How accountants can use creative thinking at work

No longer the preserve of stereotypically “creative” professions such as design or performing arts, creativity is permeating all areas of business. More and more, our work lives involve stepping outside our day-to-day to devise novel solutions to challenges old and new.

Innovation and analytical thinking will be the top skills needed to thrive in the world of work by 2025, according to the World Economic Forum. Aligned with these skills, creativity and initiative also feature in its top five.

Small accountancy firms have it even tougher. Lacking the big budgets, resources and diversity of staff skills, they have to be more efficient in cultivating creativity and quicker in putting good ideas into practice.

Kirsty Meredith is an associate lecturer in accounting at the University of the Sunshine Coast and has researched creativity in small accountancy firms in regional and rural Australia.

“Most accountants now recognise that creativity is important. But stepping back from the job at hand to ask ‘How could I do this job better?’ takes time.”

Add to this the strict regulatory environment in which the profession operates – it all serves to dampen creativity, says Meredith.

In her experience, an excessive focus on adhering to current year budgets can also cause accountants to avoid innovations that may “waste time”.

“By changing the focus from short-term budget pressure to long-term efficiency, we reduce that deterrent to creativity and innovation,” says Meredith.

Recent years have seen an increase in competitiveness and reduction in collegiality between finance and accounting firms. Meredith suggests that creative solutions to common problems go begging as a result.

“In my research, I hear common complaints in small firms, particularly around new technology applications, as if they were the only ones struggling with these problems. But when talking to older professionals, they recount how people from other firms would get together at the end of the week for drinks and share knowledge. Today, it is very competitive, and firms are really working against each other,” says Meredith.

Her advice, not surprisingly, is “collaborate, collaborate, collaborate”.

“We can’t be experts in everything ourselves; we need to work out how to leverage expertise from others. Can we find IT experts who are willing to take the time to understand accounting? Can we share ideas with other small firms? Can we identify opportunities to network digitally?”

Meredith says it pays to maximize idea sharing by giving all staff a forum to contribute ideas – including junior accountants and receptionists – and to offer opportunities to upskill through short courses in IT and data science, for example.

The new creatives

Training to encourage creative thinking among accountancy students has become a key component of university courses, says Kirsty Meredith, lecturer at the University of the Sunshine Coast.

The shift of emphasis is in response to professional demands for graduates with competencies alongside technical knowledge, such as design thinking and problem-solving skills.

“I think the view of creativity being at odds with accounting is largely gone. With the increased focus on technology innovation and customer focus, creativity has become even more recognised as something we need to embrace,” she says.

Within professional services firms themselves, keeping employees up-to-date with the speed of technological change is an ongoing task, but an essential one, to give them the tools they need to innovate.

Last year, for example, all of EY’s 300,000 global employees were offered the chance to enroll in the world’s first completely digital corporate technology MBA, free of charge.

Amid the global pandemic, it is important to recognize that ideas and innovation depend on human imagination and ingenuity. The shift to remote working poses new challenges to how creative collaboration will work in the future, says EY’s Darren Chua.

“You can’t do innovation really well unless people are together. Nothing ever beats that feeling and level of intensity and collaboration when you are physically together.”