Stretching Lean Budgets Strategically

Every business hits times when the budget gets tighter — it’s an inevitable part of being in it for the long haul. For a lot of industries, their short-term futures are a bit unpredictable right now, leading to questions about how to best set up their business to weather any twists and turns. 

In the face of uncertainty, many organizations scale back as quickly as possible to alleviate the pressure on their overhead. While understandable, rushed decisions can sometimes be short-sighted decisions, making it harder for those businesses to rebuild once lean times have passed. 

Just as strategy is important in times of growth, it’s also key in times of reduction. Whether you’re the one facilitating trims or absorbing them as best you can, read on for our take on putting strategy into leaner times. 

Center existing customers

While you can’t completely lose sight of expansion, the math is simple — it’s much less expensive to retain an existing customer than it is to acquire a new one. In moments when efficiency with available budgets is essential, the best move is often to invest the majority of your efforts in customer retention through the products, services, and/or tech systems your teams may already be running. This means maintenance, yes, but it also means uncovering new ways to provide benefits for them, ensuring they will return to you. Growth is important, and should not be forgotten, but it’s important to balance such endeavors with true investment in preserving what’s working for you today. 

Step back and learn, and go “lightweight”

We’ve seen huge payoffs for organizations that take budget setbacks as opportunities to zoom out on their business and take a closer look at their products and services. What makes the most sense to focus on in this new climate? Where is infrastructure/development urgently needed, and where can it wait? Which projects are going to best prepare the company for when the market forges ahead? In all likelihood, a change affecting your business also means changes for the partners and clients around you. How might these circumstances affect your short- and long-term success strategies? 

In lean times, it’s also very important to get to the learnings quickly so you can pivot if needed. Consider stepping back to ask what the scrappier, more agile version of your process might look like. You want to be investing efforts in the right places, so getting that feedback loop on a quicker cycle is key.  

Consider how projects are shelved

When an organization tightens the belt, it’s almost certain that internal priorities will need to shift. This often involves shelving longer-term projects, and refocusing resources to work on lower-hanging fruit that will generate income in the short term.

Once the worst of the budget drought has passed, though, most organizations will want to pick up where they left off on those shelved projects. The problem is that many times, the  employees with the institutional knowledge to restart those projects have been shuffled around in a reorg, laid off, or have left the company out of fear for the business’s future. Countless times, we’ve seen work either need to get redone because there was not enough context to pick it back up again — or, get restarted from scratch only to realize midway through that much of what they’ve worked on had already been done.

While it may not be realistic to avoid any kind of turnover or layoffs, consider using the lower-budget times to thoroughly document any mid-flight work that needs temporary shelving. This includes the work done to date, by whom, what was learned and the impact moving forward, and what still needs to be learned or done. Taking the time to do this in “quieter” times is hugely important to not wasting effort when your business is finally in recovery and expansion mode. 

Judicious use of outside help 

It’s hard to justify spending any money when your budget is limited. That said, given the overall fear of making the wrong decision that can pervade stressful times, it can be helpful to call on outside eyes for perspective and strategic support. Things like day-long prioritization workshops, short research sprints, or new tech trainings can be sensible ways to spend less money but still get a lot of impact and keep initiatives moving forward.

Another smart way to use outside support in tighter times is as short-term personnel augmentation. When you can’t commit to retaining FTEs for each role you need, hiring an agency can be a smart way to access a wide array of skill sets for less money.

Plan like the storm will pass — with the right strategy, you can help make sure it does. And if you’re looking for a partner in weathering that storm, we’d love to hear from you.