How CPAs Become Visionaries

Unlock the creative energies of people around you.

November 1, 2007
by Rick Telberg/For the Finance Executive

Anyone who thinks CPAs don’t need to think outside the box probably isn’t a CPA. From audit firms to finance departments, you’re in a business. And any business, to remain a business, needs to grow and adapt.

Both growing and adapting demand creativity — new directions, new solutions, sometimes even solutions to problems so new that no one has even recognized them yet. Every finance or accounting organization, whether on the cusp of innovation or in the slough of the tried-and-true, can do something better.

And if you’re convinced your outfit can’t do anything better, then you definitely have some thinking to do. Not just thinking but creative thinking.

In other words, maybe it’s time your office called everybody together, from partners and executives to interns and newbies, and let them unleash their wildest thoughts.

And here’s an idea that makes that idea even better. Why not be the designated driver for this brainstorming session? It will be your chance to look like a leader while pleasing a lot of people and taking a certain kind of credit for other people’s good ideas.

CPAs, in fact, are uniquely qualified to lead a project on strategic planning. You have the business skills and experience. Coordinating creativity, however, isn’t easy. Doing it wrong could result in bad feelings rather than good ideas. Business coaches have developed several tips to steer creativity in the right direction.

And in good brainstorming style, I’d like to let the tips inspire yet others, so here they are:

  • Prep your participants. Use encouraging language to invite participants to the brainstorming session. Tell them why it’s important. Ask them to come to the meeting with at least three ideas.
  • Invite variety. Don’t presume that only certain people can have relevant ideas. A variety of people are more likely to generate the unexpected ideas. Invite clients, peers from other companies, people from various departments, personnel from all levels.
  • Define deeply. Ask people to define the problem in some new way — maybe more precisely, or more deeply, or conceptually, or metaphorically, or in new terms, or from the perspective of a client — or something else altogether.
  • Note every notion. Write down every idea on a flip chart or blackboard and ask everyone to expand on each. Leave no idea behind.
  • Don’t judge. Neither you nor anyone else should declare an idea bad, irrelevant or unworkable. Look for ways to help each idea grow into something else. (Shooting down an idea shoots down the person who thought of it. You lose not only an idea but also a source of ideas.)
  • Ask for more, more, more. Don’t let time determine the end of the meeting. Set a goal of a certain number of ideas. When the ideas seem to peter out, ask for just a few more. After the meeting, send everyone, even people who didn’t participate, a list of the ideas and ask them to contribute a couple more.
  • Make connections. Ask people to make odd connections between ideas. Look at ideas from the perspectives of clients, vendors, colleagues, even neighbors, children, the FedEx guy, the copy machine, even the carpet.
  • Visualize it. Use a flip-chart or blackboard to make ideas visible. Sketch them, link them with symbolic lines, mark them with stars, colors, arrows, icons, numbers. Keep linking them. Make a big mess and look for the beauty in it.
  • Have a nightmare. Ask something to the effective of “How bad can it get?” (Examples: “What could drive all our clients away?” “What do we do if there’s an earthquake and a volcano on the same day the IRS pays a surprise visit during a flood?” “Suppose So-and-So runs off to Tijuana with Whoosie and they take all the hard drives and never come back … what do we do?”) Look for problems and solutions that have nothing to do with that particular disaster.

If there’s an overriding principle, it’s that every idea is a jewel, beautiful and precious in its rarity. Look hard for good ideas. The more you find, the better you look.

COMMENTS: Rants, raves, idle thoughts or questions? Contact Rick Telberg.

Copyright © 2007 Bay Street Group LLC. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.