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​Thanks, We Already Know That

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I haven't been in an airport for eight months. The longest trips I've taken during our current conditions are a little over 90 miles to visit my mother in Payson, Ariz. Accordingly, I miss travelling. I miss meeting new people, meeting old friends, seeing new places, exploring familiar haunts, and anything to do with being a part of the wider world beyond my local sidewalk.

And, beyond those larger-scope enjoyments that come with travel, I miss little things — some strange, little things. For example, I enjoy perusing the books in airport stores. It's an idiosyncrasy, a quirk, a peculiarity, a caprice, a peccadillo. You have yours; I have mine. (By the way, best airport bookstore: Powell's in Portland, Ore. It is a small oasis reminiscent of the downtown parent store.)

That being said, the last thing I need is more books. (Ask my wife.) My current library consists of just over 1,900. Seventy-five of those are on my "I need to read this right now" list. So, for me to walk into an airport and pay inflated prices for a book doesn't make much sense. But, sometimes, it just strikes … as it did a while ago.

Wandering into the airport gift shop expecting to purchase a bottle of water, I left with the water, a book by Haruki Murakami (if I see one of his books I don't own, I will buy it anywhere, anytime, any price; if you want to explore his work, I'd say start with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or Kafka By the Shore; however, if you really want to go all in, 19Q4 is an incredible bit of insanity), and HBR's 10 Must Reads 2020.

And that is why I've called this meeting.

(Yeah, I know it took us a while to get here. But remember, I've got that blank piece of virtual paper to fill and a lot of time to kill, so ....)

I've fallen for the Harvard Business Review (HBR) bait a number of times, browsing the store's racks, seeing the HBR logo, picking up a collection of "10 must reads," noting a couple that piqued my interest, and making the impulse buy. And it has usually been less than satisfying. But I ignored history and, because there were a couple of articles in this collection that caught my attention, common sense departed, and that old demon impulse took over.

The contents were medium-whelming.

Of course, because this is HBR, there was interesting research and analysis behind everything that was said. However, with almost every article I found myself thinking, "Well, yeah ... but I kind of knew that already." It reminded me of the way I felt after reading a study that said wearing high heels can make your feet hurt. I've never worn high heels (unless boots count), but I could have guessed that conclusion without much research. And so it was with these articles.

Here's three examples — three of the first four articles in the book.

"Strategy Needs Creativity," in which it is stated that "Analytic tools are good at helping strategists develop business ideas that are close at hand — but less good at discovering transformative strategies," and continuing on with four "creativity-enhancing tools": contrast, combination, constraint, and context. I do not think any of us are surprised by the fact that creativity is needed to develop new strategies. And I imagine most of us, based on the titles alone, can imagine the concepts behind the creativity-enhancing tools.

"The Surprising Power of Questions." Before I even provide a synopsis, show me one auditor that isn't already aware of this; find me an auditor who would be "surprised" that questions have power. The article notes that "few executives think about questioning as a skill that can be honed." It includes such earth-shattering tips as "Favor follow-up questions, know when to keep questions open-ended, get the sequence right, use the right tone, and pay attention to group dynamics." I could be wrong, but I think I've covered those in every new auditor training class I've facilitated.

"Collaborative Intelligence" which includes the almost yawn-inducing statement: "Artificial intelligence (AI) is transforming business — and having the most significant impact when it augments human workers instead of replacing them." (A line you will find in almost any article about AI, and one I've probably [lazily] used in some prior blog post. Don't fact-check me on that one.) The thesis is a similar cliché. "Companies should reimagine their business process, focusing on using AI to [improve operations]."

Having taken a healthy swipe at the contents of the book, I do want to recommend one article — the fourth of the first four mentioned above. "What Most People Get Wrong About Men and Women," by Catherine H. Tinsley and Robin J. Ely, provides eye-opening insights applicable to everyone, not just internal auditors. Perform a quick search and you should be able to find it behind paywalls. Make that investment.

But, back to the bulk of the books' articles. It is not that I am trying to denigrate the contents. Almost every article has some good information, primarily the type that backs up many of those things we already know. (I dog-eared more than a couple of the pages.) But, again, this is stuff we already know. The articles only provide detail that backs up that knowledge.

And here's the point. I would guess that a good portion of internal auditors know a good portion of the stuff in these articles. Again, we may not have the statistics to back it up, but we all know this stuff. Yet, based on the way these are written and presented, the information comes as a surprise to some, particularly executives and leaders.

How many other things do we know that other people might find surprising? And, more importantly, what else can we do, what other information can we share, and what other value can we provide where our clients wouldn't even think of turning to us?

I've told this before, but it's worth repeating. Back in the 1990s (I think), Farmers Insurance brought in a high-level, well-respected consulting firm (you'd know the name) to look into our Claims operations. After a whole mess o' money was spent, a final report was issued. We in internal audit got a copy and, while there were some insights that we had to acknowledge were pretty good, there was also a whole mess of stuff that internal audit would have been able to tell them. In fact, we were already telling them some of it. (And we were doing it for a lot less money.)

We could have done it. We had the knowledge, we had the business acumen, and we had the tools. What we didn't have was the name, the fancy trappings, and, most importantly, the recognition.

Internal audit has some amazing skills and abilities. Our staffs are made up of people with diverse understandings and talents. And any internal audit department worth its salary has more knowledge about overall organizational operations than any other department within the organization.

We need to step forward and sell ourselves — sell ourselves as the harborers of knowledge; sell ourselves as analytical consultants; sell ourselves as the process, risk, and control experts; and sell ourselves as an asset to the organization that is far beyond what anyone expects.

We may never get our own HBR article out of it. But, if we get ourselves out there and get our clients to accept that we can do so much more than they ever expected, then those clients, the next time they pick up an HBR book at the airport, should read through the contents and think, "Sheesh, I already know this; internal audit told me about it."

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