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The House is On Fire and We're All G​onna Die!!!

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Is it me, or are there suddenly a whole lot more crises than there used to be? Every Facebook post, every Twitter Tweet, every social media socialization seems to be exclamation-riddled diatribes of fear and anger.

And, let me tell you why it's happening. You really want to get something done — you really want to get people excited, up, and moving — all you need is a good crisis. And if a crisis isn't handy, well, then, just make one up.

Now, don't get this confused with urgency. Handled correctly, building an appropriate sense of urgency is a positive influence that gets people involved in change. For example, I will preach until the accountants come home that there is an urgent need for internal audit to make significant changes in the way it does business. I could further argue that we are on the precipice of crisis. But I won't; that isn't the way to get real, successful change accomplished. But, oh, it is tempting. And it is really easy to fall into that trap.

Because there is a thin line between urgency and crisis. And, in an effort to convince people that something needs to get done, that line is far too often crossed with imagined risks, overinflated issues, disaster-filled rhetoric, wailing, gnashing of teeth, apocalyptic predictions, and the threat of cataclysm, catastrophe, and Armageddon. And, as the inflation to crisis continues, the hyperbole takes on a conviction that surpasses many people's ability to see just how unlikely doomsday really is.

This is the absolute worst way to move people to action because, when people are moved by fear, they do not have a vested interest in finding true solutions. Instead it is about irrational, immediate actions taken only to protect themselves from a nearly negligible chance of doom.

Here's the interesting part. Internal auditors encounter these situations all the time and, as much as it pains me to say it, are sometimes the cause. There are four reasons people scream that the Huns and Visigoths are on the border. And internal auditors need to understand these reasons to respond appropriately and keep them from encroaching into internal audit's repertoire.

There Really Is a Crisis

Let's get this out of the way immediately. Sometimes, there really is a crisis. And no matter who has set off the fire alarm — internal audit or our customers — something must be done quickly. Make sure it is real, make sure there really is an imminent disaster, and then get … something … done … quickly.

Distracting From the Real Issues

We've all had this one pulled on us. You come in with your results and all the auditees can do is rend their garments about an end-of-the-department, end-of-the-company, end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it catastrophe that is bearing down on the organization like a Siberian meteorite. "Sure, we have not acted in an ethical manner, but look at that horrible thing over there." Of course, you have to make sure it isn't really true (see above), but it should set your auditey senses tingling. A distracting call-to-arms may be an indication that you have stumbled across something bigger than you first thought.

There's an Easy Solution

If a small finding, a minor issue, a miniscule concern, a blip on the radar is elevated to the worst thing since early cave accountants invented two sets of books, and if that minor insignificance can be solved quite easily (because, in spite of the rhetoric, it ain't really a big deal), then everyone looks like geniuses, saviors of the universe and accolade-/executive-/bonus-worthy employees. Be wary when you see your clients making things out to be bigger than they actually are. And, whatever you do, report issues correctly. Overinflating findings because solutions are really easy and it will make internal audit look better seems like something that might fall (unfavorably) under the Code of Ethics.

Honest, Everything Really Is a Crisis

And here is one where internal auditors are often found guilty. Every finding is a big deal, every issue is high impact, every audit opinion is ineffective, there is no such thing as a minor finding. And I think it all stems from our constant battle for recognition … and from our insecurity. "Okay," we say, "You won't pay attention to what I've got to say? Let me make it something you have to pay attention to." And suddenly that discrepancy in petty cash becomes a material misstatement that will cause corporate bankruptcy. And it works; they pay attention. And when something works, it gets repeated. And suddenly everything is a big deal. And then, when our bleatings that the fox has once again invaded the hen house start falling on reality-deafened ears, all we've done is further diminish what little credibility we had.​

There are legitimate reasons to issue the clarion call for action against crisis. But far too often that call is raised when there is no real need. And then, one of two things happens. Either people become numb and ignore all warnings, or they build to a fever peak of constant fear, abandoning common sense and rationality in the constant fretting that "Something must be done!"

Internal auditors have to vigilantly watch for those false crisis calls — by both our clients and by ourselves. In fact, while we're at it, let's watch for it in all walks of life. And, when we see it start to take off, do what we can to quench the fire. And, at the same time, do our best to not go off half-cocked, ranting and raving about every little infraction.​


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