Internal auditors don't really want much. We just want to make sure we've identified every risk. And we want to make sure we've rigorously evaluated every risk. And we want to make sure our efforts are concentrated in those areas where there are the greatest residual risks. And we want to make sure we understand exactly how the process works. And we want to make sure we have talked with every person who can provide all the information we need. And we want to make sure we test every possible transaction. And we want to make sure we haven't missed anything. And we want to make sure it is all covered in the report. And we want to make sure that we have satisfied every reader of the report. And we want to make sure the report contains no errors. And we want to make sure the report contains no typos. And we want to make sure …
Nah … we don't really want much. We just want to make sure we have maximized our choices in a way that ensures everything is, if not perfect, so close to perfect that the difference can be measured in milli-micro-mistakelessness.
Do I overstate things? Perhaps. But stop and think about the work you are currently doing. How much time is spent on actual work, that is, work that can be legitimately considered "audit work." And how much time is spent making sure everything has been done correctly?
I'm serious, do some of the calculations. You've recorded the time spent on audits down to the day, hour, minute, jot, and tittle. Take those numbers, do some quick calculations (quick calculations, not the exhaustive and laboriously-assiduous ones you require in every audit) and figure out what percentage of that time is spent on true audit work and how much is spent double-checking, second-guessing, and reviewing. (Hint: almost every hour done by every person who is not the actual auditor falls under that second category.)
In his book Elastic (another book you should add to your must-read list) Leonard Mlodinow explores, among other issues, the physiological and psychological aspects of decision making. In a section titled "Choice Overload" he writes:
Psychologists call those who [accept the first satisfactory option, rather than continuing to look for a superior one] "satisficers," as opposed to "maximizers," who always try to choose the best. The term [satisficer] was coined by Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon in 1956 to explain the behavior of decision-makers who don't have enough information or computational power to make the optimal choice and, rather than struggle to remedy the limitations, decide to save time and effort by making a choice despite them.
Where do you think internal auditors lie on the satisficer-to-maximizer scale? Put another way, do "maximizers" sound like anyone we know … intimately? Of course, we would argue, we are in no position to take the "first satisfactory option." And quick decisions are as dangerous in our profession as protracted ones. However, our pursuit to make the best decision — our pursuit to maximize — often becomes a search for the Seven Cities of Internal Audit Cibola where the inhabitants agree with all findings, the walls are built of perfectly constructed issues, and the streets are paved with flawless audit reports.
We all want to make good choices, but research shows that making exhaustive analyses, paradoxically, doesn't lead to more satisfaction. It tends to lead instead to regret and second-guessing. Letting go of the idea that a choice must be optimal, on the other hand, preserves mental energy and allows you to feel better if you later learn that a better choice existed. What works when choosing shoes or a new car or a vacation plan may not suffice when choosing a doctor or a partner for what you hope will be a lifetime relationship. But for most situations, those who accept options that are good enough, rather than feeling compelled to find the optimal one, tend to be more satisfied with their choices and, in general, happier and less stressed individuals.
Note that he does not speak of wrong decisions; rather, decisions that are better. So, while it is obvious that what we do is not in the same category as choosing shoes, a new car, or a vacation plan, neither are the ramifications of what we do up there with choosing the right doctor or a partner for life.
Again, I am not saying we just wave our hand with a "Fiddle-dee-dee" and "Tomorrow will be another day," going with the first whim that strikes our fancy. We have to maintain our professionalism, and part of that professionalism is reflected in our ability to maintain accuracy from the lofty heights of developing strategies all the way down to the nuts and bolts of ensuring every comma is in its place and every place has its comma. But, on the other hand, how many foot-pounds of energy, how many irreplaceable brain cells, how many available hours in the audit calendar do we use reviewing the review of the review the reviewer reviewed when the reviewer reviewed the review of the reviewer. (All done in the presence of woodchucks who were chucking wood.)
Yes, we are professionals. But as professionals we have to trust ourselves. That means stepping past the second guessing, instead focusing on doing good work the first time. Of course we want to ensure we make good choices. But exhaustive analysis of our own work will not result in perfection. In fact, it may not even lead to better.
Take a second look at that last quote from Mlodinow. In particular, note the disease called "second guessing." Maybe that is why we are never really happy with our reports, with our tests, or with our audits.
Maybe we just need to find the answers that satisfy, not the perfect ones.