Accounting firms generally are not who you think of when you mention "innovation," yet many firms excel at innovation and there is a pattern to their success. Innovation is directly linked to growth and not an epiphany like many think; but rather a process that combines hindsight, vision and insight. The accounting profession is going through significant changes and I am often told by firm leaders they just don't have the next generation of leaders in their firms.
In many cases there is validity to their statement and a better understanding of innovation and how firms get into this situation can help firms take the necessary steps to balance between "discovery" and "delivery" skills. Discovery skills focus on new opportunities, trends and creativity while delivery focuses on execution. You need both, but the tendency is to focus on delivery.
Mature and typically declining firms are dominated by people with excellent delivery skills, but often lack the proper balance of discovery skills. Typically, one or more firm founders were entrepreneurial and tended to hire people for their delivery skills and not their discovery skills. As a result, many partners and managers don't know how to think about discovery or give enough value to the importance of innovation.
Accounting programs teach people delivery skills while most experiences and on-thejob training also focuses on delivery and execution. In fact, many of the discovery skills are viewed as nonproductive - more about that later. I believe innovation or lack thereof can explain some of the frustration and what firms must do in order to develop the next generation of innovative leaders.
DIRECTIONAL VS. INTERSECTIONAL
Let's look at two different types of innovation and then how the most successful firms are modernizing their practices to meet the needs and wants of their clients. Accounting majors are taught the rules and regulations of the profession in school and throughout their careers. This is not a negative, but rather a fact as their perception is often different than those with different training and aptitudes. Upon graduation, most accountants going into public practice start in audit and/or tax. This has been the traditional approach and is the primary reason most innovation in firms is directional innovation. Directional innovation tends to improve a service in fairly predictable steps with a well-defined dimension or goal. The majority of innovation is directional and is accomplished through increasing levels of expertise and specialization (delivery skills). This is a low risk approach and one with which many CPAs are comfortable. There is nothing wrong with directional innovation, yet it is limiting due to the fact most of the participants are looking at the problem from the same perspective.
Darwin John, former CIO at the FBI once said "if two of you have the same opinion, then we don't need one of you". This may be a bit extreme, but the point is that for real innovation (discovery) to occur it requires multiple perspectives. This is often called intersectional innovation where multiple disciplines meet in the attempt to solve a problem or improve a solution. From my experience in the CPA profession, two areas within firms that have been responsible for innovation over the past 20 years are firm administration and technology. Leaders in these areas have been attempting to bring the silos together and improve performance through improved communications, efficiency and effectiveness.
One step in entrepreneurial innovation and the one leading firms are focusing on is intersectional or client-centric innovation. It not only involves the client, but his multidiscipline advisors. This can be difficult due to egos and personalities, but the CPA is the most trusted business advisor and should take his or her role seriously by acting as the quarterback when it comes to innovation and improved client services.
While many CPAs were trained to be rugged individualists (with an intense focus on delivery) and solve the clients' problems on their own or with a small team, that approach no longer meets the needs of a majority of clients today.
Today, clients are looking for faster, better, cheaper and easier solutions forcing firms to be innovative and sensitive to clients' wants and needs. The capturing of transactions is becoming a commodity with new technology and the ability to aggregate and integrate information via cloud based solutions. In the past tax return preparation has involved a significant amount of time (fee) in aggregating data while technology has automated the calculation and processing of the return. In other words, the CPA is now caught in a situation where the services they are offering are diminishing in value (commoditization). Part of this is due to technological innovation and part is due to the pricing strategies used by the majority of firms (hours times dollarslabor theory of value).
We are living in a connected world and someone is making those connections. As the trusted business advisor it should be you, the CPA, and your firm. The people making these connections tend to be professionals who excelled in one field, but learned from others. This describes many CPAs and why they are the most trusted business advisor. Formal education increases the probability of attaining creative success to a point and then actually reduces the odds. A key to prolonged success throughout ones career is lifelong learning and multiple experiences. It makes sense to spend time on a variety of projects if you wish to develop fresh and groundbreaking ideas. The value comes from being able to spot trends and then integrate what you already know. This requires curiosity and an interest in a variety of things. Innovators don't produce because they are successful, but they are successful because they produce.
