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The beautiful budget
Don't be fooled by its buttoned-up appearance. A budget is a complex work of human expression worthy of complex human attention.
“When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think of only how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”
It’s easy to consider a budget as a practical document for planning and control. After all, a budget captures the predicted financial costs of a course of action, alongside the predicted revenues that course will attract. That’s planning (or a piece of it). Once drafted, a budget becomes a yardstick to measure variances – indicators that predictions were incorrect or incomplete – which can trigger a change of plan. That’s control.
But a budget is also a story told in currency and categories. It shapes and is shaped by the organization’s assumptions about how work is organized and how it moves. It’s a morality story, since it defines what is worthy of funding and what is not. And it’s a persuasive document used to rally resources and convince collaborators that the plan can be accomplished.
In short, a budget is a complex work of human expression – clinical and expressive, practical and theoretical all at once. A budget may not be a work of art (I’ll leave that decision to you), but it is certainly a work of craft. So it’s reasonable to assume it can be elegant, virtuosic, and even beautiful.
So what would a beautiful budget look like? While they weren’t talking about budgets, social scientists Charles Lave and James March (1993) defined the attributes of a “beautiful model,” and a budget is a model of sorts. Their indicators of beauty included:
Simplicity: A beautiful model is simple. A theory that has a small number of assumptions is more attractive than one having a large number of assumptions.
Fertility: A beautiful model is fertile. It produces a relatively large number of interesting predictions per assumption.
Surprise: A beautiful model is unpredictable. It produces some interesting implications that are surprising to us and that are not immediately obvious from the assumptions.
For a budget, specifically, I would add:
Coherence: A beautiful budget is a unified whole that is consistent within itself.
Context-Awareness: A beautiful budget is in conversation with its context – the goals, values, and culture of the people it serves, and the consequence of its conclusions on the people it impacts.
This may seem like a lot to ask (and a lot to do) just to be sure you balance the bottom line. But if that’s all your aiming for, you’ll miss the larger mark.
Small Planet Institute co-founder Anna Lappé once said:
“Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.”
A budget is a plan to spend (and collect) money. It’s a story that has real-world consequence. It’s worth your full attention when you write, read, and believe it.
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Buckminster Fuller quote cited in Adler, Nancy J. “Leading Beautifully: The Creative Economy and Beyond.” Journal of Management Inquiry 20, no. 3 (September 1, 2011): 208–21. https://doi.org/10.1177/1056492611409292.
Lappé, Anna, interview in O Magazine, June 2003
Lave, Charles A., and James G. March. An Introduction to Models in the Social Sciences. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1993.
From the ArtsManaged Field Guide
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Accounting involves recording, summarizing, analyzing, and reporting financial states and actions.
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Traditional management theory describes four core functions of management in any industry: planning, organizing, leading, and controlling. While this framework implies a linear, logical, knowable, and reasonably stable world that rarely appears in the wild, it can offer a useful lens on the work at hand.
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