I recently read Bob Stahl’s newest book, Sales and Operations Planning – An Executive Update, and I came away with a different perspective on a long-time problem; how to get consensus on a challenging forecast.  

Over the course of my long career, I have been part of, or facilitated, more than a thousand consensus meetings. And while most of these sessions generated little to no organizational tension, there have been times when it has been particularly difficult getting different parties (Sales, Marketing, Finance) to agree on a forecast. Under normal circumstances, early in the year and new product forecasts tend to cause the most tension because of the significant commercial ambitions loaded into these plans.

However, even these plans are often malleable with sufficient supporting data and conversation. The most difficult consensus challenges are always those forecasts that are most speculative, with little supporting data or with the greatest uncertainty.

Finding Consensus During Demand Chaos

COVID created forecasting chaos for many organizations. Tension increased during consensus meetings, especially during the early phases of the pandemic when, as an example, the fortunes of different product families were trending in opposite directions. Demand felt out of control.

“It was as if the pandemic froze us into inaction.”

The once-in-a-lifetime disruption confronting all of us made it hard to arrive at a forecast that everyone could agree on, despite having considerable supporting data. And for those product families for which orders and POS activity were down, arriving at consensus often seemed more difficult. No one wanted to “give-up” on the forecast so early in the year – especially given the unknown nature of consumer behavior in disruptive times. It was as if the pandemic froze us into inaction.

How I Handled Disagreements During COVID & What I’d Do Differently

When I was faced with the inability to arrive at consensus for many of the declining categories, I found myself proposing a simple approach that short-armed the forecast. I suggested looking at only at the next two to three months—acknowledging the reality of a short-term decline–while also holding the outermost forecast range to prior expectations.

We then provided a growth ramp back to the original forecast. It was a cheat of sorts. We did not “put the moose on the table” as Bob Stahl might have suggested but the short arming allowed us to move forward, effectively kicking the can down the road to the next month when better or more confirming information might be available.

While this tactic felt right in the moment, it also tossed out the window some time-honored S&OP concepts regarding managing the depth of horizon of a forecast. And while it is hard to call this approach a mistake, as we were in dark and unknown waters at the time, in hindsight it would have been better to press the issue more—to lean less on the crutch of uncertainty and rather push each member of the consensus group for their best (in this case, lowest) call.

“Start with a plan that everyone can roughly agree on, and then further challenge the assumptions.”

Instead, we did not so much collaborate on a plan; it was more like we ducked for cover. Which brings me to Bob’s book, in which he makes a pragmatic point that really resonated with me: Start with a plan that everyone can roughly agree on, and then further challenge the assumptions of that plan to get further clarity.

The ‘Greatest Common Denominator” Approach to Planning

Think of this as almost a “greatest common denominator” approach to planning. Effectively, the consensus facilitator starts by asking everyone their estimate and supporting data before trying to seek agreement. For example, in the face of double-digit declines ask, “Does everyone agree the forecast should come down for the year ?” Then follow that up by asking, “By how much, and how would you pace the decline?” By asking relatively open ended questions all voices and opinions are heard, and the range of perceived opportunities are dimensioned.

After reading Bob’s book, it became apparent to me that by putting in a short arm “device” we avoided much in the way of thoughtful conversation. We did not seek common ground. I know this because nearly everyone walked out of the consensus meeting thinking that the forecast should have been lower. We did not reach consensus – we only postponed the hard decision by four or five months when we finally made the hard calls needed to reset the forecast lower.

Some Conflict is Normal is S&OP – Embrace It

Most long-term S&OP practitioners know all too well that at least some level of tension, conflict, and disagreement are normal in consensus meetings. In fact, some disagreement within the S&OP process is to be expected and perhaps even encouraged. No one wants an S&OP plan put together via groupthink and without some rigor of organizational tension applied. Unfortunately, in the midst of COVID, we avoided this tension.

“No one wants an S&OP plan put together via groupthink.”

One of the most important lessons to come out of the COVID crisis (and Bob’s book) is to solicit more opinions and points of view as a way to put more voices into the forecasting process before trying to arrive at an agreed number. Let the opinions of the consensus team come out and bloom to see if there is a unifying or common perspective before trying to narrow the forecast. Disagreements over outcomes earlier in the pandemic would have helped avoid “chasing the forecast down” phenomena that ultimately occurred.

If history offers a lesson, avoiding tension is, well, wrong. If we believe disruption will become more common place, this is a lesson worth learning.


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