The budget process brings out strange qualities in people. Ask any ordinary, mild-mannered middle manager to tell you how much money he needs for the coming year, and suddenly you're face to face with a character you barely recognize, an actor who plays his role with passion and eloquence in the hopes of wringing a few more dollars out of his thick-skinned boss.
After a while, though, you begin to realize that you've seen the same performances over and over again, and that they fall into nine classic types:
The Gardener has learned to plan ahead for the annual pruning during budget time. He's watered his budget so lavishly that all of the bushes and trees have grown hundreds of extra shoots. Each shoot in this overly lush growth represents something he doesn't really need -- a new coffee machine, a training seminar for his sales assistants, some extra money for redecorating the office. For a final touch at budget request time, he fertilizes the greenery with all kinds of backup material, including fancy slides and graphs and a slick presentation. By the time you see his budget, it looks more like a jungle than a garden.
Dealing with a Gardener's budget is an exhausting process, because each shoot and branch must be trimmed separately. Clip the new coffee machine, prune the $500 training seminar, trim the office redecorating -- you'll probably give up with a sore back long before everything is perfectly trimmed. That's how the Gardener manages to come out with a healthy looking budget year after year.
The Duck Hunter
The Duck Hunter is an expert on decoys. He uses his knowledge to confuse you about which ducks in his budget are real and which are just highly visible fakes. One of his decoys may be a complex case for an expensive new project; another may be an unrealistic idea for improving an existing product or service.
The Duck Hunter's strategy is to get you so intrigued by the intricacy and lifelike detail of his decoys that you'll forget to take a shot at his real programs. If you're not careful, you could spend a whole afternoon talking about his decoys rather than getting down to the business of analyzing which ducks in his budget you want to blast away at.
His whole plan backfires, though, if you turn out to be a sophisticated duck hunter yourself. You won't be impressed with his decoys. Instead, you'll ignore them and give his other programs a tougher review.
"Venture capital!" the Entrepreneur exclaims. "I need some venture capital to run my department. I can hit it big with the right kind of investment and management support!"
The Entrepreneur -- usually a junior manager -- pulses with energy and positive thinking.He's gutsy, daring, and innovative. Out come the charts, graphs, and projections that show how, with a little seed money, he can accomplish fantastic goals. "We'll make a bundle," he says. "This is our big chance to show what we can do. We'll establish a new position in the industry. Talent, drive, enthusiasm. We've got it. All we need is some extra bucks."
It sounds good, but the Entrepreneur's programs are usually based on untested ideas and unusual approaches. If he fails, you can expect him to shrug and remind you that he did warn you that this was a high-risk proposition.
The Entrepreneur isn't always a junior manager in the company. Sometimes an older manager, facing retirement, suddenly tries to trade on his track record -- and your sympathy. "This is my last chance," he pleads. "Let me show everyone I'm not over the hill."
There's an air of the riverboat confidence man about the Gambler. His poker face is perfect, unreadable, and his eyes don't mirror what he's really thinking. He's in this game because the stakes are high and he's willing to take big risks to win.
"Cut my budget and I'll resign," he threatens. He's betting that you won't call his bluff. If you manage to remain cool in the face of such intimidation, his confidence may crumble. If you don't, he may take the jackpot.
The Surgeon looks grim. He has just stepped out of the operating room where he has performed massive surgery on his budget.You can almost see the bloodstains on his clothes, the exhaustion in his eyes.
"The patient can't take any more," he says in a serious voice. "I've cut everything to the bare bone. More surgery could damage vital organs."
He launches into the details of the operation, explaining the cuts made in his own people's requests and showing you the X-rays of his numbers. When you suggest that you can still see a few areas that need to be cut, he warns you that if you make those cuts, he won't be responsible for his department's not being able to meet its objectives.
The Good Soldier
When the Good Soldier comes on the scene, he marches in step with company policies and goals. He claims strict obedience to your orders in preparing his budget.
"Sir," he says, "this battle plan is the bare minimum, per your orders. I can carry out my duties with this and no less. Sir."
As he turns over his battle plan to you and salutes, he says that he'll leave it up to you to decide whether to change it once you've seen the battle plans from all the other division heads. He waves the company flag, swears unswerving loyalty, and adds, "Sir, I'll carry on the best I can, regardless of the final disposition of my budget. Thank you, Sir."
Since every general wants a Good Soldier like this to depend on, you may be tempted to trust his judgment and give him the money he's requested. Don't do it. If he's had any experience with the Battle of the Budget, he's padded his request liberally.
The Drowning Man
The Drowning Man presents his budget with a panicky look on his face. "We're going down for the last time!" he says, gasping for breath. "Throw us a life preserver before it's too late. We need more money to keep our heads above water."
The Drowning Man tries to make you feel that you've put him in this fix because you've been cold-hearted in the past. His department has always been underfunded, he says, and he proves it by comparing his budget with that of other departments. "We can't meet our objectives without some heroic help. And we need it now!"
Faced with such an urgent plea, it's hard to turn down a Drowning Man. After all, you're standing there high and dry. Maybe this time he really does need some extra funding.
"I'm not here to talk about saving some funds for my department," the Savior says quietly. Then he looks you straight in the eye and his voice rises. "I want to talk about saving the entire company!"
As he warms up, the Savior's speech becomes impassioned, charged with emotion. He talks of his department's past achievements and projections for the future. "Our department," he says in a quavering voice, "will not only hold up its own, but will provide enough profits to carry the whole company if disaster should strike elsewhere."
He quiets down. "But in our selfless work, we need support, lots of support." That usually means lots of money. On the surface, it looks as though the Savior has taken up the weight of a heavy cross, saving the company and all that. But he has just tried to lay a heavier one on you: He's implying that if you don't approve his budget as requested, you're risking the company's future.
The Honest Guy
The Honest Guy is that rarest of all characters -- someone who means exactly what he says. His smile is genuine. He asks about your golf game. His budget estimates appear to be accurate, and they contain no outlandish figures or oddball ideas. He's low-key in describing last year's accomplishments and straightforward about his department's problems.
"I've done the best I can," he concludes."I can virtually guarantee that there's no fat in my budget."
The trouble here is not that you have to see through a role that he's playing. Instead, you have to have the guts to believe in his honesty. If you cut his budget arbitrarily, you could turn him into a Drowning Man -- a real one. Your best bet is to trust your instincts and go along with his requests.