It’s time for a fresh approach to budgeting

The budgeting process at India Inc. is broken. Here are five ways to fix it. 1. Refresh your market view 2. Zero-base your budget 3. Bring data to the discussion 4. Go granular 5. Make room for uncertainty.

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Quick view:

  • Budgeting is an annual ritual yet for most Indian companies the process is anchored in the past and disconnected from current market realities.
  • Before embarking on your next budgeting exercise take a step back and consider adopting these five steps to better budgeting.
  • By refreshing your market view, zero-basing the budget, bringing data to the discussion, getting granular, and making room for uncertainty, the budgeting process can become a foundation for business success.

Budgeting is an essential process for every organisation and it serves three important functions. First, it sets the targets for the coming year. Second, it provides a basis on which to monitor performance at the individual and company level. Third, it enables the organisation to reward its employees relative to their achievement of these targets.

Your budgeting process is broken

Despite being critical to business success, the budgeting process at many companies requires improvement. There are four major reasons for the present state of budgeting at India Inc.:

Firstly, budgeting at most companies is anchored in the past. What this means is that the budget for the coming year is usually an incremental revision of last year’s numbers. Such anchoring is a common cognitive bias that leads us to become over-reliant on one piece of information - usually the first piece - when making decisions. As the process typically starts with a review of the previous year’s results, subsequent discussions tend to circle around these numbers.

The second flaw in the budgeting process is the tendency for it to turn into a gaming exercise between senior management and department heads. As a result, budgeting often becomes an exercise in developing targets that are acceptable rather than achievable.

For example, heads of department may accept unattainable targets to satisfy their senior management’s top line goals, in full expectation that they will not be achieved. Conversely, senior management may accept low-ball targets from their teams which under-estimate the real business potential and are easily surpassed.

At one company we worked with one division had achieved 100% of its previous year’s target while another division was languishing at only 30%. However, after closer scrutiny, we found that the divergent performance was largely related to the very different ways in which their targets were set.

The third gap in budgeting is the disconnect between the process and the current market reality. In today’s fast-moving environment, rapidly changing customer behaviour and new competitive threats are disrupting many of the assumptions that have been built into the budgeting process over the years. As a consequence, budgets are increasingly out of step with the latest market developments.

The final break in today’s budgeting process is its lack of agility. Budgets are set in stone at the beginning of the year and targets are cascaded down through the organisation accordingly. Therefore changing course in response to new circumstances is like turning around an oil tanker. Furthermore, as employee rewards are linked to these annual targets, there is little incentive for individuals to rock the boat by taking initiative and re-directing their efforts mid-course.

Many Indian companies experienced the most dramatic example of the need for budget revisions during the demonetisation shock of 2016 which saw sales slump as much as 30-50% during the affected months.

Given these four dysfunctions in the current process, there is a clear need for companies to take a fresh look before repeating the same mistakes in this year’s budgeting exercise.

Take these 5 steps to better budgeting

Companies can make this year’s budgeting process relevant in today’s changing world by following five steps to better budgeting.

1. Refresh your market view

Firstly, with the market landscape undergoing rapid change, businesses must reset the assumptions on which their budget is based. This can be achieved by having the market discussion up front in the budgeting process. The objective should be to create an accurate picture of how your customers’ needs have changed and what the latest competitive threats are.

Take for example the process of digitalisation that is rapidly changing customer behaviour and competitive dynamics in India. The Government of India recently introduced an e-marketplace which promises to transform the procurement process for all companies selling into the public sector. This will introduce price discovery, greater transparency, and potentially new types of players who might have struggled to tap the Government market in the past. Any company currently selling into this space or considering it will need to put this development at the heart of their discussions and future planning.

2. Zero-base your budget

Once the real market picture has been established, the budgeting process needs to be de-anchored from the last year. This can be done through the method of zero-based budgeting. While not a new concept, it remains a powerful and effective way of changing mindsets and creating visibility of the real drivers of cost. Zero-based budgeting requires businesses to engage in detailed bottom-up analysis of each and every cost and justify its efficiency.

The effectiveness of zero-based budgeting is based on the fact that over time costs become sticky. For example, when a new technology is introduced in an organisation it can significantly increase productivity, however, the headcount in that area often remains the same. A zero-based approach can help identify opportunities to re-assign people to more value-adding activities.

3. Bring data to the discussion

While the budgeting process tends to be anchored in last year’s numbers, we have found that much of the forward-looking discussions are a combination of gut feel and wishful thinking. For an effective budgeting process companies need to gather as much data as possible and use the latest analytics tools to generate relevant insights.

In the course of our work with a leading air conditioning manufacturer, we leveraged Google search analytics to improve their annual budgeting. Rather than basing projections on lagging indicators like the previous year’s sales or their gut feel about current market sentiment, we analysed customer search queries which are a powerful leading indicator of customers’ intention to buy. This analysis forecast a significant uptick in sales on the previous year as a result of unseasonably warm weather. As a result, our client was able to adjust its stocking and production plan to take full advantage of better-than-expected demand.

4. Go granular

While zero-based budgeting helps you look at cost in a new light, businesses also need to pull apart their revenue projections to uncover the real drivers of sales. Companies shouldn’t simply accept targets based on current market share and high-level assessments of market potential.

We worked with one leading consumer durables manufacturer to build up a granular picture of their sales drivers. Putting aside the existing targets, we first collaborated with their team to detail the specific product lines, geographies, and customers where sales would be generated. In the process, we were able to identify new opportunities for cross-selling and adding new customers.

Furthermore, by detailing the sales and marketing infrastructure that would be required to achieve these sales we were able to create ambitious but achievable targets. As the team could now visualise how the target would be achieved, we were able to get buy-in for the new budget at every level of the organisation for the first time. The new targets were then implemented as part of the monthly review process.


5. Make room for uncertainty

However well-thought-out your budgeting process, it can never fully account for the black swans (low probability high impact events) that will disrupt even the best-laid plans. In an increasingly VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world, the budgeting process needs to become dynamic. Companies can develop rolling forecast mechanisms to reflect the latest market developments and conduct quarterly budgeting exercises to adjust their annual plan accordingly. This way the budget remains a relevant and credible basis for strategic and tactical decisions at both the corporate and departmental level.


Before jumping into this year’s budgeting exercise the same way you did last year. Pause for a moment and consider how these five steps could make the budgeting exercise a more productive process and a stronger foundation for business success in the year ahead.

About the authors

Deepak Sharma is director of strategy at Kanvic Consulting in Gurgaon.

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