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Mind of Jacka: Can You Get Rid of the Blue Duck?

Blogs Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU Jun 24, 2022

Have you ever heard of a little presentation trick called "The Blue Duck"? It was used for years by one ad agency. They would put together carefully worked-out presentation concepts, then add a blue duck somewhere in the visuals. The clients would come back and say, "We love it. But can you get rid of the duck?" The creatives would hem, haw, and finally give in. The result was the concept the ad agency wanted all along. No changes. (The preceding was adapted from a description found within the strangely interesting little book, "Now Try Something Weirder" by Michael Johnson.)

So, there are a couple of things going on here, things worth noting. The first is that people love to change things. I worked for one individual that, no matter how good the report, always made a change. All we could figure was that the individual felt this was the only way to show their impact on the work being done. (It might have been the only proof they did any work at all, but that's another problem.) I'm guessing most of us can cite similar instances where review notes, comments, or suggestions appear to be change for change's sake — done to show the imprint of the reviewer.

Similarly, our clients want to feel they have had an impact. So, they might ask for a change simply for change's sake — a tweak to a test; an extra interview; a different symbol for a flowchart; or a rewrite of a line in a report, the terms of reference, a memo, or a subscript to the footnote on the appendix related to extra point number 5.

If we are smart, we give them those meaningless changes. We let them remove what we might consider blue ducks. As long as it doesn't impact the work, the findings, or the solutions, what difference does it make? (Note that I have watched auditors who decided to die on those particular hills and, while they may have won a battle, they lost the long-term war for respect and perceived value.)

But there is a second point here. And, maybe, really, a question. When the client focuses on the blue duck, they don't focus on all the other picky points that can come up. They see the blue duck and suddenly don't care about anything else.

With that in mind, is it right for us to put blue ducks in our work?

Obviously, we cannot put in glaring errors. That destroys the credibility of everything we do. But can we find little things that do no harm to our reputation and the reputation of our work but aren't really needed — something obvious to the client, that will allow them to have input.

I had an auditor who liked to try and slip big words into our reports. He wasn't wedded to including them; he was trying to see if I would catch them. It was a game between us. I think I caught them all. And, a few times, I left them in because they perfectly expressed what needed to be said. But, looking back I have to wonder, 'Was he blue-ducking me?'

Of course, the minute you start playing the blue duck game, you have to be careful. Imagine if the ad agency added a blue duck and the client really liked it. Suddenly you're stuck with a blue duck no one really wanted.

A somewhat similar situation happened as we were working on restructuring the department. We knew the committee responsible for approving our proposal and, just like any budget group, we knew they were going to look for cuts. So, for one tier of managerial positions, we requested a salary grade one level higher than we actually wanted. Our assumption was that they would come back asking for cuts and we'd (begrudgingly) take those salary grades down one level.

You may have already guessed the punch line. Everything went through with flying colors. No comments, no changes, no cuts. And now we had a structure where one of the positions really didn't fit in the way we needed it to. We lived. But the blue duck came back to haunt us many times.

So, with all that background, what might internal audit's blue ducks be? As already noted, it can't be an obvious error because that would impact the veracity and validity of the department. And it cannot be something that, if removed, invalidates the work that was done.

And there is an even more important question. Is it ethical to use such an approach?

I don't know the answer. Maybe there is something out there that we can add, purely with the idea that it will be removed and, by doing so, avoid the stickling that occurs with some clients. Or maybe, without knowing it, we've already got blue ducks that should be removed to make the final product a success. Maybe we should have the mindset that blue ducks will be found whether we mean for them to be there or not.

It is important that we understand the mindset that leads to blue duck approaches: the need for people to feel they have had an impact and made changes. But it is also important to understand the flexibility we need when working with others — the ability to remove blue ducks we didn't know were there, and the ability to listen to what our clients are saying.

And, maybe, just maybe, we need to put a few blue ducks in just to see if anyone is paying attention.

Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU

Mike Jacka is co-founder and chief creative pilot of Flying Pig Audit, Consulting, and Training Services (FPACTS), based in Phoenix.

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