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Stagnation in a Time of Great Change

Blogs Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU Nov 17, 2020

Let me tell you a story, I may have told it before, but … No wait.

I'll tell you this one. I know you've heard it before, but … No, let me try this one. I don't think I've told it too often …

You know what? Before I tell a story I'm sure you've heard before, let me provide a prefix — some context, if you will.

It seems that, more and more, I am typing the phrase, "I've told this story before" or its equivalent. I know I'm getting old and, much like my grandfather before me, I retell stories I've told many times before. (And there is a solid chance that, just like him, those stories are getting better over time. That's not the problem I want to address.) But our current situation has shown me that age is not the only reason/excuse.

Like everyone else, I've been locked up for a while. (Upon rereading this there is a hint of incarceration in the statement. However, I'll let it stand.) I am not out and about, meeting and talking with other human beings. This has resulted in a sharp decline in the influx of new experiences. And I've realized something that should be obvious. As inputs and sources disappear, I am forced to refer to the same stories.  My grandfather told the same stories because they were the only stories he had. My father started doing the same thing.  And I would ask you not to speak with my children about similar occurrences within our household. (The phrase "Dad, you already told us that" hurts as much from a 12-year-old as it does from a 30-year-old. Well, so what, I've heard your stories, too.)

I sit here taking the principles of social distancing as far as reasonably possible (I like to think of it as reducing the risk to as great an extent as possible), no longer "out there" hearing, seeing, and experiencing new things — events that would be the source for personal stories intended to provide broader insights. And so, like my grandfather, if I want to tell stories from personal experience, then I keep going back to the same ones I've told before.

It is the first step in the slippery slide to stagnation.

And, with that, here is a story I'm pretty sure I've told before, but is worth repeating.

During the "Great Recession" our company experienced companywide layoffs — the first time in anyone's memory that the company had to resort to such tactics.  Internal audit had to play the game, too. We went through human resources protocols and did a fairly good job of making sure we kept the best auditors on our payrolls. We lost a couple of good ones (for various reasons) and kept a couple of ones who should have been culled (again, various reasons). But, while the resource pool had been cut, we were still able to do the top-caliber work we had done in the past. And we continued that quality work through a second round of layoffs and a hiring freeze that went on for a couple of years.

Our work didn't suffer, but we noticed an interesting phenomenon. The department was not progressing; we were not becoming better. Innovation was slowing to a standstill. The work was still top quality, but the department as a whole was stagnating.

There was nothing new under our sun.

And, with that, we learned that growth requires new inputs, new concepts, and, perhaps most importantly, new people with new ideas. Yes, we were in touch with new ideas from The IIA and other professional sources. And, yes, those were fodder for change. But we were no longer the leaders; we were the followers.

Eventually, the hiring freeze came to an end and we began bringing in new blood. And something as simple as the influx of new people was enough to kickstart the ideas, allowing innovation and creativity to grow again.

End of story; back to present day. You might think that, as we are all adapting to unprecedented changes, innovation and creativity would be the least of our worries. However, we also find ourselves locked away in our rooms/apartments/houses/pillow forts where our only interaction with others is through a pixelated reproduction of the opening credits of "The Brady Bunch." And it fosters the isolation and dissociation that leads to stagnation.

The meetings/the phone calls/the emails are no different than they ever were. They are as good or bad as the people involved ever made them. But what we are losing are the spaces between work and structured communication — the times where we share ideas, really talk things out, allow ourselves the opportunity to look at things differently and find new solutions. A quote from the short story "Hunter's Moon" by Poul Anderson:

"But no matter how stereo an image is and sounds, it's only an image. You can't go out with it for a drink after your conference is finished, can you?"

Innovation and creativity are at a premium at this juncture in history.  And, unless we take specific steps to find the inputs that provide the sparks of innovation and creativity, we will find ourselves stagnating, moving with the crowd but never helping define that movement.

It requires a concerted effort … No, scratch that. First, it requires recognizing something needs to be done. And it requires finding others who recognize the issue and want to do something. Then it requires a concerted effort — specifically finding resources, sharing resources with others, bouncing ideas off others, playing with reality to find new and better realities that will move us forward.  And perhaps most importantly, it requires devoting specific time to such explorations and learnings.

Now, there is another part to this whole situation — another issue. The first, as we've discussed, is trying to break out of the stagnation that can happen even in times of great change. But the second issue is realizing that the desire for things to return to normal distracts us from our need to change. Normal is no longer normal. And the next time we meet we'll talk about the need for internal audit to keep its head out of the sand and take an active role in getting to that new normal.

Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU

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