There is nothing more intimidating than a blank sheet of paper. Any author will tell you that writer's block is only made worse by the blank page. Anyone who does brainstorming sessions will tell you that the toughest part is getting that first person to throw out that first idea. Any auditor will tell you that the unfilled audit program framework produces more fear than the need to update the one from the previous year. The possibilities and potentialities that exist with a blank sheet overcome us – there is so much that can be done, and there is so much that can be done wrong.
Tell the truth – when you are about to start a report aren't you glad there are headings and structure and standards that help drive the way you write a report? And tell me another truth – when you are asked to write a memo or report or prepare some other type of document which does not follow the standard report writing format, don't you freeze up for a second (or a minute or an hour or a day or a month or a career) trying to determine what the first word should be that goes on the blank sheet of paper?
But why, you might ask, should we, as auditors, ever want the blank sheet – particularly when it comes to report writing. There are standards and procedures and, in spite of the fact that we all struggle with getting it right, we have a pretty good thing going with the current condition of the overall report.
Here's one example why.
A number of years ago, our department was fighting the apparently eternal battle of preparing quality audit reports. Our CAE at the time decided our approach to reports was getting us nowhere. We were in a decentralized environment, so he advised the managers at each location that they were being given free rein. As long as the report had the required sections (background, scope, opinion, etc.), each of the managers could write reports any way they wanted.
For the next six months our managers experimented. (Of course, a few kept writing reports in the old style, but this is not meant to be a tale of how some people refuse to change.) And then, we pulled together the results and found the best practices. There were ideas that worked, there were ideas that didn't work, and there were ideas we weren't quite sure what to do with.
But, by taking away all restrictions, we were able to revisit report writing in a way that allowed us to discover brand new opportunities.
All of this to say embrace the blank sheet, the unfenced opportunities, the tabula rasa, the unexplored country. Complete freedom is scary; complete freedom is an opportunity; complete freedom is the road to untold riches.
And maybe, most importantly, throw that first mark on the empty sheet of paper. The rest – the ideas, the innovation, the quality product – all follow from that.