Well, for the first time this year, I have missed a deadline for this blog. Actually, this is the second time. But I’m not really counting the first time which was because of bad internet connection at the hotel, although, at the time, I did confess to missing the date and went on at some length about it. But missing the deadline this time is a little different. I missed this deadline because…well… because…well…
Because I just didn’t care if I got it done.
(Whew! Feels good to get that off my chest.)
As you may recall, I started the year by setting a specific schedule for the blog because I know myself well enough to know that the best way for me to make sure I actually get something done is to have a deadline. I need deadlines. Neither of the books I managed to get published would have ever happened without deadlines. A good hunk of these blog posts wouldn’t have happened without deadlines. Most of my college career would not have occurred without deadlines.
And so, Sunday night, I was working away quite industriously on Monday’s blog post knowing full well that my self-imposed deadline was hanging, Sword of Damocles-like, over my typing fingers. I had come a fair way towards completing what seemed to me to be a pretty good offering. But it was getting late and I realized that, even if did manage to hammer something out, it wasn’t going to be as good as I wanted it to be. I really felt that more time would make a better post. I was fretting about that deadline when it hit me; it’s my deadline, it was establish in an arbitrary manner, and the world would not end if I didn’t get it done in time for that deadline. In other words, I just decided to forget the deadline (or some words to that effect.)
So now it is Monday night and I am writing what would by my normal Monday post a day late, and I am talking about an entirely different subject than originally planned because this whole experience got me thinking about arbitrary deadlines.
No show of hands on the next set of question. How many less-than-great reports have you issued because the deadline was coming and you had to hit that date? How many tests did you hurry through to make sure a milestone was hit? How many audits have you completed that, while containing quality work, didn’t really live up to the personal standards you set because of a date looming on the horizon? Follow-up question. How many of those dates were self-imposed? That is, how many of those dates had nothing to do with a scheduled meeting or critical commitment with the customer, but were the result of a milestone that was set up at the audit’s inception by the audit department itself in an effort to measure the audit department’s “success”?
Auditors really like milestones. We really like due dates. We like schedules. We like timelines. We like project management. We like control. And in our love of all things neat and tidy, we can lose focus on the fact that we are not paid to hit deadlines or milestones or timelines. What we are paid for can lead to huge debates, but it ain’t to hit a date. But in spite of recognizing that these dates aren’t the most important thing in our audit universe, we still find ourselves, one/two/five months later, slavishly issuing a good (not great, but good) piece of work because we and everyone we work with would be in trouble if it was completed one day late.
And this is just one manifestation of Internal Audit’s search for the Holy Grail of auditing metrics – the one set of measures of success, that “true” balanced scorecard, those objective criteria - that can prove we are successful. Auditors are a group who like objective measures, and we can’t help ourselves – we want to put an objective stamp on our success.
But we work in a subjective environment.
So we can measure all the timely issuance of reports or utilization rates or customer surveys or audit hours per project or hours of training per auditor or average salaries or travel expense per location or requests for audits or number of edits per report or auditors per employee or employees per auditor or auditors per square inch or pencil shavings recycled or pens recovered or hours on internet searches or tweets per auditee or pages per report or overtime hours or cash counts or reconciliations or tests per audit or any danged thing we want (and I have actually seen a surprisingly large number of the items listed above as ways some audit departments actually measured their success; I’ll let you sort out which have actually been used). But they aren’t worth a load of codswallop to our customers, and that is where the paycheck hits the bank balance.
Of course you have to have measures. But more measures do not mean more success. And if you are willing to blindly follow those measure to the promised land of success, then you will wonder the wilderness for far more than 40 years; all this assuming that, if you are living and dying by these measures, your department will have enough relevance for anyone to keep it around for 40 days, let alone 40 years.
So, establish measures of success. And if one of the criteria relates to achievement of certain milestones, then you have probably established a worthy measure of success. But never lose sight of the bigger picture.
For the want of a nail, a shoe was lost. For the want of that shoe, eventually, a kingdom was lost.
For the desire to hit an arbitrary measure of success, quality was lost. For the want of that quality, an audit shop could be lost. All for the desire to hit an arbitrary deadline.