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​Improvising Internal Audits

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A successful analogy occurs when something familiar is compared with something else. That "something else" may be familiar to the audience, with the analogy intended to provide new insights, or it may be unfamiliar, using the analogy to help make the unfamiliar more familiar. But the key is, start with the familiar. Unfortunately, I'm about to do the opposite — use something potentially unfamiliar as the basis of the analogy. It will take some explanation, and it probably won't work. But let's give it a shot.

I have played violin/fiddle since I was in second grade. Classically trained, I eventually metamorphosed by playing in country and country/rock bands. (Charlie Daniels, Marshall Tucker, Dan Fogelberg, Dwight Yoakum, Hank Williams, Garth Brooks, Jackson Browne, the list goes on and on. You get the idea.)

Classical music is very structured; play the notes as written and as the composer intended. Playing in bands is more free-form and improvisational. Yes, there is structure, but within that structure lies ample opportunities to make it up as you go along. Intros, fills, leads — some require specific notes; others allow free range. And six-nights-a-week, four-hour-a-night gigs paved my transition from working within rigid structures to developing improvisational skills.

The full-time gigs ended long ago. Instead, over the last few years, I've been occasionally sitting in with other musicians. And that has meant a broadening of styles and approaches. (For example, there's a female singer I get the privilege to work with who does an incredible job with "Misty," and I get to join in. A far cry from "Long-Haired Country Boy.")

So, here's the important part — the part that will lead to the analogy. Sitting in means I am less prepared for what I might be playing. And that means I am forced into more improvisation. With less preparation, I sometimes have to approach that improvisation with little more knowledge than the key of the song, the basic melody, and a hint at the structure.

A few years ago, proving old dogs occasionally learn new tricks, I realized something about that improvisation. My normal approach was to rely on the skills and knowledge I'd developed over the years and put together a decent, sometimes really good, lead. As long as I paid close attention to where the lead was going, how it fit into the format of the song, and how it would all come to an end, I could do a decent job.

However, the great leads — the sometimes accidently amazing leads — happen when I quit worrying and take off. Don't worry about the next note until I get there, don't worry about where it all needs to go, don't worry about being perfect — trust my gut and my luck. In fact, it sometimes feels as if I am throwing my fingers at the fingerboard … hoping.

OK, there are times when it doesn't work. I have been known to create true disasters — stuck in the stratosphere with no idea where I am or how to land. But more times than not, something really nice results. And on rare occasions I hear what I play and wonder, "Who was that?"

Now here's an internal audit question for you: What was the absolutely best internal audit you ever conducted? Defining "best" is up to you; you decide how to measure it. But when sitting, drinking, and sharing stories at the bar, this is the audit you pull out to show how good we can be — the audit where you look back and think to yourself, "Well done thou good and faithful internal auditor."

Here, a limb; watch as I climb out on it. I'm guessing the audit you have chosen did not come to being from your most perfectly planned, intricately detailed, follow-all-the-numbers work. I'm guessing that greatness came about because things changed, and you had to improvise.

And therein may be one of the biggest problems in internal audit. We always take the safe and secure path. It is not that this does not result in good things. Such an approach is part of the foundation of how we do our jobs. And there is a reason for this — it works. But, if that is all we stick with, then that is all we will have. Good work, but not greatness.

And moments of greatness are what we need to show the world the real value we can provide.

Take a flyer. Know where you are starting, understand the structure, but then reach beyond the plans. Allow your skill and knowledge to guide you to paths untrod, to ideas unthought, to audits that do more than please. Be brave and foolhardy. Have faith and step out into the abyss hoping a bridge will appear.

Sometimes, disaster will result. However, when I am playing and it all comes crashing down around me, I find that people seldom know it was a disaster, even other musicians. I've realized that, when I take off on my flights of improvisation, I still know the song, I still know where my fingers and the bow belong, I still have a destination for that flight, and I still have the years of practice and playing in my background. My playing, even when it goes wrong, is grounded in years of training and performance.

And, as long as internal auditors are grounded in the skills, knowledge, and principles that define our profession, our disasters will be kept to a minimum — the type where we are the only ones who know something didn't go the way we planned.

Good audits are grounded in the fundamentals. Great audits use those fundamentals as a base, not as an anchor. All we need to do is take that first leap of faith and let the audit lead us where it will. We should be willing to take off on that flight secure in the knowledge that, even when we are not sure what we are doing, we know what we are doing.

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