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Mind of Jacka: The Demon is Failure

Blogs Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU May 06, 2022

While an aversion to change is a natural aspect of all human beings, internal auditors seem especially allergic. However, successful progress only occurs when we are willing to take chances. 

In an incredible little book titled One! Hundred! Demons! artist Lynda Barry collects 18 snippets of life told in comic strip fashion. Do not dismiss this with a derisive "comics are for kids" sneer on your lips. These are heartfelt, telling stories that will make you feel good, make you feel like your heart has been ripped out, and make you ask questions. (There's a reason she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.)

In the introduction (again, in strip form) Ms. Barry describes visiting a library where she discovered a painting exercise called "One Hundred Demons." The example she saw was a handscroll painted by a Zen monk named Hakuin Ekaku in 16th century Japan. She began experimenting, and the various demons began to emerge, resulting in the 18 stories included in this book. She concludes with the admonition "Paint your demon. Come on! Don't you want to try it??"

So, I gave it a try. (This happened when we were all pandemically sequestered and, like everyone else, I was looking for anything to fill the empty spaces that fear, confusion, and disbelief were creating.) I'll skip the rest of the story — the soul-searching and the bad drawings. (There is a reason I focus on the written word.) But, from this exercise, I had an epiphanic moment. I found one of my major demons. And I am willing to bet it is one of yours, just as it is for all internal auditors and the associated departments.

That demon is failure.

I always knew I had an innate fear of failure (again, I'll skip the long soul-searching and self-analysis), but this exercise showed that it was more debilitating than I had realized. It is something I have found ways to battle (otherwise, you wouldn't be seeing this odd blog post), but the realization helped me better recognize when it was happening and when it was time to get past the demon.

At the same time, I realized that, from what I've seen, such debilitation is endemic within most, if not all, internal audit departments. In their fear of this demon — the demon of failure — internal audit departments (as well as internal auditors) are self-regulating their ability to reach new and exciting levels of success. Rather than allow for failure, safety and security rule.

One piece of evidence that you or your department is suffering from this affliction is what I call the "Why It Won't Work" syndrome. (Yes, I just made that title up.)  (And, yes, I've talked about this before, but it is worth repeating.)

People do not like change, new ideas, or anything that upsets the status quo. Don't fight me on this one. Even the most creative and innovative of us, when first presented with change, have to step back from the immediate hackle-raising that happens with a new idea, calm down, and allow ourselves to explore the possibilities.

When confronted with anything that even smacks of slight change, we all respond with "why it won't work." Unless someone comes up with an idea that aligns perfectly with what has come before (which is an idea that is inherently useless), we begin asking debilitating questions that stop the idea before it can even plant seeds of hope in our minds. There is nothing necessarily wrong with asking questions about change; the problem is that when the conversation starts with negativity, it has very little chance of moving forward in a positive manner.

And proof that your department's demon is failure? What is the first response to a new idea? I'll bet dollars to mechanical pencils it is with why things won't work. And new ideas — even the slightest adaptation to the status quo — die without having the chance to flower, simply because they are inundated with the things that could go wrong — the ways they could fail.

The answer? Establish the rule (within the department and within yourself) that before anyone can say why something won't work, they must provide three reasons why it will work. (Talk to me later, and I'll give you examples of our department using this approach and never even getting to the negative thoughts that first came to mind.)

While this aversion to change is a natural aspect of all human beings, internal auditors seem to wallow in it. Seriously, when others think about change and adaption, internal audit is on the bottom of the list with accountants, actuaries, and that guy in the mailroom constantly asking about his stapler. There are a lot of reasons we are so uptight. Insecurity about our status within the organization and not wanting to look like we're out of control when we are the ones who preach about controls are just two. But it really all stems from that fear of failure.

Ask yourself — when was the last time you really changed how your department worked? And when was the last time it happened without the department being drug, kicking and screaming, into that new reality? (Face it, you didn't want off-site work and Zoom meetings; it was forced on you by the situation.) 

Maybe it's time to change the report review process. Maybe it's time to do an audit of Marketing. Maybe it's time to dive headfirst into RPA. Maybe it's time to leave holes in the schedule. Maybe it's time to quit doing timekeeping. Maybe its time to report on the organization's toxic culture. Maybe it's time to address diversity within the audit department. Maybe it's time to do the scariest thing you can think of that the audit department might do. (I don't know what you might think that is, but I'd like to know.)

Realize that your/my/everyone's demon is failure. And realize that such a realization is the first step to slaying, or at least wounding, the demon.

I wholeheartedly recommend Ms. Barry's book. I warn you, it may not be the kind of thing you normally enjoy; it is different than anything else you've ever read. But I found it uplifting and chilling and a lot of other emotions. And, in looking at what she accomplished, I was able to see something we all should do — confront the demons.

Give it a shot. What is the worst you could do? Fail?

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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