire by business leadership to see forecasted numbers that are either meeting or exceeding the business plans for that particular aspect of the business, regardless of whether they are or not. This means that for example, if it is a sales forecast in question, the desire is to see the annual sales target for business to be divided by twelve (coincidentally the number of months in a year) and to see the sales forecast incremented upwards by one twelfth the annual sales target each month, which is coincidentally the usual frequency of the sales forecasting meeting.
The accuracy force is the desire by business leadership to see forecasted numbers that are relatively reliable, and have a relatively high probability of actually becoming reality. An example here would be if the average interval between order and revenue was six weeks, and the orders target was achieved with eight weeks remaining in the quarter, there is a reasonably high expectation that the revenue forecast should also be reliably achieved.
Sometimes these forces work in concert. This is where the volume of the forecast and the accuracy of the forecast are both close to, or ahead of the desired targets. This can mean that sales are above target, or costs are below target, or both. This is also where there is a very high probability of the business sales or cost performance coming in at or very close to the forecasted numbers.
In business vernacular, times when the volume and the accuracy of the forecasts are both on target are usually known as “rarefied air”. They don’t align this way very often. When they do it seems to be a foregone conclusion that either the volume or accuracy targets for the next forecast will be changed significantly.
Once the volume and accuracy targets for the forecast have been modified to the point where one or both of the variables are now in question, the business process can now be considered back in normal state equilibrium, or more accurately in the normal state of disequilibrium.
One of the primary topics of forecasts are the numbers. It is usually a good rule of thumb that if there is anything but numbers in a forecast meeting, then somebody is trying to distract somebody else’s attention from the numbers. Given the opportunity, there is a reasonably high probability that those responsible for presenting the forecast will try to add in extraneous information of some type, if their forecasted numbers do not meet or exceed their assigned targets.
Both a strength and a weakness of the forecasting process is the periodicity with which it occurs. Regular forecasts enable the business to prepare for and adapt to the forecasted changes and values that are projected. If forecasting meetings are held too often, there is not enough time for new events to occur and the forecast to change. This results in wasted effort and repeated information.
On the other hand, if they are held too infrequently, it can mean that events have occurred during the forecast interval that must now be responded to in a far shorter time. It can also mean that the results of the last forecasting meeting can be forgotten or obscured. This can result in a loss of directionality as to how the forecast is either progressing or regressing. One of the main benefits of the forecasting process is to get an understanding of which direction the specific piece of the business is moving.
This results in the potential need for at least some incremental information to be included in the forecast. Again, think numbers. The most useful of which is the comparison of the current forecast to the desired target numbers. That provides a snapshot of what the predicted versus the desired performance will be. The next useful piece of information will be the comparison of the last forecast to the current forecast. This information provides a directionality to the snapshot. Is the forecast getting better, worse or staying the same with respect to the targets?
Adding much information beyond the targets and the previous forecast can cause the information in the forecast to become somewhat garbled or confusing. I have seen forecasts where the information was compared to multiple previous forecasts, or the forecast from the same period a year earlier. This one I am not sure I understand, unless you are looking for some sort of a longer-range piece of information regarding how things have changed, or not, over a year.
To me the salient point is always to know how things are progressing towards this year’s targets. Knowing what last year’s forecast was for the same time period can be a little bit like knowing what the weather was forecasted to be for the same day, a year ago. It might be interesting to know, but it has little to do with whether or not you will need an umbrella or not tomorrow.
The purpose of forecasts is to alert you to the state of the business with as much lead warning as is possible. Do those presenting the forecast indicate that things are getting better? Are they getting worse? It takes time for changes to produce the desired effects in a business. The more time that you have to make them, the greater the effect that they can have. Does the forecast indicate that any changes are required at all?
This is where the volumetric forecasting force can work against the business. As stated, this force is the desire to forecast increasing performance, that is at or near the desired targets. But what happens if either the market conditions, or business performance are such that the actual forecast is indicating that the numbers are moving away from the desired targets?
If you actually forecast this type of event, the known decline of performance and missing of a target, you are inviting what is known as “management assistance”. This type of assistance usually comes in the form of even more forecasting meetings where the opportunity to explain what is going on is made available, that is until the forecasts improve in line with desired results.
So, what happens?
A general rule of thumb is that once a forecast is created, it cannot get worse. They can either improve, or stay the same, but having a forecast that is moving away from the target will cause much consternation. As we all know, business is a continually changing environment and set of events. Very little in business can or should stay the same. Accurate forecasts should reflect the constantly changing environment.
If you see a forecast, of any type, that is not changing with time, then you know it is getting worse.
The advantage to this situation is that management is not being directly told that things are getting worse, so they have plausible deniability to their senior management, and the business performers are not having to spend incremental time explaining what has occurred, and what they are doing to correct it. They can just get on with correcting the performance and trying to improve the forecast.
However, this approach will only work for a while. Eventually even management will have to recognize that they are being shown the same information over a prolonged period of time and they will be forced to question it. Once this type of questioning on the relative believability of the forecast begins, there is little that can be done to stop it. This is where plausible deniability ends.
As process has continued to expand its role within business, forecasting has also become the forecasting process. This usually means that instead of just having the person or team closest to, or responsible for the specific set of numbers for that specific period enter them into the forecast, they must now put them on a form where they are then routed to many other people and teams who are either only tangentially or wholly unrelated to the numbers, can then approve them before they are actually entered into what will become the forecast.
Forecasting is a critical aspect of a successful business. The ability to accurately predict present and future performance enables business groups and disciplines to take the most effective actions to benefit the business. Understanding how forecasts are put together, and being able to accurately interpret the numbers they contain are key capabilities for the business leader to learn.
It is also critical for the business leader to be able to interpret the information that the forecast contains that may not be specifically numeric in nature.