Auditing is Like a...

In the book review section of the March/April edition of Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine, I just read one of the finest analogies I’ve ever seen. James Sallis wrote:

“Any of us who teach or speak on a regular basis develop a set of shticks, modules that we assemble into various configurations depending on the occasion. We’re like unimaginative banjo players, rolling off standard licks to fill available space.”
An absolutely perfect analogy in that it provides an insight to its subject (public speaking) I had never considered before.  Does it work for anyone else? Well, that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of rhubarb. You see, for an analogy to have any real power, there has to be a touchpoint for the listener. In this situation, it resonates for me because I am a public speaker and I am a banjo player. (Not a good banjo player, mind you - but a banjo player nonetheless. I am that caliber of banjo player who picks up a banjo and starts to play and people say “Wow, he can play the banjo”, and then I quit shortly thereafter before they can hear enough to say “and he is really bad.”) And the truth of the analogy hits home for me because I can quickly see the parallel between riffing when you’re speaking and riffing when you are playing an instrument. 
So I have no idea if it resonates for anyone else. I cannot determine if, without the experience of public speaking or banjo playing, there is enough of a touchpoint to allow deeper understanding. Which means, if I were to use this analogy, I might find myself explaining the way banjo is played, how the rolls are the foundation, how they are used to get from note to note, and how, when all else fails, the banjo player falls back on these rolls to get his feet back under him. All this to try and provide a better understanding of public speaking.
An analogy quickly unravels when you have to explain it. You are effectively explaining the thing that you are using to explain something else. If I say “Auditing is like trying to break the Da Vinci code” that might have some meaning to you. It may not be a strong analogy, but if you have an acquaintance with the book, then you might gain insight into an aspect of internal audit. If, instead, I say “Auditing is like breathalyzing drunken cats” it might be funny or it might be weird, but it really provides no insight. I might as well have said “Auditing is like Gurtenflugen” for the greater knowledge that was provided the reader.
All of this is a lot of explanation to get to the point that auditors don’t use a lot of analogies. It has almost no place in our reporting (I would say none, but just because I can’t even think of a single instance when the use of a well-played analogy might be correct, it doesn’t mean it never happens) and our focus on facts and figures means that analogies don’t normally and naturally find themselves in our other discussions and day-to-day activities.
Which is a shame. There is nothing as powerful as a well-place analogy. And auditors who explore the use of analogies may find themselves gaining an advantage in the way they communicate with customers, stakeholders, and even their own audit shop.
Allow me an example.
Our audit shop was working through ERM and determining how to best get the message across to the various people with which we were involved. We wanted more than just an explanation of the components; we also wanted them to gain a better understanding of how the aspects of the ERM cube impacted each other and the overall framework. 
Looking at the cube, someone suddenly had a stroke of genius. We were on the road doing these presentations and, upon the stroke of genius (I can’t say if a couple of glasses of wine were involved or not, but, knowing the group involved, there is a good chance) we rushed out to a Wal-Mart to find the device we needed.
Next day, as we presented our discussion of ERM, we opened up a Jenga game. (If you don’t know Jenga, it is a game where a tower is made up of stacked, rectangular pieces of wood, and the players try and remove pieces without knocking over the tower – probably best if you look it up.) On the pieces of wood we wrote the names of the various ERM components and the different types of business units. We then explained how all these pieces worked together to hold up the tower (company.) We then pulled out pieces explaining that, yes some pieces could be removed without damaging the tower/company. However, with every removal, the tower/company became weaker. At some point, we would pull out a piece that caused the entire tower/company to fall. “That”, we would explain, “is why the framework is important to the successful continuation of the company."
People who saw the presentation then understood a little bit more about ERM (and probably understood a much more integral piece of knowledge than would have occurred with a normal presentation), and they better understood the ramifications of a poorly constructed risk framework.
Analogies are powerful tools, when done right. But they can’t even be done wrong if they aren’t used at all. No, you probably don’t want to spice up your reports with some analogies, but it sure couldn’t hurt in presentations where you are trying to make a memorable impact on the audience.
So, got any analogies on you?

Posted on Mar 18, 2011 by Mike Jacka

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  1. Hi Mike, fantastic analogy!  Have you happened to come across any covering the external audit process?

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