“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” ― Yogi Berra, famous baseball player

Business forecasting is difficult. Most of the time, projects take longer than planned, cost more than expected and are full of surprises. Even if the project exceeds forecast and sales are higher than planned, unplanned success can bring its own set of problems, like cash flow, materials shortages, and poor customer experiences.

How well equipped is your team to lay out what the future will hold, and to stay committed to that path? It is not enough to have a great team who can get the job done and a marketplace ready to buy. (Executives must predict the future with enough specificity to plan in detail, so they have what they need, when they need it.)

Effective forecasting also provides the opportunity to strike bargains with other people or companies we will need for success. This includes investors, public markets, suppliers, contract manufacturers and others. If we want to gain their trust and access their resources the next time we come to the table, we must deliver on our promises this time—and hit our targets on plan.

If we are likely to miss our forecasts, we must reserve more cash to handle the surprises, or perhaps even to make a second try for success. Firms striving for growth are just as susceptible to running out of cash as firms that are shrinking. Simply put, they can spend too much too fast, or spend too little too late.

One distribution firm we know created a forecast for closing one facility and shifting production to another state. It took twice the time, 70% more in cost, and shipment of goods was far more adversely impacted than was forecast.  The miscalculation hurt the firm badly, breaching bank covenants.

Forecasts like that can embarrass you…

So, what are the some of the most common mistakes?

Ignoring the Past Forecasting Performance of the Company as a Whole

If a company’s leadership team has previously been unsuccessful in forecasting, there is a strong likelihood they’ve not acquired that competency. Also look to the kind of forecasts they succeeded in making.  Forecasts for a line extension or new service line can be difficult, but they’re not nearly as complex as a large acquisition or developing a new business unit in a nearby adjacency.

If the past forecasting performance of the company is poor, look out!

Ignoring the Poor Past Forecasting Performance of the CFO

While many people will provide input to your forecast, there is one person—often the CFO in a mid-market company—who drives the forecast.  That person’s track record is crucial.  Only through much experience can a forecaster learn where slippage usually occurs.  They know where the surprises often lurk.  Additionally, and most critically, they learn to include the costs and items which inevitably make an impact on the forecast but are usually overlooked.

Creating the forecast is only the first step.  Staying on forecast requires an active financial manager, who not only monitors what has happened, but projects what is going to happen—or fail to happen—in the immediate future.  Having such a CFO on board (or acquiring one) significantly increases your accuracy of forecasting, provided this person is not overruled too often, or sidelined.

Disregarding the Past Poor Commitment to Hitting Forecasts by the CEO

Companies often miss forecasts because the CEO may decide that priorities have shifted and want to pursue another direction or may panic and start to look for other solutions.  In some cases, the CEO just does not like the discipline of sticking to plan.

It is true that circumstances sometimes call for a change.  Yet this implies that the management team was unable to foresee the situation when the forecast was originally created, a failure just as bad as undisciplined spending or insufficient sales.

The CEO can single-highhandedly cause the company to miss its forecast.  Looking at his or her past behavior is critical to any assessment of probability for hitting the next forecast.

Lack of Fallback Plans

It is naïve to think that the path to hitting a forecast is a straight line.  Management must usually make significant adjustments along the way.  In a mid-market firm, those adjustments must come early, before too much damage (over-spending, missing critical timing windows) can be done.

Good forecasters identify the areas of risk up front, building in triggers that spur implementation of backup plans to keep on target.  The presence of triggers—in writing—and the visibility of those triggers increase the likelihood of staying on forecast.

In the case of one manufacturer of hard drives, the firm was just coming off a poor quarter during the 2008 and 2009 financial crisis.  The team knew they needed to make some tough decisions and cuts to the organization.  In doing so, they focused on preserving an initiative in developing their next generation product… but had to make cuts in sales and other teams.

They built a longer-term plan around preserving cash, focusing on delivering the next generation product and then adding more salespeople as things improved in the macro environment.  The strategy was to develop a long-term One Page Business Plan that drove the organization to certain metrics and profitability that was important to for a possible exit of the public markets.  As it turned out, the sales team delivered, and the firm was ultimately sold at competitive multiples to Hitachi Data Systems.

The Lack of Consequences if Management Misses Its Forecast

The stock market punishes public companies immediately if they fail to meet their forecasts.  As a result, they are more likely to invest time and effort into setting realistic benchmarks and fighting hard to achieve them.  Yet in many private companies, missed forecasts are met with shoulder shrugs.  There are no consequences for poor forecasters.

There is often more pressure to agree to an overly optimistic forecast than there is to achieve the forecast.  This is a mistake of great consequence.  Pressure to perform is a critical factor in all business operations.  Identifying missed forecasts as failures and delineating serious consequences for those failures will increase your likelihood of hitting future forecasts!