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​Success Ain't What It Used to Be

Blogs Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU Aug 14, 2020

Here's a question for you.

As times have changed (and, boy have they changed) how has your approach to proving your value changed? More specifically, what has your department done about its annual goals/key performance indicators/measures of success?

There are three potential responses. Two are not very good, but there is a third that shows an internal audit department understands what it does for a living and wants to ensure others understand how it succeeds.

The first response is to change nothing. The department uses the same measures, keeps recording the same information, and provides the same results to whomever it is that cares. And, when those results are presented, it probably includes the concluding statement, "Gosh, there was so much going on that we missed our measures. But we know you understand and … well, we'll get 'em next time."

Such results are not surprising. The measures were developed in a world that no longer exists. So, any totals, percentages, or summaries are meaningless. Which means, why bother gathering, analyzing, and reporting them in the first place

And then there are those audit departments that meet those out-of-date, no-longer-tethered-to-reality goals — the departments that brag about their accomplishment. "Hey! Look at us! In spite of everything, we made it!!!" (Exclamation points, if not actually used, are implied.)

If you can meet all the goals established pre-pandemic, then you are probably working with unimportant goals — superficial, quantity-focused goals that indicate nothing more than that the right approvals were obtained, all available hours were used, and arbitrary timelines and due dates were met.

Don't get me wrong, these measures can be an important part of how internal audit departments are evaluated. But if that is the only evaluation — if there is nothing that recognizes internal audit's need to change with and impact the organization — then such measures are vanity metrics, intended to make it look as though the audit department is "working really hard," but containing no focus on the real work that internal audit needs to accomplish.

Let's move on. The second response it to put all goals and measurements on hold — to effectively say, "Our original measures have no meaning in this world, so we will take a break, reevaluate, and come back later." To its credit, this indicates the department recognizes that drastic change has had a drastic impact on what the department does and how it will succeed. But, while a step in the right direction, it doesn't go far enough.

Which leads us to the third response — the one every internal audit department should embrace. Stop using the existing measures, evaluate the current situation's impact on the organization and internal audit, develop new measures, and implement them immediately.

At this point I can hear the hue and cry as the rabbling horde of internal auditors prepare to storm the ramparts screaming, "Sacrilege! We established our measures of success and we cannot change them to suit our whims."

Changing measures to just ensure success is, indeed, sacrilege. If you found a department had changed measures midstream to simply ensure those measures were met, that issue would probably be the headline of the audit report.

But, as noted before, a good portion of the measures we established at the beginning of the year are now meaningless. And to just call a time out and stop measuring does no one any service. Instead, by looking at the new situation and determining new measures, we are recognizing the need for change while showing our agility in meeting the new challenge. The world has changed; here is how we are responding. (Note that, done right, the change is no guarantee of our success. It means we are recognizing the need for new measures and, succeed or fail, this is the new standard we will be trying to achieve.)

Now, let's be clear, that reevaluation will not be easy. It requires a deep understanding of why the internal audit department exists, what the organization is trying to achieve, and how internal audit and the organization work together toward mutual success.

If such an understanding is not already part of the internal audit department's DNA, a mid-year navigational shift may be nigh-on impossible. If you find yourself unable to change or unable to do any more than just quit measuring, then it is probably time to take a deeper look at the value the department is providing, what its relationship with leadership looks like, and if, in these hazardous times, the department is viewed as a vestigial organ, ripe for eradication.

To some extent, all organizational strategies need to be thrown out the window — internal audit's and the organization's. As my dad often said, to make God laugh, make plans. And right now, God must be having quite the guffaw as he looks at our organizations and watches the best laid schemes o' mouse an' men gang aft a-gley. But to remain with the plans that were made before — to maintain success measures mired in that past — is a recipe for disaster or oblivion.

Find the new value, find the new measures, and show the agility and value internal audit brings to the table.

Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU

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