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Agile and accounting: Get things done

28th Nov 2016
Editor AccountingWEB
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Agile
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The difficulty with accountants embracing the concept of ‘agile working’ is that compliance cycles often dictate their schedules. But this philosophy could help them focus on what needs to get done during self assessment season.     

No question about it: self assessment season can be daunting. Tax return after tax return, the process just doesn’t get any easier. For any practice – not least a small one – the strain of busy season can create a backlog of other business-critical things that need to get done.

This is where agile can help. Essentially, this concept proposes that rather than spending all of your time working on a big specification for any application, you should break the requirements into incremental chunks.

The principle behind the idea came about in the early 90s. Back then, large companies looked for a different approach to product management. It was understandable, as many software development projects failed to hit their anticipated timelines. 

“The main reason was that, traditionally, these large organisations wanted to spend a lot of time planning,” said John White, the managing director of agile proponent, the Radical Company. 

“The realisation was that you'd spend so long writing the requirement document that the world had moved on a bit since you started, and never actually got into the delivery of the software because you were spending far too much time in the requirement stage.”  

Agile and getting things done

The concept of agile suggests a different way of doing things; a more focused approach. It’s a way of working that allows you to react immediately, rather than going away and meticulously planning every detail.

Let’s apply this to self assessment season. As a whole, the volume of tax returns you may have to churn through can be vast. But if you break this into a time-focused, incremental process it can be manageable.

  • Scrum: Within your team, break down a large task (say, a pile of tax returns) and tackle it over a short amount of time (two weeks). This is a sprint.
  • Categorise and split tasks: To make sure you don’t forget about the day-to-day tasks, rank what needs to be done over this two week period.
  • Adapt and change: Perhaps clients are late returning their tax returns, or maybe another issue emerges. This flexible approach allows you to evaluate and change your process as you go.
  • Retrospective response: After a sprint, come together as a team and work out what worked and what didn’t. You can hone your approach, method and estimated time of delivery.  
  • Kanban method: Create a to-do list chart to document and visualise what you need to do and what you're doing.
    • This shows the work in progress, completed tasks, the backlog, and a way to allocate who’s responsible.
    • This method ensures transparency and creates a continuous flow of activity.
    • You can prioritise tasks: What can wait until after self assessment? Is there a practice management issue that needs resolving immediately?  
    • Estimate a time of completion: This ensures your workload never goes over capacity and also assigns accountability.
    • Add new items when allocated tasks are complete.

Project management applications like Trello have popularised this ‘work in progress’ method. The basic principle will be familiar. It was originally designed to schedule inventory control to improve efficiency. Users of this methodology – developed by Toyota – commit a period of time, say two weeks, to deliver a project. “The view is that you shouldn't burden those individuals with anything else until they have finished that problem,” said White.

Beyond the basics, the agile mindset can transfer into other areas. White used the example of firms like Paddy Power who have adopted an agile approach in their marketing campaigns to capture the pop culture zeitgeist. Being present and flexible, accountants can tailor their marketing, whether it’s their social media output or advertising, to what’s happening in that moment.  

Agile used in accounting

According to White, agile has already crept into finance departments. “I've worked on projects where we've had an accounting executive on the team who continually evaluates the value coming out of whatever the software team is creating,” said White.

For example, the accounting exec could easily measure costs because the teams would be working in two-week sprints. “So you can augment an agile team to have any skill sets you need to deliver value,” White explained.

In the past, the traditional way of scoping out a project, laboriously writing out a requirements document, was beneficial from an accounting point of view. For example, the accountant could easily identify the capital expenditure vs operation expenditure.

But the agile approach includes the accountant or financial decision maker at the beginning of the project. That way, they can bring their knowledge and input from the outset.

“It's refreshing to their world because they're used to just getting things thrown on their desk or into their inbox, told to look at it and getting the seal of approval," said White. "When actually, by joining into the process of agile, we can understand their issues upfront and as we evolve the product, they can be there throughout the project.”

White holds the collaborative nature of agile as one of its key attributes. “What's happening with our clients is they're trying to bring the finance team into work with us so that they can get their head around this new way of working. The benefits of this new way of working are fairly obvious to most large organisations. They've been through too many horror stories with the old way of working.”

Agile and government services

A prime example of agile is GOV.UK. “In the digital community, everyone looks at gov.uk as a bit of a benchmark, especially around government services,” said White.

Mike Bracken, the former director of the Government Digital Service, re-imagined the transformation of the government site. 

In a blog, GOV.UK outlined why agile is better for services. “Government services also need to be able to respond quickly to policy changes and the needs of the public.” Rather than spending 18 months building a service which no longer meets government policy, the blog said: “Agile methods allow you to quickly make any changes while you’re building the service, and also when it’s live on GOV.UK.”

This agile example, though, could fuel its detractors. GOV.UK has recently been accused of misleading taxpayers with silent updates and providing incorrect information.

But in an ever-changing world, where technology is driving change, White said: “It's imperative that industries look at and try to understand how to bring agility into their organisation and respond different market changes quickly.” 

 

Is agile achievable in the accounting profession? Have you used this philosophy in your practice or workplace?

Replies (6)

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By Tim Vane
28th Nov 2016 15:03

So, using Agile you could start a big IT project, let's say updating a web site, by throwing something together in a couple of weeks and then evaluating user feedback and improving the project as it moves forward.

Sounds perfect, but one wonders what would happen if after the first two weeks the user feedback was ignored. Ah well, I guess that doesn't happen in real life.

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Man of Kent
By Kent accountant
29th Nov 2016 09:16

Tim Vane wrote:

So, using Agile you could start a big IT project, let's say updating a web site, by throwing something together in a couple of weeks and then evaluating user feedback and improving the project as it moves forward.

Sounds perfect, but one wonders what would happen if after the first two weeks the user feedback was ignored. Ah well, I guess that doesn't happen in real life.

Well done Tim, made me chuckle.

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Teignmouth
By Paul Scholes
29th Nov 2016 12:04

Over the past 2-3 years, working with Clear Books, I've watched with wonder, awe and confusion as they operate within the above environment and, being a rugby fan, still can't get used to people being called "Scrum masters" when they may only weigh 70Kgs!

I can see the logic and even desirability of attempting to apply the same methods to a firm of accountants but, in reality, whilst a two week sprint is fine for a team of developers, it might be unworkable in a practice with hundreds of clients all able to raise fresh issues and demands on a daily basis.

If you have ever seen those videos of headless chickens, zig-zagging about, banging into things, you might almost describe them as "agile"?

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By AndrewV12
29th Nov 2016 13:13

A good article, of course theres something in it, its just small Accountancy practices are unable or un-willing to embrace it.
'Adapt and change: Perhaps clients are late returning their tax returns, or maybe another issue emerges. This flexible approach allows you to evaluate and change your process as you go.'

Is it Accountants that need to adapt and change or our clients...or both.

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Replying to AndrewV12:
Teignmouth
By Paul Scholes
29th Nov 2016 14:18

Absolutely Andrew, it's still rare to hear the "No" word used, but once you do it a couple of times, it becomes a habit!

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By Ian McTernan CTA
30th Nov 2016 10:27

If Gov.uk is a shining example of this approach, then this approach needs to be quietly led away and strangled and put out of it's misery.
As a frequent user of Gov.uk I think it's woeful. Design is dreadful, and the search function is completely useless.

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