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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Create Internally Consistent Goals and Plans: 'The Rope'

A challenge that all organizations face is setting goals and creating plans that are internally consistent. For example, if you were to estimate next quarter's revenues by product would it match you estimate for revenues by geography?

What I often find is that there are 6-8 relevant dimensions to estimate a number. When you 'think in ranges', each dimension gives a different range for that particular forecast. By overlaying these forecasts on top of each other, you get a visual depiction of your internal consistency.

If you were perfectly consistent, the forecast would all exactly overlay one another. On the chart, I've overlayed cumulative forecasts. A cumulative forecast shows the likelihood that the true outcome is at or below a given value. I've also added the Median estimate for each forecast.

What we can do is analyze why one method give a different range than another. For example, if our estimate by product is much higher than our estimate by geography, we can drill in and reconcile the two. Through this iterative process, you can harmonize your estimates. As the forecasts get closer and closer, this is what I call the rope. The goal is to have a tight, strong rope.

Finally, I like to look at the dispersion of the means. This give me a 'center of gravity' feeling for where the true number will likely end up. For the true value to be outside of this range, you will have to have been significantly wrong on several dimensions at the same time. If you have to give someone 'the number', the mean of the means is one way to resolve these ranges back to a single number.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

What is the Probability of acheiving my ROI target?

ROI: Will this investment meet my ROI requirements? This question comes up every day in business. Every vendor has their version of the compelling ROI. The question the buyer should ask is the probability of a given ROI scenario.

Many corporate purchasers think of ROI in terms of hard dollar v. soft dollar savings. Hard dollar savings are those things that reduce my weekly, monthly or quarterly cash flow. Soft dollar savings do not. A classic example is 'you will save 5 man days per month of labor on this process'.

Many buyers use only hard dollar savings in their ROI calculations. The soft dollar benefits are just the icing on the cake. A typical target is to have a 12 month payback only counting the hard dollar savings.

With uncertainty management, it is straightforward to learn the probability of each scenario. In the chart above, we can see there is an 83% chance that the hard dollar ROI will be under our acceptable limit of 12 months. It is nice to also see that the worst case scenarios go out to about 18 months. Also we can see that if everything goes our way, then the payback could be as short as 4-6 months.

As a seller, you can be very persuasive to a buyer with this kind of analysis. As a buyer, it is essential to ask for this risk assessment to understand the probability of a vendor-generated ROI.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Fuzzy Dots are ... well ... Fuzzy. Let's keep them that way.

In College I studied Philosophy and Accounting. An odd combination, but there is an intersection with regard to Fuzzy Dots.

In Philosophy class, we learned that if a dot is truly fuzzy, not just blurry because of your eye piece, then no matter how fine a microscope you use, it will always be fuzzy.

Over in the business school -- and now in the business community -- I see a lot of business analysts trying to get better microscopes to increase their resolution and decrease the fuzziness around their dots. Now, if you are doing accounting of historical numbers, this may be a good idea. There is one true number that you can solve for. However, in many cases, the number the analyst is pondering is itself a fuzzy dot. Estimating next quarter's earnings, the NPV of a capital project, the ROI on an investment, the cost of a major project or the completion date a of major project are examples of numbers that are fuzzy dots.

To resolve them to a clear dot is to ignore their underlying reality which only creates an illusion of certainty. Unfortunately, many enterprise planning applications require the analyst to put in a 'naked number' for a fuzzy dot rather than a more realistic probability range. Worse, many managers require their analysts to just give them a number. See "Why Can't You Just Give Me the Number?" (Patrick Leach, 2006) for an excellent summary of this issue.

Many would prefer to have the illusion of accuracy (the NPV will be $20.687M) fostered by false precision. The only thing we know about such numbers is that they will be wrong: we just don't know by how much and in which direction. For further reading, see Phil Rosenzweig "The Halo Effect" (New York: Free Press, 2007).

Sunday, March 1, 2009

While we are at it: What's Wrong with Benchmarking Competitors?

In recent conversations with CFO's the topic of benchmarking comes up. Of course the conventional wisdom is that this is a good idea. I've never (almost) done it and here is why.

First, who are your going to benchmark? If you are an airline, do you benchmark other airlines? That would be the straightforward answer. But what does this tell you? That your labor cost per flight mile is x v. y? What is actionable about that report? 9/10 it is not telling you something you didn't already know. Does the competing airline have the same strategy? If you are the premium service, global airline, would you compare yourself to the low cost, new entrant carrier?

All of this is generally beside the point, because your competitors are not other airlines. Perhaps it is other means of transportation (driving, trains, bus, etc). More interestingly, it is either someone completely not on your radar (Skype - free web-based video conferencing) or 'good enough'. "Good Enough" always seems to be competitor No. 1, but I've never seen that entity on a benchmarking report.

For an excellent analysis of your competitive dimensions, read and digest Clayton Christensen's "Innovator's Solution". Thinking through the Functionality, Reliability, Convenience and Price dimensions will change how you view your business. Understanding who may be a disruptor to you -- and to whom you may be a disruptor -- is an invaluable perspective. And makes benchmarking conventional competitors seem a little quaint.