Mind of Jacka: A Review of LinkedIn Comments on Report Reviews
Blogs Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU Nov 02, 2022
You write about report writing and you're always going to hit a nerve. And it looks like my last post, Mind of Jacka: This is the Final Draft (theiia.org), hit quite a few nerves. There were a lot of good comments and thoughts, ones that got me, well, thinking.
What follows are some of the themes and quotes from those comments, including my tips, stories, etc., some of which you've heard before. But, I'm old; I repeat myself. I repeat myself.
Get in One Room
One of the most prevalent suggestions was to get everyone in one room to hash out the contents of the report before any writing is started. This is a powerful approach. It gets everyone on the same metaphorical page regarding the content of the report. And it provides everyone with a better understanding of what is expected in future reports — approaches, wordings, issues, and politics.
Of course, depending on the size of the department, bringing everyone together may be problematic. But, one way or the other, everyone in the department should all receive the same messages.
An approach I used was to bring my team together (five to seven at any given time) and go through the drafts of reports we were working on. I'd project them on the wall and talk about what I was seeing, what might be changed, and what my expectations were. Mind you, it wasn't just my input. My word was not sacrosanct because I knew I didn't always have it right. Everyone was expected to participate. By the end of the time together, we would have the finished product.
However, here's the warning about these approaches. Without group-wide trust, an open discussion about reports, whether ones being written or ones in draft form, will fail. It requires honesty and it requires empathy. And it requires everyone in the group knowing there is nothing personal involved. (And it requires that no one in the group turn it into a personal attack) If you do not have that within your group, then any approach bringing everyone together will suffer. There will not be sharing, there will not be openness, and there will be ill-feelings in the future.
(And a quick note: If you don't have such trust, openness, and empathy within the department, then you have bigger fish to fry than just problems with report writing.)
How Big a Report is Too Big?
Another issue that was brought up quite often had to do the length of the report. Comments such as "We're still agonizing over whether a 20+ page report is worded 'the right way' and how it will be received' and "I have spent days cutting 30+ pages of reports to just less than 5 pages" show the frustration regarding reports that are just too darned long. If we're frustrated, what must the customers be thinking?
One person suggested "having a one-page report containing all the 'need to knows' in one visual summary." And we should ask ourselves why (and if) any client would want more than that? Our approach (as with many other departments) was to have a one-page executive summary followed by a report that had most of the details. And the report itself was seldom more than 10 or 15 pages, including appendices.
I'm fine with the extra pages, because there is always going to be that one client who wants that extra piece of information. But the focus of our time should be on the executive summary.
I have a great meme that shows a professor saying, "Your paper must be a minimum of five pages," followed by Michael Scott from "The Office" saying, "Explain it to me in seven seconds or I'm out." And that is what we face; clients who just want to know what is going on, not all the details of how we got there.
Think of it that way, and it will change your approach.
Speaking of "a minimum of five pages…"
When we went to college, there was an emphasis on volume: Five pages, 10,000 words, write a book every semester, recreate the Library of Alexandria. But the real world isn't that way.
Further, there was an emphasis on a style of writing that matched the academic world, even in business classes. But, again, the real world isn't that way.
So, as one person lamented, "Why can't writers write well enough the first time? [Because] we don't get that training at university or in CPA/CIA studies."
Nailed it. We must recognize that the fresh faces coming in to our departments have not been trained to do things the way we want. In fact, even if you are hiring seasoned auditors/accountants/any professional, they are not going to write the way your department writes. And that means taking the time to work with them on understanding what is considered a good report before expecting them to produce a glowing product that comes out perfect every time.
And while we're talking about training, we have to realize that people's inability to write is not always a function of their writing skills. Rather, it's a function of their auditing skills — of not being trained on the correlation between good auditing and good report writing.
For about a year, we went through a process where the CAE would hold an all-hands meeting every month, with every single auditor required to be in attendance. During that meeting, the CAE would go through the drafts that had been submitted, explaining what was wrong (and seldom right) with them.
After sitting through a few of these meetings, I had one of those revelatory moments that make you smack your forehead and wonder where Captain Obvious was when you needed him. The things the CAE kept talking about were not about the way the reports were written. Instead, they were rooted in the fact that the work had not been done correctly.
It was not a problem with report writing; it was a problem with conducting audits.
Which brings us right back to training. Are we training people to audit with the report in mind? And are we writing reports based on solid audit processes?
One person made an astute statement to the effect that some people in audit leadership positions have to justify their existence, and that justification comes partially from fiddling with the audit report. These are people that, because they are no longer in the trenches doing the "real" work, are still trying to figure out their role.
This is a dandy question anyone in leadership should ask themselves. If you are not doing audit work, what is your role in the department? How are you adding value? I will tell you now that it is not by nitpicking audit reports. And, unless the reviews being conducted are actual training — making the auditors better — then there is no value there. (Perfection, or semi-perfection, does not have value.)
It is always worth taking a closer look to determine if constant rewrites and comments are the result of audit leadership not understanding that their role is to lead the team, promote the department, and build relationships, not keep their heads buried in the workpapers.
And so on…
There were a lot of other great points made in the comment sections (primarily in LinkedIn); you should read them yourselves. But here's two quick ones before we go.
It was suggested that one point of the review (and of making the report shorter) is to find areas where issues can be combined. For me, if I had a report that had a large number of issues, I would do that very thing — work with the auditors to see if some couldn't be combined. First, this shortens the report. But second (and more importantly) such combinations usually result in broader issues and better root causes — root causes that reach across the organization.
Another comment talked about politics. One thing every auditor has to be aware of and needs to ensure they understand is the politics within the organization and the politics of the situation. Often rewrites come about because the auditor doesn't understand such impacts. This is another good reason to bring everyone together before the writing starts. This will allow everyone to gain that broader picture and to understand how reports should be written to avoid such issues.
And My Two Cents
Nothing I've said here or in my prior post is meant to say that reviews and rewrites are a bad thing. Instead, I'm saying that we have to be careful about what we think is being gained by conducting them. And I will note that I think there are only three solid reasons for reviews.
The first is if they are used to train the auditors — to provide value by making them significantly better at their jobs.
The second is because every report needs to be proofread by someone. There will always be that reader who, upon seeing the misuse of a comma, will determine the entire report is useless because of that one error. You'll never catch all the errors, but reducing them to the barest minimum does indicate some professionalism.
Finally, there is nothing like seeing words in print to make anyone reevaluate what has been agreed to. Even when internal audit agrees about what should be written, seeing it in writing is a very different thing. And that goes double/triple/quadruple/etc. for the client. They can verbally agree to almost anything. But seeing it in writing may cause them to perform the backstroke so quickly they tear a rotator cuff.
So, as I noted, a lot of thought, comments, and great insights from everyone. I greatly appreciate it. And each could be the subject of its own 1,000-word blog post, 3,000-word article, or 50,000-word book. But we only have so much room here.
So, I'll only add one thing to this far-too-long blog post. And I want to add it because I think this was the best line I saw from anyone. Sara Jones wrote, "Because most reviewers think that rewriting a report shows they've read it. But it's like an excitable puppy putting its muddy paws all over someone — only not as cute."
To misquote Charlton Heston, "Keep your muddy paws off my report you darned, dirty reviewer."