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Mind of Jacka: That's Interesting

Blogs Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU Sep 28, 2022

In a recent blog post, I was discussing a contest some friends and I had related to quotes we liked. In the polling that was part of the contest, two of the quotes tied. I made the following comment:

"Kind of interesting that the tie was between a funny quote and an insightful one. Not sure what that means. But, just like the beginning of any audit, you gather information and look for the 'interesting' stuff."

After writing that, I began to think a little more about that phrase I tossed out in the throes of creativity. (A lot of what I do is tossing stuff around and seeing what comes out. It's just dumb luck that any of this, in the end, sometimes makes sense.) And I began to wonder if internal auditors recognize the value of "interesting."

We all know that one of our primary roles is the gathering of information. We do tests. We perform walk-throughs. We do interviews. We pull data from anywhere and everywhere. We are information vacuums, gathering the valuable, the useless, and the questionable in our incessant search to determine if things are working well. And, at the end of the day, we analyze, evaluate, scrutinize, and sort through all that data with the idea (the hope) that we will come up with… something.

But do we understand that, ultimately, what we are looking for is stuff that is interesting? Not the big things, but the small items that catch our attention because they are different? Yes, we want the big picture, the overall evaluation, the results that are the culmination of all that information gathering. But that is not where the real value and the important discoveries are found. It is the outliers, the subtle differences, the little quirks that can lead us to the truly important discoveries — the interesting things that lead us to find out what is really going on.

"The most exciting phrase in science is not 'Eureka!' it's, 'That's funny…'" – Isaac Asimov

Seldom are there Eureka moments in internal audit — moments when we go from data to startling discoveries of what is wrong or right in the areas we are reviewing. Instead, it is usually a slow realization and understanding of the overall picture. Similarly, the discovery of some of the most significant issues are not "Eureka, look what we found!" but "That is interesting. I wonder what it means."

Take Benford's Law as an example. It is one of the more powerful tools in an internal auditor's arsenal. (If you don't know about Benford's Law, it is not only worth looking up, but also taking a deep dive into the way it works.) And as that analysis is done, there is no great "Aha!" moment when the facts and problems come together in a collision that forces your attention. No, it is about gathering information and finding the points that make you say "That's interesting" — points that make you want to dig further to figure out exactly what is going on.

So, if we are all willing to accept the premise that finding what is interesting is an important skill for any internal auditor, then do we hire, train, and reinforce that very concept? Do we look for and bolster the idea that good internal auditors are looking for the weird, the unusual, the things that make us say "What the…?"

We do a lot of training around interviewing, testing, analysis, et al, but do we also focus on the need to look for the moments that make us wonder exactly what is going on? And do we look for people who are interested and excited to find those outliers? Are we so focused on making sure we are hiring good accountants (to pick a profession at random) that we forget we need people who can think and, perhaps, think differently.

There are two things I looked for in every auditor: creativity and inquisitiveness. Everything else can be taught. (Well, almost everything. There was this one auditor… well, we'll save that for another time.)

Creativity is a topic I've expounded on multiple times, so I won't harp on that right now. But inquisitiveness… well, that is the core to finding an auditor who isn't happy with the first answer, the auditor who looks at a pile of data and wonders why that one piece doesn't fit, the auditor who lives for the opportunity to say, "That's interesting." The auditor who finds the important and valuable things, not just the things that smack even the most casual observer upside the head.

And, whether we have those kinds of auditors or not, and whether we are those kinds of auditors or not, we have to instill, support, and nurture that inquisitiveness. We have to give everyone, including ourselves, the freedom to explore when exploration is the right answer. As Admiral Farragut never said, "Damn the scope and full steam ahead."

Okay, maybe that is too extreme. But, on the other hand, we have to be careful when we use excuses like time, scope, and budget as a reason for not exploring what needs to be explored — using those excuses to shut down and quash inquisitiveness, destroying the development of individuals who might find things more important, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy (or our audit scope.)

There are many aspects related to success for an internal auditor or an internal audit department. But none of them may be more important than the ability and desire to find things that are interesting, funny, or different — things that make us stop and go "Hmmm…"

Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU

Co-founder and Chief Creative Pilot, Flying Pig Audit, Consulting, and Training Services (FPACTS), based in Phoenix.

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