Mind of Jacka: Will This Be On the Test?
Blogs Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU Apr 28, 2022
The school systems in the United States have really made a mess of the way those of us brought up in those systems think. Now, don't worry, this isn't going to be a diatribe against public, private, and everything-in-between schools. Just like the rest of us, they are facing significant challenges and, just like the rest of us, they're dancing as fast as they can.
The 'One Right Answer'
But I want to specifically rail against an approach that has existed in education — elementary schools, junior highs, high schools, colleges, universities, preschools — since the first caveman tutored his children on the best places to hide from the insidious sabretooth internal auditor. It is an approach that negatively impacts the way all work is done, including those of us in the internal audit profession. (And let me quickly note that similar situations may exist in educational systems throughout the world, but my only experience is within the U.S. International readers can perform their own analysis.)
From their earliest school experiences, students have it bludgeoned into their souls that there is always one right answer. They study to get the right answers on exams, they are evaluated using standardized tests, they are told to follow the rules, they are told to stay in their desks, they are told to get in line, they are told to color in the lines, they are told that attendance is mandatory, they are told to get straight As, they are told their thesis will be judged by those who make the rules, they…
Sorry, got a little wound up there. But I think I made my point. As we all worked our way through the various stages of our education, success did not come from finding an array of solutions or looking for alternatives; success came from finding the one right answer that meant passing/graduating/winning.
Then, after graduation, we all fell down the rabbit hole of the real world and, unfortunately, none of that "There is one best answer" liturgy prepared us for what we would be experiencing. For new internal auditors, it usually starts out okay. We often start our careers conducting tests that are made up of columns requiring yes/no responses. We determine the answers, find the percentage of yeses to noes, and, if the final percentage fails to meet expectations, we have an issue. Another quick example: We are provided organizational procedures with the explanation that any deviation is a reportable issue. Cut and dried. Black and white. One right answer.
The Real World Meets the Binary World
But as we gain more experience, we find that the grays come creeping around the corners and we struggle to determine what "one right answer" really means. Some individuals never recover, falling back on the lessons they learned from school — that there has to be a single right answer. (Some of those people still make their way into leadership roles.) But others break beyond what they learned to recognize that seeking perfection is fool's game.
Mind you, we internal auditors do ourselves no favors. Rather than embrace ambiguity, we continue to go down the primrose path in pursuit of perfection. Never is this more evident than in internal audit's reverence of root cause analysis. Even the most beginning-of-beginning auditors understands the concept of analyzing a situation and finding the single event/practice/process that has created a reportable issue. Ask five whys and, poof, the magic genie produces a perfect answer. And once found, we dutifully report the one great solution for each issue.
Fallacy of the Single Cause
In the world of critical thinking, this is called the fallacy of causal reductionism or "the fallacy of the single cause." It happens when it is assumed that there is a single, simple cause of an outcome when in reality many jointly sufficient causes may exist. And by extension, many jointly sufficient solutions may exist.
Here are two stories from the real world that show attempts to break free of these strictures:
- Whenever I was given a report that had too many issues (too many being defined by my arbitrary interpretations; it is good to be king), I would take it back to the auditors and ask if there wasn't something more going on. It wasn't that they had not found good root causes for the identified issues; it was that, by going down the path of the single cause, they had missed the bigger picture. If the issues were considered together, a broader root cause might be identified, allowing a number of issues to be combined in one broad solution.
- More than once we reported a control was ineffective because there were insufficient resources available within the department to accomplish all the required tasks. Unfortunately, by only looking at it this way, we missed a bigger picture and better (not perfect) solution. Part of the issue with not having sufficient resources is that people just drop procedures without doing a risk assessment to determine what could or should be dropped. If we had included in the solution that the department needed approaches to better allocate resources based on risks, the clients would have had a better understanding of risk management and a better understanding of what to do in the future.
Here's another story I recently heard from a former colleague: He got into a big battle in our home office because he was advocating for the client even though they were not following procedure. They had a more efficient and effective way to get the work done, but it didn't fall into the "one right answer" mindset of internal audit leadership.
And finding a single cause for identified issues is not the only time we succumb to this fallacy. We look for the one right answer everywhere — mitigating a risk, performing a test, conducting an interview, performing an audit. We look for the one right answer in everything we do in internal audit.
Mind you, we are not alone. The training we all received in schools permeates all levels of the organization. Think of the meetings, discussions, presentations, proclamations, and other falderal you have attended in which a team was searching for the holy grail of solutions or leadership claimed to have found that grail. A semi-aside: There is a long-standing and established company with over 50 years' experience at the time of this story — a company that still exists now, 20 years later. In a one-year period, they developed and announced three different strategies — not tweaks, but full pivots from any previous strategy. Three different strategies, all supposedly solving a "problem" that had been going on for years. Searching for the one right answer.
A Spectrum of Solutions
Allow me to quickly note that coming up with a single answer is not necessarily a problem. The fallacy occurs when we wear blinders to the fact that other solutions may be out there — maybe better ones, maybe ones that better fit the situation, or maybe ones that no one has ever thought of before. The minute we limit ourselves by trying to get the "right" answer is the minute we find ourselves providing incomplete solutions, using poorly thought-out processes, and shutting out opportunities for success.
What this all means is that, as internal auditors, we have to be sure we are not always searching for that one right answer. We have to recognize that solutions can come in multitudes and, while we want a better or even best answer, it will seldom be perfectly right. And sometimes that may mean we need to take some time and honestly evaluate the situation. Secondly, we must have the flexibility to understand that leadership may be fully aware there is no one right answer, meaning we cannot judge them in our reviews against an unachievable perfection. And, finally, we have to recognize when the organization is trapping itself, looking for the "right" answer. (See "The Company that had three strategies" above.) And we have to step up and point out that the pursuit of perfection may not be the best approach.
We all want to know what is going to be on the test; we all want to pass the test. What we have to remember is that we are no longer taking a test. There is only an ambiguous reality that will require various answers and allow for various degrees of success.
And thus ends my term paper. Did I get an "A"?