Becoming a Creative CPA with the WonderRigor Paradigm

Nov 30, 2020

WonderRigor_250x383In the drive to innovate, companies in any sector must develop opportunities for their employees to expand their creative capacity. In 2016, the World Economic Forum predicted that by this year, 2020, creativity would rank as the No. 3 job skill, up from number 10 in 2015.

But you may ask, when do “creative” and “accountant” ever go together? It turns out, more than we might think.

Natalie Nixon, PhD, in her recently released book, The Creativity Leap: Unleash Curiosity, Improvisation, and Intuition at Work, explains that CPAs are not alone in thinking they are not creative: “How often have you heard people mutter, ‘Oh, I’m not a creative type?’ ... This is a falsehood, because to be human is to be hardwired to be creative.” Nixon notes that many professions – even those not usually thought of as creative – require “immense amounts of creativity,” at least if you want to be successful.

Nixon has developed a new trademarked paradigm of creativity in The Creativity Leap: WonderRigor. “Wonder is our capacity to exercise awe, pause, dream, and ask audacious blue-sky questions,” she explains.

Hmm … that’s exactly the capacity CPAs think they lack.

Nixon continues: “Rigor is our capacity to exercise discipline and deep skills, to pay attention to detail, and to spend time on task for mastery.”

Now that is something even CPAs can identify with!

Having mastered rigor, are we, as CPAs, already halfway to becoming our best creative selves? James Caruso reached out to Nixon and the two have come together to discuss the WonderRigor creative framework, how it can be used to apply a creativity competency to accounting, and why CPAs are already more creative than they think.

Caruso: When you say creativity is part wonder and part rigor, what exactly do you mean?

Nixon: I am a firm believer that creativity is the engine for innovation. We are all hard-wired to be creative. Here is my definition of creativity: our ability to toggle between wonder and rigor to solve problems. Wonder is dreaming, awe, audacity, pausing, and asking really big “what-if” questions. Rigor is time on task, discipline, and deep skill development. It is super important – especially in a field like accounting where there is a preponderance of rigor – to recognize wonder.

As much as CPAs and other financial professionals may live in a world of rigor – and willingly gravitate toward it – they need to realize that rigor is not sustainable without wonder. Rigor without wonder leads to burnout.

Caruso: Yes! Rigor is everywhere. It seems to be the default setting. Financial statements must follow prescribed forms, there are accounting rules for the underlying information presented, and every data element has a detailed definition. CPAs follow checklists and spend much of their time in detailed analysis.

CPAs clearly have “rigor” figured out, but may think they lack “wonder.” However, any analysis we do starts with a question: Why is there a variance to budget? How profitable is this service line compared to the other? What will be the impact on earnings if this scenario occurs? And you have said, “Creativity requires analytical rigor, and analysis requires a capacity for wonder to make sense of a conundrum.” That stands out for me because, with analysis, that is exactly what we are trying to do: “make sense of a conundrum.” You say it is important to recognize where there is wonder in accounting, and there it is: when we try to make sense of things, it is a form of wonder.

So, how can CPAs learn to be comfortable with chaos and complexity and still grasp the big picture?

Nixon: Grasping and maintaining a view of the big picture goes back to one of the principles of wonder: the ability to pause. Part of the act of pausing means giving yourself time to zoom out.

One of my perceptions of accountants is that they are heads-down, buried in Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. When you’re in that mode, it becomes especially important to be able to pause, walk away, and zoom out. The heads-down rigor of working on a financial model may exemplify discipline, but wonder requires as much discipline as rigor. That’s basically what I meant in that quote you referenced. Financial professionals must build time into their day, and into the work cadence, that allows for pause, even to daydream! Daydreaming is a way to see the forest for the trees. When I interviewed Bhushan Sethi, joint global leader of PwC’s People & Organization practice, he told me he practices creativity through movement. He gets up, walks around, and takes breaks.

Physical movement contributes to the brain’s analytical processes. Human beings are designed to move, not be sedentary. Movement helps our neural synapses function effectively. Take time out for movement and for daydreaming. They both help the brain refresh and rewire. We cannot only focus on using our frontal lobe for deep thought; we need to toggle between the frontal lobe and the lateral lobes. The brain’s frontal lobe controls cognitive skills; the temporal lobe is for maintaining memory. So, walk away – literally. And if you need to put a timer on your desk to remind you, then do that.

I know you are a tornado chaser (see the Member Spotlight section of the winter 2020 Pennsylvania CPA Journal).

Sometimes our hobbies can teach us important lessons about creativity that inform our professions. How has that added value to your life and work?

Caruso: Tornado chasing combines the analytical with an exhilarating connection to nature that inspires awe. It is both an intellectual and visceral experience. There are elements of art and science in both meteorology and accounting; after reading The Creativity Leap, it was easy for me to see the concept of toggling between wonder and rigor in tornado chasing, and that is translatable to my profession.

Maybe wonder is not as apparent in accounting, but it is there in the parallel interplay of inquiry, intuition, and analysis. Another lesson tornado chasing has taught me gets back to maintaining a view of the big picture. There were times in my early days of tornado chasing that I would be so fixated on what the data was saying that I ignored the signs in the sky, right in front of my face, that should take precedence over any data.

Nixon: When in your career did you finally feel like you had mastered the rules and could be more exploratory?

Caruso: I don’t feel like I ever know enough of the rules because they are so vast and extensive. There are always new scenarios that require consultation with rules that may not have been needed before. And the rules change. I don’t think that process ever ends. In the early stages of my career, though, it felt like there was no time for wonder because I was so overwhelmed by the rules. Within a few years – perhaps it was after the proverbial 10,000 hours of experience – I felt comfortable enough with the basic rules and could be more exploratory, ask more questions.