Diversity promotes innovation while too much expertise can create barriers to innovation. Innovation requires a balance. More good ideas come when working in a group than when working independently. The big question becomes: What can and should firms do to promote innovation at the inter-section? As I said earlier in the article, innovation occurs with vision, hindsight and insight. By looking at the current generation of great firm leaders we see several characteristics that allowed them to be innovative. Let's looks at a list of the most important discovery characteristics.
1. The ability to connect and associate different perspectives (clients, multiple advisors, trends, technology and etc.)
2. The ability to question the status quo.
3. The ability to hold self and others accountable.
4. The willingness to participate in "safe haven" meetings with peer leaders.
5. The ability to manage, not avoid risk. The quantity of new ideas improves the quality. Create the environment to promote, not stifle innovation.
This list may not seem important to those who focus only on the delivery side. Firms must be cautious not to swing the pendulum too far toward the delivery or discovery skills. Both skills are required, important and cannot be ignored. Success today requires a team. The team should involve younger members who are capable and expected to challenge the status quo or strategy, which has often been developed and implemented by senior leadership.
The fact is most large organizations generally fail at disruptive innovation because top management has been selected for their delivery skills. While it is the managing partner or CEOs role to lead the innovation it is an extremely difficult assignment. Delivery executives do not like having the strategy constantly challenged nor do they appreciate change. Does your firm reward and promote discovery skills? If the answer is no, you have your answer as to why you don't have the innovative leaders for the future. Now is the time to identify and develop leaders with the skills and willingness to focus on intersectional innovation. The future success of your firm depends upon innovation.
AN INNOVATION CHECKLIST
Here are five areas where innovation will produce significant results. Granted they may not fit every firm, but most firms will find three or more of these innovative ideas profitable.
1. Billing and collection policies - use technology to improve cash flow (ACH payments & credit cards). This requires different thinking and change management. Too many firms are allowing clients to treat them as interest free or "cheap" banks. You can turn this around with improved engagement letters that specify payment terms leveraging monthly bank drafts.
2. Tax return preparations processes - avoid loops and focus on one-way workflow. There are better ways to train than sending work back to the preparer. You can use technology to grade performance and report errors. Current workflow software has its roots with outsourcing companies. If Federal Express can track packages electronically, firms should be able to track work in an efficient manner reducing cycle time.
3. Client accounting in the cloud - firms can provide transactional as well as value added services such as bill payment, payroll, controller, human resources, IT and CFO-related services on a monthly basis. Private labeled software that can be centrally updated and supported will allow firms to take back control of accounting. It will also allow your firm to become hardware agnostic. It works the same on Mac as on a Windowsbased PC via a browser.
4. Use portals to aggregate client data for auditing and accounting as well as tax return preparation. Avoid false starts and wasted time. Portals provide security, are inexpensive and clients like them. Most of the resistance I see is within the firm.
5. Conduct client focus groups with marketing, tax and technology expertise present. This will provide innovation at the intersection from multiple perspectives. Listen to the client and provide the services they want. Utilize firm leaders with discovery skills.
INNOVATION AND LEADERSHIP
Innovation is part of a firm's culture and DNA. It requires leadership and the willingness to manage risk. Not every idea is a great idea, but the quantity of ideas determines quality. Successful firms balance discovery and delivery skills. Does your firm have the discovery skills necessary to meet your clients' demands in a rapidly changing world? Provide your people with the time and resources to innovate. Based upon recent studies, most firms are less than 50 percent chargeable. What better use of the nonchargeable time than innovation, training and new business development?
Gary Boomer, CPA, is the president of Boomer Consulting, in Manhattan, Kan.
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