A week ago Friday, I passed along a suggestion about creativity I had gotten from the book Imagineering: A Behind the Scenes Look at Making MORE Magic Real. In a nutshell, it goes like this. If you want to instill creativity, you should enable it by responding to any idea with a sentence which begins “Yes, if…” If you want to kill creativity, respond to any idea with a sentence which begins with “No, because…”
What I promised was that…well, what I promised was that I would continue these thoughts on the following Monday. However, the vagaries of time, life, chance, circumstance, and illness caused a one week delay.
The real promise was that we would dig into this just a little bit more. You see, I may be wrong, but I have the feeling that most of you internal auditors out there read the phrase “Yes, if…” and, if you didn’t reject it out of hand, you at least put up the argument that, while a nice concept, it has little practical use in the internal audit world. In other words, many of you looked at the concept and said, “No, because...” rather than jumping right in with “Yes, if…”
I say you’re wrong. To explore this just a little, let’s use three relatively common scenarios.
Scenario 1: An auditor approaches and says, “The report is due Friday. I need another week.”
Scenario 2: You’re doing an audit in the accounting department and the accounting supervisor says, “I think we can get rid of segregation of duties.”
Scenario 3: The new CAE comes to you and says, “I’ve been thinking about it. Internal Audit isn’t a name that really works. We need to come up with another name for the department.” (Okay, this third one isn’t particularly common, but play along here. We’re supposed to be talking about creativity.)
Here are the “No, because…” answers.
Scenario 1: No you can’t have another week because that is the milestone we established, that is the date we promised the client, and that is the date by which you will complete the report unless you want to go back to being a pin setter at Matty’s Bowl-a-rama.
Scenario 2: No, because segregation of duties is an important control that must be in place to ensure bad people like you don’t do the bad things we know you’re plotting.
Scenario 3: No, sir (notice - when it is someone more important than us we try to be nicer about it), because, with all due respect, we have used the name “Internal Audit” for a number of years and such a change might be confusing to our customers, might inhibit our ability to maintain our professionalism, and might cause huge expenses when we have to reprint all those business cards.
Notice an important thing in all three responses. They effectively shut down communication. There is no dialogue, there is no opportunity to gain understanding, there is the effective eradication of any opportunity for creativity.
An important aspect of instilling creativity (and improving your own creativity at the same time) is to listen, and to continue listening even if you aren’t entirely sure there will be any wizard at the end of that particular yellow brick road.
Here’s another name for it: “Creative Listening” - listening to broaden understanding, gain new perspectives, and go beyond the shortsighted belief that there is only one solution to any problem.
So, let’s apply creative listening to the three scenarios; let’s say “Yes, if…”
Scenario 1: “Yes, if there is an important reason for the due date of the audit to be extended.” I think most managers approach questions about due dates this way. Maybe we don’t articulate it quite this way. But, we recognize that, if the auditor is coming to us with this request, there must be an underlying reason. And there is always the chance the auditor will surprise us with something more. “Working with our report format I’ve realized we are not doing a good job of helping the client understand the root cause. I’ve been experimenting with some different approaches.” It may lead to nothing. But by using creative listening and having instilled creativity in the auditor, someone may have just brought you an innovative way of reporting that makes you more responsive to your customers.
Scenario 2: “Yes, if you have a way whereby we can insure that the problems segregation of controls is meant to alleviate will not occur.” You know what? Maybe the auditee won’t have an answer. However, by inviting them to present alternatives, you are bringing them into the solution (it’s not just the auditor saying “NO!”) and they may actually have a way that works better. (Do I know what that way is? No. But that doesn’t mean someone else doesn’t.)
Scenario 3: “Yes, if we can accomplish a name change without breaching the trust we’ve built with other departments and without harming our professional standing.” At first glance, this might look more like a “No” than the others. Yet, notice that it still continues the dialogue. (And, since it is your boss coming forward with the harebrained scheme, you probably need to have a “Yes, if…” handy.)
Note that, with all three scenarios, you are being forced to listen creatively. This happens because you are being forced to think more deeply about why you are going to say “No”. “No” is easy. Trying to figure out why you are saying “No” and allowing for the chance that “No” might not be the right answer is hard – extremely hard. Do we want to extend the due date, get rid of segregation of duties, change the name of Internal Audit? Probably not. But there may be a new solution waiting to happen, and “Yes, if…” increases the chances that such a solution will be found.
And, at the end of it all, I still come back to that original request by so many auditors – how do I make my department more creative? I am not really convinced people want to be creative, because I don’t think they understand the Pandora’s Box they are opening. Building and embracing creativity is scary stuff. But, creativity is the only way we will build on our successes, continue to find new successes, and, at the end of the day, survive.
And to get started in this brave, new world, I invite you to try “Yes, if…” You will be surprised what you learn, and you will be surprised how it changes things for the better.