Report from Council: Anticipate the Future

Surveys show that more and more clients are complaining that their accountants are not proactive or innovative enough – but they can change that, according to futurist Daniel Burrus.

In a keynote address to the Fall Meeting of Council of the American Institute of CPAs, held here, Burrus warned attendees that the profession’s traditional focus on the historical and backward-looking might put it at risk. “Why is the windshield bigger than the rearview mirror?” he asked.

“You need to stop working out of hindsight, and start working out of foresight,” he said, and then debunked the objection that the future is inherently more uncertain than the past, and not susceptible to prediction. “In a world of uncertainty, I can actually be certain about a lot,” he said. “For instance, I’m certain we’ll all be really busy.”

More seriously, he explained an approach to thinking about the future that can yield actionable, reliable ideas, by breaking the future down into “hard trends” and “soft trends.” Hard trends are inevitable and unstoppable – the progress of the seasons, the aging of the Baby Boomers, the rolling out of scheduled provisions in already-passed legislation like the Affordable Care Act – and there are far more of them than you might think. Soft trends are those that can be changed – he cited the relative decline in young accountants taking the CPA Exam, which can reversed – and while they can be valuable, they are not as useful or as reliable as hard trends, which can form the basis of whole new service lines or entire businesses.

Burrus recommended that everyone in the profession start devoting some time to thinking along these lines: “Spend an hour a week unplugging from the present, and plug into your future.”

“I’m excited about this profession and where we’re going,” he concluded. “Rather than sitting back, we can look to the future. We can make the profession more future-focused and future-relevant.”


The Anticipatory Organization

Discerning the difference between hard and soft trends is at the core of a new online learning system, The Anticipatory Organization: Accounting and Finance Edition, being rolled out by the Business Learning Institute and the Maryland Association of CPAs in partnership with Burrus.

“The Anticipatory Organization learning system is about being able to anticipate change, rather than just reacting,” Burrus said in an interview with Accounting Today. “It’s about anticipating problems for our own firms and for our clients; anticipating disruptions before they have a chance to disrupt our clients’ businesses; anticipating customer needs before they express them; and anticipating game-changing opportunities before they happen.”

In short, easily digestible video modules that include reinforcing exercises, the program teaches accountants how to identify hard trends, anticipate disruptions, and turn them into business opportunities.

Four state CPA societies have already partnered with The Anticipatory Organization to offer the training program to their members, including the Colorado Society of CPAs, the Florida Institute of CPAs, the New Jersey Society of CPAs, and the Texas Society of CPAs.

Mississippi-based Top 100 Firm Horne LLP was the first accounting firm to go through the training.

“We have as a CPA profession been the historian and the look-back, which is important, but this training helps us change our mindset to be more anticipatory about what our client needs,” Kathy Watts, partner-in-charge of the Health Care Practice Group at Horne, told Accounting Today. “That helps us being pre-active, not just proactive. It is a skillset that has to be learned.”

The firm is rolling out the training to all seven practice groups and more than 500 employees, but the 70-plus people in the Health Care Group went first, because the group was building its strategy for next year. “With the transformation going on in health care, being anticipatory is an important skill set,” Watts explained. “Having the definition of what is a hard trend and what is a soft trend, knowing the difference, made it much easier to see where we should be. We have a tendency to have a lot of grandiose ideas about what our clients might need, but this helped us narrow it down.”

“You can’t do everything,” Burrus said, “so you have to refine it down from all the could-dos and getting rid of the should-dos and coming up with a few must-dos that you can accomplish and that will give you a high payoff. ‘Based on these hard trends, we’ll do this, then this, and then this’ -- instead of trying to do everything all at once. This gives you a way to filter it with confidence.”

Watts stressed that it was important to have all employees involved: “If just management or the partner group does it by themselves, you won’t truly innovate – you need the people who are on the ground serving the clients to be thinking that way themselves. They’re really excited about it – they’re really enthusiastic about learning how to do it in a different way.”

Watts said that the training was convenient – “It has very small sections of learning; you can fit it into your busy schedule,” she said. “It’s very flexible in terms of feeding into your schedule. Our younger team members really like that.” – but also noted that while she completed it in three weeks, she was “on a strategic mission,” and most people will want to take a little longer. On the other hand, she expects that she’ll revisit it regularly: “I would think that annually we would want to go through it again – the trends will change over time and you’ll want to revisit it.”

“It’s not just being able to see where things are going, but to practice everyday innovation for a field that isn’t usually associated with innovation,” Burrus summed up. “To do everyday innovation, we need tools. The system gives us not just a concept, but a methodology to help you apply the concept.”

Special thanks to Tom Hood, Bill Sheridan and the Maryland Association of CPAs for making our virtual attendance at Council possible.


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