How accountants can use creative thinking at work

Encouraging or reawakening creativity among employees has become key to a company’s competitive advantage.

No longer the preserve of stereotypically "creative" professions such as design or performing arts, creativity is permeating all areas of business. More and more, our work lives involve stepping outside our day-to-day to devise novel solutions to challenges old and new.

At a glance

  • Innovation was once considered the domain of a small group within a workplace, but this view is changing rapidly.
  • Creativity is listed as one of the top five skills required to thrive at work, but many professionals tend to have a dysfunctional relationship with their latent creativity due to unfair stereotypes about those who work in typically creative fields.
  • Encouraging creativity now features on the list of priorities for many organisations that have identified a culture of innovation as being key to developing competitive advantage.

Innovation and analytical thinking will be the top skills needed to thrive in the world of work by 2025, according to the World Economic Forum. Aligned with these skills, creativity and initiative also feature in its top five.

Mykel Dixon, author of Everyday Creative: A Dangerous Guide for Making Magic at Work and adviser to companies on how to unlock creativity among their ranks, would argue that these skills are already in demand right now.

“The world we live in used to value those who could ace the test, the ones who could memorise information, master instructions... Now we have machines for that, and they don’t need to be fed or need a break…What the world values now are those of us who can dream, those who can reinterpret and reinvent the world in new and exciting ways,” he says.

Unhelpful stereotypes portraying artists and creatives as flaky and self-absorbed, coupled with reductionist myths about people having either left-brained or right-brained capabilities, have served to encourage a dysfunctional relationship with our latent creativity, says Dixon.

He is not the only one who believes that creativity and innovation can be cultivated. Christy Forest, CEO and executive director of LiveHire and former member of the Business Council of Australia Innovation Taskforce, says: “It used to be that innovation was the task of a small development team in the corner of an office, but now innovation happens in an environment that taps the entire workforce. You have to harness soft skills and hard skills, and have a lot of precision around process and reward.”

Risk of failure

Encouraging or reawakening creativity among employees has become key to a company’s competitive advantage.

Just take a look at the Creativity Index measure, developed by management consultants McKinsey, which shows that businesses that score highly outperform their competitors in two areas, an appetite and aptitude for innovation and shareholder return – in other words, growth and profit.

Despite this, there is a perception that a culture of innovation is hard to instil in traditional accounting and finance firms. Bureaucracy and a methodical approach conducive to compliance-based work are sometimes seen as roadblocks to creativity.

"I can afford to fail fast, as long as I have clear vision, a broad innovation portfolio and a mix of short, medium and long-term goals." Darren Chua, EY

At professional services firm EY, Darren Chua leads innovation for the Oceania region. The risk-taking that accompanies experimentation can be much harder to swallow in large organisations, he says, exacerbated by the focus on short-term performance and individuals’ fear of failure.

“In finance and accountancy, we are by nature very precise individuals. So, being allowed the ‘right to fail’ is typically incongruous with the way business is organised and run. If you are trying to hit your quarterly goal, how lenient can you be about failure?”

Chua’s advice is to be smart and deliberate in how companies frame innovation. “I can afford to fail fast, as long as I have a clear vision, a broad innovation portfolio and a mix of short, medium and long-term goals. In that context, if we fail fast and have some space to shoulder occasional losses, we can then learn and move on quickly to the next opportunity.”

CPA Australia podcast: Future Thinkers: Inspiring stories of leadership & innovation in business

Support from the top

No enterprise is going to get creative without buy-in and support from the CEO – that is the consensus among experts.

“At a level or two removed from the CEO, it never really gets any traction, and organisations including EY and the big banks have struggled with that,” says Chua.

Any budget and resources ring-fenced for innovation should also have a clear agenda.

Chua recalls a major client who invested over A$2 million in a state-of-the-art innovation hub that, within a couple of years, became a place for good coffee meetings but not much else.

“There wasn’t true ownership of why they needed the space and how innovation would be ingrained into the core business. The question – about whether this was a place for brainstorming or was it a fundamental way of changing the business model and processes – wasn’t asked or key leaders weren’t fully sold on it.”

