I consider planning and preparation to be important for all internal auditors. Planning is a key element of the International Standards for the Professional Practice of Internal Auditing. It is addressed specifically in Standard 2010 (Planning) and 2200 (Engagement Planning), and is further woven throughout the Standards at large. As such, I, like many of the auditors that I interact with regularly, am a big planner when it comes to large and small objectives and tasks.
That said, there are times when planning should be balanced with flexibility. If we are so focused on executing the plan that we have established or the approach that we followed in the past, we may not be able to adapt and respond quickly to the situation at hand. Ultimately, this could negatively impact our ability to achieve the objective that has been developed.
Some ways that the negative impact can be lessened include collaborating with key stakeholders (both internal and external) in advance to ensure the plan is not a one-sided plan, but a plan that works for everyone. For example, if we plan an exit conference based on our schedules and our agendas, all of the necessary stakeholders from our client side may not be able to attend. We may not leave room for them to share relevant insights or specific concerns they may have regarding our observations from the audit — information that could significantly impact our audit results and recommendations. Further, I think everyone is familiar with the scenario of key client personnel being unavailable during the audit process because schedules may not have been confirmed timely during planning.
It also is important to set expectations in advance and develop our plans around those expectations, regardless of whether internal audit is running the show or just participating. For example, if internal audit is presenting at a business operations meeting on hot button issues identified in recent audits, it must understand in advance how much time will be allotted and the big picture items it is expected to address. Time considerations should include overall time scheduled for internal audit as well as any of that time expected to be carved out for discussion.
However, once the meeting starts, it is critical to keep in mind the big picture objective, understand the dialogue that is taking place, and adapt the style, approach, and delivery to ensure the ultimate objective is being met. This could mean that instead of going through findings in a more detailed fashion, auditors need to pivot to a higher-level risk discussion.
Being able to read the room and be flexible — even if it isn't the way we planned or practiced — is important in being able to meet the needs of our stakeholders. This brings to mind the time that I was asked to present a 1-hour presentation, but due to timing constraints, I needed to scale the presentation back to 30 minutes. Had I presented the full hour, I would have lost the attention of everyone in the room.
One last thought on this subject: As with anything else, it is important that we don't make critical assumptions in the planning process without further verification. For example, just because something has always been addressed a certain way or a meeting has always had a certain flow, doesn't mean that is the way it needs to be approached going forward. Periodically evaluating our processes and making adjustments as necessary to better achieve our objectives is critical to our continued relevance.
For anyone who may be such a planner that you have difficulty being flexible, there are things you can do to become more adaptable. A few examples include changing up your routine so that you'll be exposed to new places or experiences, seeking a mentor who can provide candid feedback, and volunteering for a difficult task or assignment.
While planning is critical, it also is equally important to ensure that our plans are not so defined and inflexible that we end up in auto-pilot mode. Just as many of us would take a different route to reach our destination if we encountered major congestion, a road closure, or a safety hazard on our normal route, so should we apply the same flexibility to our professional lives.