Are You in Shape to Innovate?
Reprinted with permission from Accounting Today.
You don’t have to be a gym rat to know that when they go unused, muscles atrophy and are less able to help the body function and thrive. As for how to build muscle, everybody has an opinion. But whether you ask a bodybuilder or a doctor, the recommendations all acknowledge that the more you train a muscle, the more you trigger its growth. And the more it grows, the more work it can perform.
All this talk of strength and sweat brings me to accounting. Friends, in this era of great change, it’s time to exercise muscles we may not even know exist.
In a recent article, Initiate to Innovate: Because Passivity Is Passé, I made the case for moving beyond a reactive, compliance-based, deadline-driven world to one where you aren’t merely responding to calendar deadlines, but rather initiating activity. In this article, I describe a self-propelled path to initiate and strengthen your creativity, collaboration and communication capabilities.
It was once believed that humans distinguished themselves from the animal kingdom by our ability to use tools. But tool-savvy animals are now known to exist on land, air and sea. I maintain that the ability to create is that human/animal demarcation. Humans create. We make music, art, poetry and dance. And before you tell me that accountants do not create, I’ll remind you that one of your predecessors developed double-entry bookkeeping, a work of creativity if ever there was one!
Our important focus on standards, legal frameworks and compliance, which is the bedrock of our profession, is a double-edged sword. We are an important part of the world of commerce. On the flip side we’ve not fully developed our creative muscle. Today the advent of technology in our industry requires creative innovation.
We’re expected to apply technologies like artificial intelligence and bots to solve business problems for our clients. We’re being asked to create need-specific, technology-enhanced services. For most of us, the creativity muscle has lain dormant. Now it’s time to wake it up.
The second muscle group in need of strengthening is collaboration. Traditionally our profession has looked more like golf than football, with individual contributors using individual skills to build individual books of business. In the current environment however, innovating our services necessitates a group endeavor. No one person in the firm has all the necessary skills and experience to successfully commercialize a promising new technology.
In order to meet the needs of an increasingly sophisticated marketplace, we must make choices as a team about which technologies will be infused into which service lines. Service line leaders need to collaborate with technology leaders and industry leaders to determine the appropriate alignment of technology to industry, something that was not required back when everyone sold and delivered audit and tax services and nothing more.
Because this muscle has been under-used, practitioners often don’t know how to collaborate. For example, I’m currently assisting a firm whose data analytics and manufacturing leaders have struggled with initiating and collaborating, each waiting for the other to do something. But they are finally beginning to understand the benefit of working together, as they discover use cases with market appeal.
Communication is an expression of collaboration. One of my CPA firm clients is working to pilot an early adopter program for tech-driven services. I suggested that the audit leader talk with the industry leaders to determine which industries will be targeted for the early adopter program. His response? “Why would I do that?”
Communication is the essential link between an idea and an offering. Taking something in your head and creating a written conceptual design enables others to visualize your innovation. But many of my clients struggle with this, staring at a blank sheet of paper. We are used to working with numbers, not drawing pictures! Another example is creating a written plan which outlines the steps to commercialize your innovation. Sharing this with all those involved and getting their feedback, is a best practice in product management, a concept new to many.
Time to Pump It Up
The muscles needed to help you grow may be unused, or even unknown. But like the muscles you suddenly feel after a strenuous set of lunges, they can be identified and strengthened.
Consider the four competencies: initiate, create, collaborate and communicate. Take an honest assessment of where you are with each. Ask close colleagues to evaluate you. Identify the gaps between where you are and where you want to be. Then start filling the gaps, through guided reading, attending events or working with a coach.
These are skills needed for your future success. So, feel the burn as you exercise muscles essential to grow, today and tomorrow!