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Mind of Jacka: The Spaces Between

Blogs Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU Dec 14, 2022

One of the hardest, weirdest things about putting together these posts isn't the content, the naming, or even the logistics. It is trying to figure out what blurb to write for Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter —what words I can put together that might intrigue people enough to visit, look, and read the post. It can be a real struggle. However, there are other times when something magically pops into my head, flows through my fingers, and appears on the page. All I can do is hang on and hope those words make sense when someone else reads them.

A recent attempt included the statement "Ask any successful jazz musician; the rests are as important as the work." I wrote it for a post discussing the need for us to step back from our work, to take a break (a rest) to allow our minds the freedom to explore the problem while we look the other way. I liked the way the blurb sounded. It made sense to me at the time, and it seemed to relate to what I was trying to say. I wrote it, attached the links, and walked away.

But after what seemed like a casual toss into the blogosphere, the phrase continued to resonate. I felt like there was something more there. Then I remembered why, it was based on a quote I use during presentations.

"You spend a lifetime playing music learning what not to play."
—    Dizzy Gillespie

I use the quote most often as part of a presentation on report writing. And the message is that our reports seldom need the voluminous verbiage we spill. People don't need to know everything; they just need to know what is important. So, part of a successful internal auditor's lifetime is spent learning what not to play — I mean, what not to write.

Note that I have known managers, directors, assistant vice presidents, and vice presidents who, in spite of a lifetime of experience, never learned that lesson. And if you are issuing reports that are longer than 20 pages, add your name to the list of internal auditors who desperately need to learn what not to write.

Of course, I could have said more than 10 pages, or more than five pages, but the what is that of 20 pages works. (And if 20 pages is not obvious to you, then you may be in real trouble.) In fact, if your reports are more than 10 pages, ask what it is you don't need to write. And the same for more than five pages. And the same for more than two pages. I digress.

In spite of the foregoing, I'm not saying there is a correct number of pages for any report. But no matter the length of your report, always ask yourself what you are writing that no one needs to read.

Of course, there are many more examples where Mr. Gillespie's quote applies to the world of internal audit. Another relatively obvious example is in interviewing. Anyone trained in interviewing knows the power of silence. We do not like pauses in conversations, and interviews are no exception. So the need to fill that gap can be powerful, causing interviewees to provide additional details that might not have arisen otherwise. The tough thing for any interviewer is to maintain silence after a question is asked. How often have you asked a question, not gotten an immediate answer, and quickly tried to clarify the question? True, the person may not have understood what was being asked. But it is more likely they are searching for an answer. And you probably made things worse with such "clarifications." Again, use the silence to your advantage. And once an answer is given, it is not a bad idea to leave a few more moments of silence to let the interviewee provide more information. There's a lot of advice out there about interviewing, but most guidance suggests an interviewer should spend 60-80% of their time listening rather than talking. And it is best to lean toward the larger number.

But let's go beyond interviews. In any conversation, pauses can be awkward. But that doesn't mean you have to fill every gap with words, syllables, or sounds. Listen to yourself. Are you talking more than someone wants to hear? (If you meet me, don't get me started on geysers or Disneyland. You will hear MUCH more than you want.) Obviously, you shouldn't jump into the middle of someone else's sentences. But also allow the words that have hit the air a moment to breathe. It will allow the other person to continue if that is their desire, and it will help you understand how better to respond. (For more details, look up anything on "Active Listening.")

And a related area, but one we don't think of often, is the constant barrage of meetings we get to attend. How often do you actually take the time to soak in what is being said? Or are you so busy getting your ideas out there, you never even hear what was said prior? (Again, look up "Active Listening.") And how many people are talking just to talk? And how often do you talk just to talk? (A related question, if people are talking just to talk, do they need to be there in the first place? But that's a question for our 100-level course "Quit Holding Meetings That Suck," good for absolutely no credits — the class can only be audited.)

In all things where we talk, we have to practice. And part of that practice is learning when not to talk. You spend a lifetime talking, learning when not to talk. As I've said, those are all fairly obvious situations. But we need to look at everything internal audit does to identify when "not to play." Let's use the example of testing.

We have all fallen in love with the idea of 100% samples. And, even when that can't be accomplished, we still live under the concept that more is better. How much time do we waste performing unnecessary tests or continuing testing when conclusions can already be accurately drawn?

What is unnecessary testing? A lot of the work Farmers Insurance internal audit did in our claims offices was completed without ever looking at a claims file. Instead, we were talking to people about how things were done. And we did it in an atmosphere where they were willing to tell us when they were not completing the process per procedures. At that point we knew the problem. There was no reason to look at a single file. We successfully avoided unnecessary testing.

And what do I mean by continuing testing when conclusions can be accurately drawn? Let me tell you about a little experiment conducted a few years ago. The researcher brought in eight horse race handicappers and asked how they would bet in various scenarios. (The scenarios were races that had been run in the past, so the results were already available. The names of horses and jockeys were not included in case the participants knew about a certain race.) The researcher led the handicappers through four rounds of ten races each. For the first 10 races, the handicappers were allowed any five pieces of information they wanted — jockey weight, trial speeds, past race results, etc. In the second round, they were given any 10 pieces of information they wanted, in the third round 20 pieces, and in the last round, 40 pieces.

After the first round, the handicappers got 17% correct. (Which is pretty good, since random choices would have resulted in a 10% success rate.) They also indicated they were 19% confident in their predictions. Round after round, the handicappers maintained a 17% success rate. Even with 40 pieces of information, they were no more successful. However, their confidence shot up to 31%. All the extra testing only made them more confident; it did nothing to improve their accuracy.

How much of your testing is completed simply to make yourself feel more confident? Such confidence should not come from more testing, it should come from learning, relearning, and learning once again the underlying rules about testing and statistical assurance. And the time wasted with unnecessary additional testing is exacerbated by our preternatural desire for perfection.

We spend a lifetime performing tests to learn what not to test.

At this point I'm getting close to 1,400 words. And the reader is asking if the author has used all his years of writing to know when not to write. I think we're there, so I'll wrap it up.

In all things, learn what not to (metaphorically) play. We don't have time to waste. We need to learn what is important to know. We need to communicate what is important for others to know. We need to know when it is time to rest. Pay attention to meetings, interviews, discussions, testing, reports, everything we do as professionals, to make sure you aren't playing when you don't need to play.

The spaces are as important as what surrounds them.

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.