Building People-Centered Organizational Budgets
Updated: Nov 8, 2021
What would our world look like if we all changed the usual conversation about how we build our organizational budgets? What if we started by asking “What’s possible?” and “What Possibilities Can We Create?”
The Usual Budgeting Conversation
Budgeting conversations often focus on the tension between what targets make for realistic goals and what targets make for appropriate stretch goals. As day-to-day changes to revenue and expense assumptions continue and deadlines draw near, the numbers may look too rosy one day and too hard to achieve the next.
I commonly hear leaders and teams discussing a core set of questions as they work on their budget assumptions:
What will the Board, Executive Leadership Team, investors, and/or the market expect of us? What will they hold us accountable for?
Given current conditions, how much revenue is it possible for us to bring in?
What are the consequences if we overpromise on budget goals now to build confidence in our team and our future (and to garner resources), and then spend the year unsure of how we’ll achieve those goals? What are the consequences if we fail to reach goals that are too lofty?
What are the consequences if we under-promise on budget goals now, and overdeliver during the year? How might we be pushed to change our approach to budgeting next year?
All smart questions to discuss – and yet they omit a crucial focus.
The People-Centered Budget Conversation
Two questions are often implicit during the annual budgeting process, and I suggest that conversations around budgets, mission, team wellbeing, and staff retention can be more productive if these questions are made explicit and prioritized.
First, what is possible? “What’s possible” is the question that focuses on our people right now and for the immediate future. Asking this pushes us to consider what we can accomplish with our current team and resources while keeping workloads reasonable and ensuring that team members have the time they want, need, and deserve outside of work.
As the current climate around work in the U.S. is shifting, this question pushes us to consider what is it possible for our team to accomplish at the same time that we acknowledge that work is not the top priority in everyone’s lives, nor should it be.
How might the lower bound of our budgeting work look if we explicitly asked this question? How might leaders’ approaches to working with their teams shift? How could employee wellbeing improve? What impact might it have on retention, especially at a time when team members have been asked to do more with less for so long?
Second, what possibilities can we create? The possibility-creation question focuses us on the mid- to long-term future. Asking this question pushes us to consider how the budget we’re building can help achieve our organizational mission.
At the same time, this is also an inherently people-centered question, as asking it encourages us to think about how we create meaningful work for our teams, and how we help them to see the organization’s future and their place in it. This question can also be used as a way of stimulating curiosity and helping thoughtfully engage the entire team in dreaming up new options, choices, products, and services.
How might the upper bound of our budgeting work look if we asked this question out loud? More questions would follow, of course, including what resources would be needed and what the timeline to a tangible return would be. And yet consideration of creating possibilities shifts our mindset and the tone of the conversation.
How might we use this shift to stimulate employee engagement in our strategy, and to inspire ourselves and others? What impact might it have on creating a workplace that supports everyone in visionary thinking, with the clear understanding that organizations can only pursue a limited number of possibilities at any time?
The Bottom Line
What if we shifted the central tension of budget conversations away from “how do I build a budget that’s ambitious enough to meet expectations and lets me and my team sleep at night”? Instead, what if the conversation was centered around “what’s possible for my team right now and what possibilities can we as a team create for the future?”
The bottom-line numbers that result might be exactly the same. Yet imagine the difference in organizational culture and its impact on teams.