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Just Because It Is Procedure​

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I just finished reading the Philip K. Dick novel Galactic Pot-Healer.  If the author's name sounds vaguely familiar, it is probably because his novels have been the basis for a number of movies, the best of which was Bladerunner based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (And the less said about Minority Report or Total Recall, the better.)

The plot of the novel is unimportant. Suffice to say that this proves that, as usual, you will not go far wrong reading the works of Philip K. Dick. And, as is also usual with one of Dick's novels, it explored a lot of philosophical, spiritual, and existential questions. Once I got done (and literally laughed out loud at the final sentence) I found I was asking myself some interesting questions — questions around what it was that I actually believed

I have spent a good portion of this morning (as I write this) contemplating that question.

Of course, I have pondered such questions in the past. Most thinking people have. But today's internal monologue was a chance to revisit and reevaluate some personal assumptions. I will spare you the majority of my self-explorations and realizations; no one needs see that navel-gazing. But, as I explored the question, I eventually began thinking about business, the profession of internal audit, and what it means to succeed.

And I started thinking about Tom Peters.

In 1999, Tom Peters published a book titled Reinventing Work: The Professional Service Firm 50. Before I say anything else, let me stress that this is a book everyone (including internal auditors; specifically, internal auditors; especially internal auditors; yes, every single one of you reading this blog post) should read. Sure, I think you should also read Galactic Pot-Healer, but science fiction isn't to everyone's taste, and Dick's writing is a bit strange, so it might not be your cup of tea. But Peters' book speaks specifically to the steps we, as professional internal auditors, need to take toward reshaping and reinventing the work we do.

Tom Peters came to mind because the book focuses on how every department or professional needs to adapt the mindset of a professional services firm. Toward that end, he encourages the drafting of a manifesto. "We at Internal Audit Inc. believe …" (See why it came to mind?) He is challenging the reader to "Use [the manifesto] to clarify where you are today, where you want to be … and how you're going to strive to get there."

In my morning contemplations, some of the following statements came to mind:

  • I believe creativity will drive the future.
  • I believe nothing works as well as it might and needs to be changed/improved/destroyed and reinvented.
  • I believe everyone is made better when they are given the freedom to explore.
  • And, from that, I believe that slavishly adhering to policies, practices, and procedures is the road to irrelevance, worthlessness, and ruin.

Now, I'm not going to take out my vintage Burn-Rite Wood Burning Kit with Air-cooled Electric Wonder Pen and start scorching any of preceding into the walls of my office. These are just quick thoughts that are far from being exact, perfect, or precise. But, as quick musings in the morning, they pretty accurately reflect what I believe about business in general and internal audit specifically.

In particular, I've recently been facing that whole slavish adherence thing while being involved in some training sessions. I have observed, with a smidgen of shock and horror, as internal audit professionals (seasoned professionals) recoil in dread when confronted with concepts such as the idea that departments may not need to exactly follow every single procedure, people should be given the ability to make decisions based on what is right rather than what is written in out-of-date manuals, and that even internal auditors have freedom to apply their professional judgement when the audit manual flies in the face of common sense.

This overreliance on procedures and written instructions — following the letter of the law rather than the intent — is at the heart of why internal audit constantly struggles to be relevant. 

We serve no good — other than maybe keeping a few regulators happy — if we do nothing but provide assurance that the existing procedures are followed to the letter. We serve no good if we are not willing to listen to alternatives in the face of overwhelming evidence. And we serve no good when we think we have to follow our own rules because of the belief that they have been chiseled in stone. 

We have to be willing to listen to alternatives. We have to be willing to accept there are better ways to do things, for ourselves and for our clients. We have to accept that procedure manuals are not holy writ handed down from on high. And we have to be the ones out there suggesting/telling/insisting that the current policies and procedures do not make sense, provide no value, and actually impede the successful achievement of objectives.

I believe we need to exhibit creativity if we want internal audit to succeed. I believe we cannot accept the current conditions of our organization or our department as the way things have to be. And I believe that the freedom to explore and experiment is paramount to the success we so desperately desire.

And it starts with you. First, ask yourself, as an internal auditor, are you so enmeshed in the prim, proper, procedurally exact way of work getting done that you are missing the real solutions — the ones that ignore what has always been done and, instead, allow for success.

And second (and probably most importantly), ask yourself where you are today, where do you want to be, and how are you going to get there. And ask yourself what it is you believe.​

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