Big ideas, small gains

Disruptive innovation” is a concept developed by the late Harvard academic and management guru Clayton Christensen, and it is embodied by companies such as Netflix, which began as a humble DVD mail order business. The Big Four accounting and consulting firms all pay homage to Christensen’s ideas about innovating, often giving employees licence to consider the unconventional. PwC Ventures calls this “internal creative destruction”.

Incremental innovation is a more common approach, used by many companies to improve business-as-usual processes and performance. This ranges from deploying Zoom or Microsoft Teams, through to automating timesheets and expenses, and encouraging employees to adopt new processes and solutions to make work more efficient and streamlined.

The question for many firms is, do they pull together a special innovation team or is creativity open to everyone?

“I think you need a bit of both,” says Chua. “A central innovation team that is a bit different, run by people in jeans not suits; but also have a firm-wide culture, where everyone gets a chance to be creative and play a part.”

The “jeans and T-shirt brigade” is highly visible in workplaces such as Atlassian and Google, where “innovation days”, “personal projects” or a “genius hour” are set up to foster creativity within employee ranks. The idea is to detach employees from their day-to-day work and allow them to work on a project of their choice, creating the space for out-of-the-box thinking.

For an established business in a non-technology sector, it is much harder to draw a link between innovation and investment, says Chua. “At the end of the day, the CEO wants to know, what is my ROI? Innovation accounting is vital, yet not something that is easily measured, let alone done well.”

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Innovation in the regions

Small accountancy firms have it even tougher. Lacking the big budgets, resources and diversity of staff skills, they have to be more efficient in cultivating creativity and quicker in putting good ideas into practice.

Kirsty Meredith is an associate lecturer in accounting at the University of the Sunshine Coast and has researched creativity in small accountancy firms in regional and rural Australia.

“Most accountants now recognise that creativity is important. But stepping back from the job at hand to ask ‘How could I do this job better?’ takes time.”

Add to this the strict regulatory environment in which the profession operates – it all serves to dampen creativity, says Meredith.

In her experience, an excessive focus on adhering to current year budgets can also cause accountants to avoid innovations that may “waste time”.

“By changing the focus from short-term budget pressure to long-term efficiency, we reduce that deterrent to creativity and innovation,” says Meredith.

Recent years have seen an increase in competitiveness and reduction in collegiality between finance and accounting firms. Meredith suggests that creative solutions to common problems go begging as a result.

“In my research, I hear common complaints in small firms, particularly around new technology applications, as if they were the only ones struggling with these problems. But when talking to older professionals, they recount how people from other firms would get together at the end of the week for drinks and share knowledge. Today, it is very competitive, and firms are really working against each other,” says Meredith.

Her advice, not surprisingly, is “collaborate, collaborate, collaborate”.

“We can’t be experts in everything ourselves; we need to work out how to leverage expertise from others. Can we find IT experts who are willing to take the time to understand accounting? Can we share ideas with other small firms? Can we identify opportunities to network digitally?”

Meredith says it pays to maximise idea sharing by giving all staff a forum to contribute ideas – including junior accountants and receptionists – and to offer opportunities to upskill through short courses in IT and data science, for example.

The new creatives

Training to encourage creative thinking among accountancy students has become a key component of university courses, says Kirsty Meredith, lecturer at the University of the Sunshine Coast.

The shift of emphasis is in response to professional demands for graduates with competencies alongside technical knowledge, such as design thinking and problem-solving skills.

“I think the view of creativity being at odds with accounting is largely gone. With the increased focus on technology innovation and customer focus, creativity has become even more recognised as something we need to embrace,” she says.

Within professional services firms themselves, keeping employees up-to-date with the speed of technological change is an ongoing task, but an essential one, to give them the tools they need to innovate.

Last year, for example, all of EY’s 300,000 global employees were offered the chance to enrol in the world’s first completely digital corporate technology MBA, free of charge.

Amid the global pandemic, it is important to recognise that ideas and innovation depend on human imagination and ingenuity. The shift to remote working poses new challenges to how creative collaboration will work in the future, says EY’s Darren Chua.

“You can’t do innovation really well unless people are together. Nothing ever beats that feeling and level of intensity and collaboration when you are physically together.”

December/January 2022
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