This is the continuation of a series of blog posts discussing how the competencies that can make for successful entrepreneurs mirror those of internal auditors. It is based on a blog post from the Center for Creative Leadership. My series of posts started here, and you can find the subsequent posts every Friday thereafter (except last week – sorry about that). Today's topic – Tolerating Ambiguity.
There is a fascinating thing that seems to happen in every seminar attended by internal auditors. Give participants a breakout, an exercise, a case study, some type of activity that requires more than fill-in-the-blank-like, specific answers and, after everyone has worked through the project, discussed it, cussed it, and basically revealed the complexities of the situation, there will be those who want to know the "correct" answer.
I see it most during training for new internal auditors (although it runs nearly as rampant in all other situations). New auditors always seem to ask questions about the "right" way to do things. Often this is in the form of "What do the Standards say is required?" Therein is the first bubble-bursting when they are told that the Standards provide guidance, but the details regarding how to apply those standards are left up to each internal audit department.
The other question that comes up is something in the form of, "What is the right/best way to [fill in the blank with any internal audit step, procedure, or process]?" By the second day of training, all I have to do is look at them, wait a beat, and then we say in unison, "It depends."
Internal auditors like things to be neat and tidy with complete and perfect answers. So, it hurts them when such answers are not available. Unfortunately for us, the world does not come with neat, tidy, perfect, and complete answers. And because we have to live in this ambiguous world, we must learn to tolerate (if not embrace) that ambiguity.
As noted above, I have been writing about the seven competencies that can help make successful entrepreneurs. And we have, after a long and winding road, arrived at the final one — tolerating ambiguity.
Now, tolerating ambiguity is quite different than the first competency we discussed — flexibility. Tolerating ambiguity is not about our ability to adapt. Tolerating ambiguity, instead, is the recognition that we have to work in situations where there are no absolutes. It is realizing that we work with organizations that are navigating their way to incredibly unclear futures, and that there are no "right" answers among the multitude of solutions that present themselves, only answers that everyone hopes are not quite as bad as some of the others.
As the Center for Creative Leadership's blog post says about tolerating ambiguity, "Life as a freelancer can be like sailing on an open ocean with no land in sight. The rolling waves, the faint horizon, the occasional blanket of fog; it can all make it difficult to determine where you're going, let alone how to get there…accept it for what it is and try not to waste precious energy fighting it or wishing it away."
Every auditor, at one time or another, has felt that way about their understanding of the organization. However, auditors have to realize that the organization faces the same struggle, trying to see and plan for a future that is hazy at best. And that is why, in spite of what internal auditors might like to believe or wish to see, the organization has no absolutely correct answers.
Now, imagine the consequences when we walk into a department with a cocky/here-is-the-best-answer attitude.
Okay, maybe you don't come in with that attitude. But the nature of internal audit drives many of us to see the world as black and white, allowing for no gradations of the greys that make up the real world. And, the minute those attitudes are let loose — the minute you start thinking in terms of in-compliance versus out-of-compliance, effective versus ineffective, under control versus out of control, right versus wrong — is the minute your client begins to dismiss you as another ivory-tower/never-been-in-the-real-world/theory-over-practice pain-in-the-neck.
(Quick clarification: There are no greys when it comes to fraud and ethics. That's not what I'm talking about here.)
Internal auditors, as a species, love objective measures/concrete answers/one right way to do things. But life isn't that way. In fact, if we were to be honest with ourselves, we would realize that the world of internal audit is not as objective as we would like to believe. (Another quick clarification: I am talking about objective measures, not objectivity.) Sure, we can have yes/no questions and test for attributes and ensure compliance and focus on that black-and-white world. But that is the internal audit department of the past. The real power — the real added value — for internal audit departments is a more subjective approach, finding the meaning behind the numbers rather than just focusing on those numbers.
Nothing will bring an audit shop to its knees more quickly than the never-ending struggle for the perfect answer. It is why reports take so long, it is why we miss deadlines, it is why our clients are afraid to speak with us, and it is one of the reasons that, no matter how hard we try to look like professionals, we are sometimes seen as amateurs who do not understand the real world.
It is an ambiguous world. And internal audit must learn to tolerate, embrace, and, in some instances, be that ambiguity.