From what I learned in The Creativity Leap, I appreciate that wonder is somewhat serendipitous. In accounting, I would equate this to insight. That is why we do what we do. We don’t analyze numbers just to check boxes; we do it to gain insight about historical or prospective business performance and drive future outcomes.

As we discussed earlier, I like this idea of “making sense of a conundrum.” I see that in accounting all the time. Why do we analyze something? Because we have a question. We are trying to make sense of a conundrum. The question may be our own or we may be answering or anticipating a question from a lender, investor, or business unit leader. How can I help them, add value, and think of them as my internal customers? These are just a few examples of where to find wonder in accounting.

I thought it was interesting that you wrote, “proximity builds collaboration.” We can’t have the same level of proximity with COVID-19, so does that mean we cannot optimize collaboration?

Nixon: Not at all! It is certainly a lot harder, but we can still lean into each other’s ideas. Collaboration during COVID-19 just has to come in different forms. This may sound counterintuitive, but collaborating in a virtual environment can occur by taking pauses from one another. We can practice something called lateral thinking, where you get inspiration from a sector that is either adjacent to yours or totally removed. An example I like to give is between the health care and hospitality industries. Atul Gawande wrote a great essay in The New Yorker in 2012 called “Big Med,” and it was about how hospitals could learn quality control and consistent service delivery from The Cheesecake Factory.

We can practice lateral thinking by attending a webinar for a sector completely different from our own, learn new tips and strategies, and share with colleagues to jump-start their own thinking. The restrictions of COVID-19 make it a good time to reach out to new and different strategic partners for collaboration. There’s nothing preventing us from collaborating with people halfway across the world in a virtual environment. The physical and travel barriers have been removed.

Caruso: You mention that either too much or too little data can lead to ambiguity. I think for CPAs, the more frequent challenge is reining in too much data. What are some strategies for dealing with the complexity produced by overwhelming volumes of data?

Nixon: There are two ways to deal with huge, complex challenges: first, zoom out and gain perspective (what I call “circling the table”); second, break out the problem into smaller, acceptable pieces.

Becoming comfortable with complexity is about gaining perspective by understanding a complex problem from a number of different angles. At this point, I should also share how I am defining complexity. Complexity does not have an obvious entry or exit point. Sometimes in systems design we refer to complex problems as “wicked challenges.” For example, a cure for AIDS is a complex problem. Systemic racism is a complex challenge; it does not have an obvious and simplistic solution. A complex challenge requires “circling the table,” which is a concept from my background in the fashion industry. Before tailors cut fabric, they spread the fabric out on the table and walk around it to see the fabric from various angles. They are interested in how light hits the fabric, how its sheen shifts, how the pattern appears to change in the lighting. Similarly, CPAs have to zoom out and “circle the table” in their own way.

Sometimes you’ll want to bring in “thought partners,” colleagues that can help you understand an issue. Sometimes you’ll need to walk away for some time. Brain neuroscientists who study creativity know that’s how the brain’s synapses work. We need to shift back and forth between laser-focused thought processes and letting things marinate. I like to refer to what I call the “baby food method”: when there’s a lot of information, we have to break it down into smaller, digestible chunks. Reverse engineering is another way to think about this.

Some of the strategies we have discussed are about improvisation. How can CPAs improvise in a field governed by rules, processes, and prescribed forms?

Caruso: In some areas, there is, quite literally, no room to improvise. But there are plenty of areas where the rules are more subjective; accounting in general is moving toward being principles-based versus rules-based. Take revenue recognition. You would think how much revenue to recognize is a binary decision, but there is judgment involved because you need an understanding of what you will ultimately collect.

But financial reporting is only one aspect of the profession. In designing processes, there are many ways to improvise and break down organizational silos and get people to collaborate. In developing analytics, key performance indicators, and internal reports to best serve our internal customers and other stakeholders, there are plenty of ways to improvise. It is all about telling a story and communicating actionable insights. Even management discussion and analysis has room for some improvisation. Yes, there are requirements that have to be met, but improvisation can make the narrative more valuable to the reader.

Nixon: So, are CPAs already more creative than they think?

Caruso: If you asked me that before I read your book, I may have said no; but since reading your book, I realize we are quite creative.

You wrote about translation being a creative process. Translating results is something we do all the time. We speak the language of accounting, but we need to translate the implications of financial results to nonfinancial people and enable them to act on our information. We need to find ways of communicating that are meaningful, such as through data visualization. Even communicating to investors and lenders requires translation; they understand the language of finance, but they are not as close to day-to-day operations. We have to understand how to tell the story behind the numbers without bogging them down with overwhelming details.

Trying to build this bridge between financial people and nonfinancial people is a creative process. We need to creatively design reports and figure out ways to present information visually.

One of the most important ways that CPAs should realize that they are more creative than they think is by recognizing that rigor – which is so prominent in our profession – is not the antithesis of creativity. Instead, it is an integral part of creativity – half of it, like the side of a coin or the yin to the yang.

 


Natalie Nixon, PhD, is creativity strategist and president for Figure 8 Thinking LLC in Philadelphia and author of The Creativity Leap: Unleash Curiosity, Improvisation, and Intuition at Work. She can be reached at natalie@figure8thinking.com.

 

James J. Caruso, CPA, CGMA, is CFO of Simplura Health Group in Yardley and a member of the Pennsylvania CPA Journal Editorial Board. He can be reached at jcaruso@simplura.com.

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