Accounting firms are increasingly finding themselves looking inward to solve challenges that arise with changes in the sector, and to deal with the shortcomings of age-old ways of working. This imperative to innovate has impacted the accounting industry in numerous ways, challenging us to do more with less, and leading to the exploration of artificial intelligence solutions and deep dive into data and analytics. I spoke about this topic during a panel discussion on grass roots innovation at the APS FUNdamentals of Accounting Conference 2021 in October.
But innovation offers far more to our business than a simple problem → solution transaction.
According to the old adage: ‘It’s easier to retain a client than to sign up a new client,’ and I firmly believe the same applies to our Matthews Steer team.
With competition for accounting talent at an all-time high, our firm’s culture is integral to our ability to retain great people. Our purpose is ‘empowering our communities to live their potential’. Our willingness to embrace innovation, and to encourage our people to lead the charge when it comes to finding new and better ways of doing things, is one of the key ways our purpose manifests itself.
A sense of purpose fosters a feeling of belonging within a team and a business. At Matthews Steer we encourage our people to identify problems and inefficiencies with our systems and processes, and we empower them to propose solutions. This process generates a sense of purpose that I believe is a big contributor for the industry-leading employee engagement ratings we achieve year-on-year at our firm.
However, we find it’s not simply enough to assign our people innovation tasks at random. We’ve worked hard to build a diverse team with different skillsets and mindsets who can turn their talents to different stages of the innovation projects we undertake, from concept – planning and mapping out solutions – through development, testing and implementation. Recognising who enjoys doing what ensures we’re not forcing square pegs into round holes, and ensures each individual in our team gets enjoyment from the projects they work on. And, by allowing our people to play to their strengths we see our change champions come to the fore.
We regularly tell our people: ‘you don’t have to have the word ‘leader’ in your job title to take a leadership role within our business’. We recognise that great ideas don’t just come from the people sitting around our board table. Our people are at the coalface of our business. They are the ones experiencing frustration with our existing systems and processes, so they’re often best placed to identify what needs to be improved, and to plot how to achieve that improvement. By allowing people to drive innovation they understand we’re not making change for change’s sake and, when they understand what’s in it for them, it improves buy-in across the business.
With scarcity of resources in mind, the allocation of time between day-to-day roles and responsibilities and alluring innovation projects can be a fine line to tread. We encourage our team to follow the 80/20 principle, focusing on their core tasks 80 per cent of the time and devoting 20 per cent of their time to the fun, creative innovative stuff.
We know our business is only as successful as the people working within it, so we put a great deal of energy into creating environment where people can feel a sense of accomplishment, and can grow their careers at their own pace. Some undertakings are lengthy; some may never reach a final conclusion as they are constantly refined or upgraded. To maintain enthusiasm and momentum we continually recognise the work that’s being done in the innovation space through team and all-staff meetings and our annual Recognise Encourage Reward (RER) Awards, and we celebrate the small wins along the way. This recognition is fun, motivating and energising and our teams drive each other to find better ways of doing things, and high five each other when they achieve a new milestone within a project.
Above all we remember that innovation is all well and good, but innovation needs structure in order to be successful. Diving into projects with no clear purpose or desired outcome is a futile waste of time and effort. It’s also vital to recognise when to let go of a course of action, and when to shift to ‘Plan B’ because something isn’t working. Having a clear picture of our end-goal, and being prepared to pivot or let go when we’re not making progress, is the secret sauce that sits at the heart of true innovation in our firm.