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Why Ask Why?​

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Recently, I came up with a new definition of internal audit. However, rather than just give you that definition, let's play a little game. Here is my definition with the last word left blank. Fill in that blank.

"Internal audit is systematic [blank]"

Okay, what I've come up with is not so much a definition as an insight, an interpretation, a contemplation, a different way of thinking about what internal audit is really all about. But let's go ahead and dig into this, anyway.

Before we fill in that blank, let's talk about the word just before the blank: systematic.

That word embraces an important hallmark of our profession — the systematic approach to our work. As much as I often want to cuss out the policies and procedures and guidelines and standards and rulings and every other word written about how best to do, show, and support our work, it is all that rigor that serves as a bastion against the slings and arrows of those who would attack our work and our profession. (And, for those of you who know me, you are probably shocked to hear me support anything that is structured. However, in spite of my desire to throw off the shackles of our confinement, I recognize that structure, when applied correctly, is not confinement, but a platform upon which we can elevate ourselves.)

So, the structure that is an integral part of the work completed by internal audit is still in there.

But now, about that blank. My guess is that, for those of you who actually played the game, you came up with something about internal audit being a systematic examination or investigation or inspection or review or analysis or any of the myriad other responses that focus on the function of our work. (As The IIA's definition of internal auditing states, "Internal auditing … helps an organization … by bringing a systematic approach to evaluate and improve the effectiveness of … processes.")

But none of those get to how internal auditors can be truly successful. I have always felt (and proselytized) that there are only two things I want in an auditor — creativity and curiosity. With just those as a head start, I believe an individual is light years ahead of other internal audit candidates (not to mention leaders, mentors, and others with a fair share of influence on the success of internal audit). These are the two traits I have seen and continue to see being exhibited by good, quality, successful auditors (the kind who eventually become powerful leaders).

Now, if you have even a passing acquaintance with my blogs, you know I've gone on (incessantly?) about creativity. So, let's focus on the second trait I've listed — curiosity, inquisitiveness, the desire to know just a little bit more, the ability to continue asking important questions.

When I speak about these two traits (creativity and curiosity), I tend to get push back on creativity. But everyone seems to have pretty solid agreement around the idea of curiosity. And yet, with all that unanimity spread across the profession, I don't see any real support for the concept. Do we hire for curiosity? Do we coach for curiosity? Do we train for curiosity? I'm guessing that, for 99.999999 percent of you out there, the answer is no.

We have to recognize the need for curiosity, we have to start emphasizing curiosity, and we have to understand why so many people shy away from curiosity.

I have been rereading Lynda Barry's book Picture This, the premise of which is asking the question "Do you wish you could draw?", then proceeding to put forward thoughts on how that can occur. (This description is very purposeful; the book approaches the subject in a way that really cannot be described.) At one point, she asks two very simple questions. "Why do we start drawing?" and "What makes us stop?"

In my mind, the answer to the first question is that we start drawing for the sheer joy of it. Few children have to be pushed to draw. They enjoy it. They do it. No questions asked.

The answer to the second question will require your own introspection — we all have our reasons, excuses, and demons for stopping. But, in general, at some point we were told it was frivolous or we were just not very good at it. The joy disappeared, and so did the desire to just spontaneously draw.

Any of us can reestablish the joy of drawing for the sheer joy of drawing by recognizing what is holding us back and then rediscovering that joy.

Based on the preceding, here are two questions of my own that relate to the discussion about curiosity. First, when do we start asking "why"? Much like drawing, it just starts to happen. There is so much to discover, so much to learn, so many questions. And, as soon as words can be formed into coherent questions, kids start asking "Why?"

And then the second question. Why do we stop asking "why"? Again, your neurosis may vary. But let's face it, at a very early age we are trained that there is one right answer (the one your instructor is looking for), that asking too many questions is disruptive, and, in spite of protestations to the contrary, we are asking dumb questions.

And so, people quit asking "why." They accept the status quo. They do not look for reasons. They just do what they are told.

However, just as with drawing, any of us can reestablish the joy of discovery, of inquiry, of curiosity by just recognizing why it is we have quit doing it and then rediscovering that joy.

And those are the ones — the ones who either refused to give up on the quest for all the answers or the ones who have rediscovered the joy — who will make good, successful auditors.

I've seen a lot of auditors — some fairly successful but nonetheless mediocre auditors — who fail this test. The curiosity has been beaten out of them. And while they understand the questions that need to be asked to make the grade as an auditor, they do not understand why the questions are asked. And the why behind asking why is the important part. It is how someone goes from an okay auditor to a fantastic auditor. (And, actually, a great leader. But, that's a discussion for another time.)

So, in case you haven't figured it out yet, here is my definition/insight/interpretation/contemplation of internal audit.

Internal audit is systematic curiosity.

Yes, we have to have systems in place. But it is all worthless — all the reviews, all the analysis, all the examinations, all the investigations — unless it is driven by curiosity, the curiosity to just know more.

Here's a quote from Isaac Asimov. "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'that's funny …'" We all know the "Aha!" moment when we find a problem or a fraud or a root cause or any discovery that will mean the audit has value. But none of those exist without first having that moment, the one where we say, "That's funny."

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