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Sydney Opera House

World Congress of Accountants: Get creative if you want to survive

7th Nov 2018
Managing Director
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Day three at the World Congress of Accountants was about best practice. But what is best, and how can we find it and utilise it? Alan Nelson reports from the 'accounting Olympics' in Sydney.

‘Best practice’ is interpreted in the most creative of ways here at the Congress. I was tempted to relax at the pop-up Sports bar and learn how to bat for Australia, with no less a coach than Ricky Ponting. I could engage with virtual reality or juggle beach balls with a man called Dicko.

But the day culminated with a presentation from the world’s most-watched TedTalks presenter, Sir Ken Robinson. His theme was harnessing creativity and innovation. When the pace of change in technology presents a threat to many finance jobs, this seemed particularly timely. Robinson shared a graph that compared the average age of human beings at death, which has been steadily rising since the 1950s, with the average age of public companies, which has been following the opposite trajectory, the two intersecting in the late 1980s and the latter now dropping to the low 30s.

Robinson pressed his point home with a series of well-researched examples. The rise of Netflix vs the demise of Blockbusters is a chilling comparison, and the story about how Blockbusters declined to buy Netflix in the early days for what would have been a pittance has a parallel in the man who turned down the Beatles! While Blockbusters refused to believe that the new business models would gain traction, Netflix created a new paradigm, and then bet it all twice more, firstly as they switched to streaming, and secondly as they moved into content creation with the development of the first series of House of Cards.

Combine the uncomfortable morbidity rate of public companies with the pace of change in the profession and you have a pretty clear imperative for us all to become more creative and innovative. Add to that an observation from Sage’s Jennifer Warawa earlier in the week that millennials are poorly served by management structures in Big Four firms, where strategy is conducted by partners at away days, the contents of which are either not shared at all or only one level down, and we may have a problem.

Robinson chose to turn the knife a little more. Bemoaning the time children spend head down on screens, he shared a marvellous, if almost certainly made up quote:

“I saw a man in Starbucks today. He had no phone or anything. He just sat there drinking his coffee. Like a psychopath.”

But Robinson saw at least part of the solution in management structures. Command and control structures will work well to deliver operational efficiency in the short term, but for survival in the longer term we need innovation and creativity, and for that, something more akin to climate control is needed, the emphasis being on culture, not results.

And there’s the rub. For me, the question is not, “how do we stimulate creativity?” That is actually not that hard. The problem is that we are too consumed with the reality of day-to-day survival to do so. The question we should be asking ourselves is: “how do we prioritise the space required to focus on the future when the clamour for short-term results will always be louder?”


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