My series on planning visualizations has so far explained how to use the right chart types to tell your plan’s story. Today I’ll wrap up with a focus on using visualizations to show how your plan will hold up as the fiscal year progresses. The charts below display forecasts that are based off of 12-24 months of historical data used to predict future results.
Plan vs. Actual Spend: Bullet Visualization with Linear Regression
Good planners know that a plan shouldn’t simply be created, approved and then left to rot on a shelf somewhere. Plans should be managed and updated throughout the year. Even the best plans require changes, especially when it looks like you might be getting off track.
Say you’re a marketing director for a retailer and your fiscal year begins in January. In March, you’re starting to wonder if there will be enough funds in the budget by September to do your holiday season advertising. There’s a way to predict this information, even if you’re only a few months into the fiscal year. A finance professional might run a linear regression and stick a table in Excel to show the progressions of the budget over time. But as a marketer, you’re a visual person and might better understand a bullet chart. Plotting the actual data (in yellow) against the plan data (in gray), it’s easy to see that marketing expenses were understated in the plan from the beginning, or you simply overspent early on and won’t recover without making adjustments to spending. The red bars show just how far off spending will be vs. the plan if you don’t take corrective action:
In my previous post on this topic, I covered why planning visualizations are important for an audience of planners without finance backgrounds: they prioritize content and separate the signal from the noise so planners know at a glance what areas of the plan need their attention. Today I’ll underline the importance of using the right chart types to tell your plan’s story. The idea is that visualizations should enable planners to prioritize the largest areas of their plans and see exactly what parts need adjustment, without forcing them to read anatomically correct financial statements or have a deep understanding of planning terminology.
Particularly, the term “variance” can be incredibly confusing to non-finance department heads who are tasked with managing budgets. Variances of actual spend compared to the budget are either positive or negative, indicating which direction the line item deviates from the plan. In general, being under budget is a positive variance, and being over budget is a negative variance. But things get weird when you’re looking at expenses vs. income and it’s hard for regular planners to make sense of it all. So the best way I can think of to help non-finance planners understand their plan performance better is to simply use terms like “favorable” and “unfavorable” instead of “positive” and “negative” (i.e. “you’ve got an unfavorable variance for airfare because of the unplanned training course in Las Vegas that your whole team attended”) and to introduce planning visualizations that simplify complex concepts like variances.
Horizontal Bar Graph
A horizontal bar graph with red and green bars is an ideal visualization for a budget statement because it’s straightforward and eliminates confusion. In the example here, the budget categories are prioritized from most unfavorable to most favorable. We see that relocation and airline expenses are the most unfavorable – they’re the most over budget – and they are emphasized by being in red at the top of the graph. But reallocating funds from the most favorable categories – incentives and salary – can alleviate the problem. Incentives and salary are the most under budget; we’ve spent less than we’ve planned and there may be funds that can be moved to the relocation and airfare categories.
The horizontal bar graph visualization tells the story of which items are doing well, which items are doing poorly, and makes it obvious where adjustments can be made.
Waterfall or Bridge Chart…
In a perfect world, all of your organization’s planners would have superior analytics acumen and the financial know-know to create the best plans for their department. But unlike the photo that comes with every picture frame, there’s no such thing as the perfect planning family. Planners don’t necessarily fall into traditional groups like Financial Planning and Analysis (FP&A) or Management. Think about your marketing and sales directors – their primary function within the organization doesn’t require a finance degree but they are still expected to take on planning roles for their departments.
Non-traditional planning managers have their own special needs and thankfully, software development has come a long way in accommodating them – particularly planning software with built-in reporting and dashboard capabilities. If your planning solution supports data visualization, take advantage! By presenting your plan data in charts and graphs, you can focus planners’ energy on areas where they can make the biggest impact.
The underlying problem of many budgeting and planning processes is that data is organized and optimized for machines, not people. Unless you’ve had some formal education in this area, reading a chart of accounts/cost centers can be overwhelming. Understanding an anatomically correct financial statement can take years. Take for instance a physician or head nurse who is tasked to create a budgetary plan for his or her department – these individuals are trained to save lives, but probably cannot create a budget to save their own lives. The way to make budgets work for these types of planners is through smart data visualizations.
An ideal way to start visualizing content is to…