Don’t wait — innovate

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The notion of innovation is so hedged about with myths and misconceptions that many of us think it’s beyond us — that innovating is somehow reserved to a small cadre of tech wizards and entrepreneurs, with the occasional scientist thrown in for authenticity.

The fact is that innovation is within all our grasps. We can all look at things with fresh eyes, and we can all try something new — we only have to allow ourselves to do so. Of course, considering the daunting mythology that’s grown up around the idea of innovation, granting yourself or your staff or your firm permission doesn’t come easily, which is a problem, since most people in the profession think that accountants are going to need to be much more innovative in the future than they are now. (See the chart below.)

So I was particularly happy to have had a chance recently to hear representatives of a trio of firms talk about how they created cultures of innovation. The panel took place at an executive roundtable hosted by the American Institute of CPAs and CPA.com in January, and each of the speakers shared their firm’s journey into innovation, and some of the tools and structures and attitudes they use to build and support an innovative mindset. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Build structure for innovation. At Top 100 Firm EisnerAmper, “We had a lot of ideas, but no framework for moving them forward. Or we’d hit busy season, and everything would stop. We had to create an infrastructure to support all these ideas we were thinking of,” explained Stacy Robin, the firm’s director of innovation. “We’re launching an innovation committee, and I’m the centralized person to manage all the different pieces centrally.” Having a formalized way to elicit, evaluate and support new ideas will prevent the sort of burnout and disillusionment that can all too easily set in.
  • Innovation is not always about originality. “We’re not looking for an Einstein or a DaVinci,” said Javier Goldin, managing partner of Goldin Group CPAs. “We want people who are creative — they can take a little bit of everything that’s out there.” Repurposing and recombining and just plain stealing ideas can be just as powerful as creating things from the ground up.

  • It’s always the beginning. Andries Verschelden, head of the blockchain practice at Armanino, said that at his Top 100 Firm, “We embrace the Day One culture: Think of every day as if it’s the very first day of the firm.” Among other things, that means deprivileging SALY to focus on results over processes, learning to make good decisions quickly, and being “obsessed with the customer.”
  • Celebrate failure. “We have a self-assessment where we asked, ‘How many times did you fail?’” said Goldin, whose firm encourages employees to create and innovate, but also makes it safe for them to do so. “You want to make sure that people know it’s OK to be wrong,” added Robin. “In schools, we teach people that it’s bad to be wrong, so we really need to celebrate failure.”
  • Include everyone. Goldin said, “We have champions, but everybody should be innovative — particularly those who are on the front line with our clients.” Don’t force it, though; as Robin noted, the most effective approach is to allow people to opt in.

Hopefully, that will get you started — but if the notion of being innovative yourself is still too daunting, think about this: Being open to innovation is the next best thing to being innovative yourself. Whether it’s a software vendor, a young staff member or a consultant, the next time someone presents you with a high-potential idea, don’t dismiss it because no one else has tried it. You’ll probably have to adopt it in the end — why not get ahead of the curve?

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