By David Klein

For most of us, budgets are numerical things. They’re lists, charts, inventories. Additions and subtractions. At their most basic, budgets propose something simple: the amount we spend versus the amount we take in.

While true (and yes, obvious),  this simple equation masks a deep sea of processes, one that incorporates nearly every aspects of a business. Its people, interactions, management, timelines, perceptions, and  priorities.

At the end of the day, budgets themselves may come down to numbers, but keeping projects on budget requires that we attend to far more.

That’s why there is value in viewing  “staying on budget” as an opportunity rather than a constraint. Doing so can help provide the right focus — one that will guide you to effective budget management for virtually any type of project.

When you go beyond the mere numbers, there is so much more that can be done to manage costs and improve project performance.

Take the Time to Know Your Team

Who works well under pressure? Who needs more time to get something right? Who’s best at leading the charge, and who’s best supporting others?

Staying on budget means allocating time appropriately. To do so effectively, you need to know your team inside and out. So why not take “keeping to budget” as an opportunity to think hard about your team? To really know them.

Projects budgets typical require different amounts of work from various roles in your organization. It’s up to you to put the right people on the right projects (provided they are available), and then to manage their time well. The only way this is possible is to  understand the types of people on your team — their strengths, their weaknesses, and what motivates them to succeed — and provide them with opportunities, challenges, and mentorship that aligns with their needs.

Share the Work

Managing a budget involves so many variables, that it’s almost impossible for one person to stay on top of them. That’s why keeping on budget is a multi-person job. This is true in multiple ways: making a budget should be a team project, and staying on budget should be a team project.

As manager, you may think you see everything. And there are tools and methods to help you do so. But when your team helps plan the budget, magical things happen: your employees can highlight missing processes or systems you take for granted. With additional ground-up input into the budget, you’re better equipped to account for outliers or larger organizational issues that could impact your plans.

Similarly, when you’re in the middle of a project, your team — the people down in the trenches — can help you brainstorm your way out of problems. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t make the final decisions. But it does give you more information when you have to make them.

Rebudget. Then Rebudget Again

Sure, you want to stick to your original plan. But that only works if everything goes exactly as it’s supposed to. And things never do.

That’s why keeping on budget is about giving yourself space to reorganize things as needed. It’s about staying fluid. Every week, or every few days, you need to assess your resources and accomplishments, and tweak until they align again.

To do this best, you need to set aside time to re-budget. Build this time into your calendar. It’s easy to assume that you’ll get that done along the way. Don’t!

When things start to slip – and things might  start to slip – the adjustments you make will depend on your priorities. And all priorities involve compromises. If cost is your main goal, employee morale may suffer. If it’s quality, then things may take a little longer. If it’s speed, then you may spend a little more.

Context Is King

What does it mean if you go over budget? Is this an important client you need to keep at all costs? If you spend more time on this project than is budgeted, are you missing opportunities to take on other work?

Sometimes budgets are guidelines. Sometimes they are written in stone. Your job is to  work within them, even if costs or deadlines or client expectations change.

The art of management is in how you do so. Whether you motivate the team to work extra hours or renegotiate with the client (or both) —  or hire third-party contractors to help you hit a critical deadline — your actions should align with the goals of your organization.

That’s why it’s important to take a step back. To think big. To look at every project and every budget in the larger context of what your business is trying to do.

Yes, you want this project to come in on time and under budget. But you’ll do better in the long run if you remember that it’s not just about this project — it’s about all the projects past, present, and future.

David Klein is a San Francisco-based marketing executive who focuses on technologies that empower people and businesses. He is the Director of Marketing for ClickTime, an award-winning time tracking platform that helps businesses reduce costs, improve operations, and increase revenue. You can follow him at @ClickTime!