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​Happy Accidents

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Had a little snafu last week. The title of last Friday’s blog post was supposed to be “The Customer is Not Always Right.” Vagaries occurred and, in some situations, that title became “The Customer is Not Awlays Right.”

Here’s the thing about that error. It leads to some interesting thoughts about what customers want, what we deliver, and who is really right. If the customer wants a mistake (“awlays”), do we go ahead and give it to them? If we think our mistake is better (for example, that the title containing the phrase “awlays” will generate more interest and traffic), do we force/convince our customers that we are correct?

All this from the happy accident of mistyping “always” as “awlays.”

A lot of success in internal audit occurs because of happy accidents. As much as we’d like to think our successes come from careful planning; keen observation; and a slavish adherence to protocols, procedures, and standards, some of our most shining moments come about because of coincidences that are out of our control.

Happy accidents.

Think about some of your most memorable internal audit moments. There’s a more-than-good chance that, if you are honest with yourself, you will realize the roll chance played in that success.

Here’s three examples from my career to show you what I mean.

I was wrapping up an interview during one of our very first process mapping projects. I asked the clerk, “Is there anything you wish I had asked?” (One of my favorite interview-ending questions.)

With barely a pause she responded, “Yes. I wish you had asked me about the supervisor.”

D’oh! Her answer led to a substantial number of additional questions for her, the other clerks, the manager, and, of course, the supervisor.

We would not have identified the issue with our audit procedures. Instead, we discovered the situation through the happy accident of asking the right question of the right person at the right time.

Speaking of process mapping, one of my most impactful happy accidents came about because of the work we were doing in our claims offices. We were looking for ways to better document the information we got about processes during operational audits. About that time, we got a flyer from the American Management Association regarding a new approach called process mapping. (This was a while ago. You probably guessed that because of my use of the word “flyer.”)

My co-worker and I attended the day-long session and, somewhere in the first couple of hours, we stared at each other gobsmacked by the opportunity that had fallen in our laps. We realized we were learning the basics of an approach that could fundamentally change the way we did our audits.

That one class resulted in transformational change within our department — in the way we documented, in the way we audited, in the way we learned about processes, and in the way we provided value to our customers. We found all this through the happy accident of attending the right class with the right information at the right time.

And a final example. Back in 2009, my daughter returned from San Diego Comic-con upset. Seems she had been following the Warner Brothers Twitter account and had missed a tweet that would have allowed her to get some additional swag.

As you read this, it probably all makes sense. (Look up any references that left you lost.) But 10 years ago, a great number of these words made little sense to those of us not indoctrinated to Cons, swag, or social media. Listening to her story, I had the sudden realization that social media was a whole lot more than narcissistic navel-gazing about what someone had for breakfast that morning. It was a gateway to amazing opportunities for any organization. But there were also correspondingly large risks.

I set up a few accounts, did some research, and, eventually, led one of the first audits of social media. I figured this out through the happy accident of hearing the right information from the right source at the right time.

Look closely at these stories and you will see an underlying theme. Happy accidents only provide value when you are ready for them. And you only become ready for them by exploring, learning, and listening.

There is a familiar quote attributed to Louis Pasteur. “Chance favors only the prepared mind.”

In other words, the kind of happy accidents that lead to success for any internal auditor do not happen unless that auditor is constantly searching, exploring, and learning — preparing for the happy accidents.

You don’t ask the right questions; you don’t find the problems. You don’t look for learning opportunities; you don’t discover new approaches. You don’t listen in areas with which you are unfamiliar; you miss out on new risks.

And note that Pasteur is often misquoted as having said, “chance favors the prepared mind.” But that word “only” is very important.

Anyone can stumble across something. But, if you want consistent success — if you want chance to favor you over others — it means you have to be continuously looking at what is going on around you. It doesn’t matter where you look, because you never know where those idea are hiding. (See the Comic-con story above.) Just be looking and learning.

By opening your mind and filling it with new ideas, you will be prepared for when chance walks up and smacks you with serendipity.

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