How to Eat an Elephant

When I first made the switch from compliance to consulting, it was a bit daunting. There weren’t checklists to follow or rules to guide me. It was like going from the compulsory to the interpretive part of the program.

I remember vividly the first time I encountered what seemed to be an insurmountable challenge. It was overwhelming. I was afraid. And I was afraid to admit I was afraid.

I went to the partner to seek their advice on how to approach the issue. They must have recognized the deer in the headlights look on my face, as they had been where I was before. There was a slight pause before the partner asked, “How do you eat an elephant?” I wasn’t sure if it was a trick question or if it was a way of inviting me into their personal space by sharing their desire to partake of elephant meat.

Before I could respond “I imagine with a LOT of hot sauce” they responded, “one bite at a time.”

It was so obvious. And it made sense. And I already did it all the time on smaller challenges. But I had let the magnitude of the challenge and my nagging internal voice of doubt take center stage.

CPA’s looking to start or expand their advisory services may have the same feelings and fears. It is natural and we all suffer from self-doubt to some degree. It is also hard to motivate yourself to start something new when you are so busy.

If you are a CPA adventuring out beyond compliance-based services, be kind to yourself and don’t set the bar of success too high. While it would be wonderful to land a $20k advisory engagement out of the gate, it is unlikely.

Start with an hour or two of billable time to help a client think through their customer segmentation. Repeat that with another client. Or perhaps a client could benefit from a SWOT analysis, or help another client analyze an idea for a new product or service. Frankly, you are already doing advisory services when the client calls to “run something by you”. The concept is not foreign. The construct is.

Bit by bit, bite by bite, your confidence and comfort will grow, along with your revenue and profitability. Your clients will have received valuable insights. And your advisory services will be built brick by brick.

The Growth CPR framework was designed with a “one bite at a time” mindset. It is not a solution looking for a problem or a “sell everything on the truck” flurry of pitches. Those approaches are hollow and contribute to the poor perception of “consultants”.

Don’t let fear hold you back from reaching new heights. You can do this. And you don’t need hot sauce.

Coloring outside the lines

I recently heard a great observation. When we enter kindergarten, we are given a box of crayons with 64 colors and encouraged to create something wonderful. We were praised by our teachers and parents and our drawings adorned the refrigerator door.

By the time we exited college, we had black or blue pencils and pens to fill in little ovals on a test which would be scanned, and we would be penalized for going outside the lines.

What happened?

Our education system teaches conformity. This isn’t a political piece or a criticism of education. It is an observation. Conformity and compliance are good and necessary. Rush hour traffic is bad enough without some “creative” person speeding up the shoulder of the road.

And accountants thrive on compliance. The entire industry was built upon standards, principles, rules and regulations. And we’re good at it. But while we’re focused on filing a compliant tax return, someone is creating an application that files the compliant tax return without us.

So what do we do? We can’t give up because where would we hang our diploma and CPA certificate?

Accountants need to get comfortable coloring outside the lines and using the entire box of crayons, figuratively speaking of course. Don’t confuse creativity with crime. As a group, we don’t look good in orange.

Companies are in the business of creative destruction, pushing boundaries and erasing lines. The rules, regulations and standards always come later. There weren’t speed limits before the innovation of cars.

So how do accountants rediscover and rejuvenate their innate, creative capabilities? Glad you asked.

Creativity is a skill you can learn. It is a muscle. And like any muscle, the more you use it, the stronger it becomes. But building muscle is work. Building creativity is play.

Here are three exercises anyone can do to develop their creative skills. You can start by being creative about how, when, where and even with whom to do the exercises with if you prefer to go outside the lines and have group exercises.

1. The Power of Constraints

Constraints push you to think creatively. They push the mind to generate ideas and solutions. It also forces the mind to focus and avoid wandering.

Add constraints to problems, activities and descriptions and have some fun imagining the solutions and outcomes.

Example – you’re going on vacation with your family. A key client calls and says they need you in the office all next week. What do you do? Constraints – you can’t cancel your vacation. You can’t say no to the client. Your computer doesn’t have wifi (I know, no accountant would be caught dead without wifi but play along here…).

Example – you have to present your esteemed credentials to a prospective client. Constraints – you can’t talk. You can only pantomime or draw five pictures.

2. The Benefit of the Benefit of the Benefit

This exercise helps identify things that are not readily apparent and teaches you to draw inferences, an essential skill in any field. Like constraints, it forces the brain to focus on a specific issue and to think in unorthodox ways. Here is a simple example.

What is the benefit of exercise? It helps me be healthy.

What is the benefit of being healthy? I feel better and have more energy.

What is the benefit of feeling better and having more energy? I engage in more social activities and enjoy life more.

You see where this is going. Continue with the process until your brain struggles to find another benefit. And then go deeper. Keep pushing. As with lifting weights, the last rep is the hardest but provides the most benefit

3. A Title in Eight Words

This idea comes from the famous title attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn.” 

The exercise is to create a headline or story title, using eight words or less, that conjures up an emotional response and intrigue. It focuses on a particular facet of creativity – the ability to generate curiosity and anticipation. This is much harder than you think. Here are a few examples.

Title – Honeymoon trip. Cancel or go alone?

Curiosity – Who canceled the wedding? Why? Where were they going?

Title – In search of a reliable mechanic. Discretion required.Curiosity – Why would someone need discretion from a mechanic? Are they hiding something?

Tip: Combining words that usually don’t go together (mechanic and discretion) generate curiosity and creates dissonance. It is “outside the lines” and evokes an emotional response.

Creativity is an essential skill for accountants performing advisory services. Clients aren’t willing to pay for obvious, inside the box solutions to their unique problems. Develop a habit of practicing the above exercises daily. Better yet, create your own creativity exercises by mixing and matching other creativity exercises. Strengthening creative muscles will expand your powers of observation, unveiling a world of colorful opportunities that are a stark contrast to the black and white world of compliance. You can do this.

Growth CPR was founded to help accountants who want to start, expand and/or enhance their advisory service practice. We do our part by providing the tools, frameworks and guidance – sort of like the crayons and paper. Your part is to add your personal flair and creativity to create your art. Your new client engagement letters for advisory services can be the new refrigerator decorations in your home, celebrating your creations.

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