COO Organization

December 16, 2008

One year at a holiday silent auction I purchased two hours of consulting from a professional organizer. She taught me the key to organization in one simple statement: “Everything has a home.” Once you’ve decided where everything lives, it simplifies greatly the effort that typically requires the most time – deciding what to do with it. I found that statement very true for my personal situation – in every case where I had difficultly organizing a particular category of items, I had never given them a definite home.

In my role in office operations, I’m managing the status of several hundred small projects at all times, which can result in drowning in detail. I’ve looked for years for an application that gives a “home” to voluminous random notes in a useful manner to be able to access them later, and I keep coming back to the same system.

ManagePro, by Performance Solutions Technology, is project management software for the small-but-numerous project manager. Built on the philosophy of Management By Objectives, the software integrates project, task, and people management under a system of managing to the accomplishment of goals.

Features I sought and couldn’t find in combination elsewhere include:

  • Managing projects and tasks required to meet both organizational strategic plan and individual performance review objectives
  • Nesting and linking goals in a hierarchy
  • Creating relationships between goals, individuals, workgroups, projects and tasks and being able to view the status of all projects by person, goal or project
  • Entering free-form notes after meetings regarding project status or new action items (deliverables and tasks) agreed to in a meeting
  • Scannable reporting on project status, highlighting areas in “trouble”
  • Achieving benefits in organization greater than the cost of time maintaining the system

On the last point in particular, the system is intuitive and easy to maintain without the level of granularity of most project management software. Yet it provides much richer relating of data and nesting of objectives not permitted by flat note-taking software such as Microsoft Office OneNote.

Since I’ve configured my database with the highest level of hierarchy as OSCPA’s mission then the strategic plan objectives, even if I’m not able to restructure the database regularly, I can continue to add new updates and have relevant “homes” for them for retrieval. And when I do reorganize goals, the data moves with it. Yes, the system has some fuzzy personnel management features such as reminding you when you haven’t given someone feedback in a while (I don’t plan on entering data every time I have a conversation with my staff,) but even those reminders serve as an alert that you haven’t updated that person’s projects recently.

As a single-user installation, I’ve been wowed by the customer service I’ve received from the ManagePro team. From personal assistance in setting up my initial database structure to upgrades, I’ve been able to reach knowledgeable support immediately. In a recent case, I mistakenly downloaded the Web version of a software upgrade rather than the local version, and they were able to connect me to a technician familiar with Vista to assist me via LiveMeeting on my first phone call.

ManagePro is not the best project management software for large projects requiring scheduling of numerous resources or management of the critical path to project success. But for quick, intuitive updates of project status and scannable reporting that can be sorted by the attribute you wish to measure, ManagePro is the only software I’ve found that allows me to integrate people, project, and goal management in an easy to use manner.


‘Tis the budget season

December 10, 2008

Budgeting brings out the best and worst in people. There are few exercises that reveal so thoroughly one’s priorities, personal agendas and beliefs about the political structure within which one is working than submitting a budget. I’ve concluded that preparing a successful budget for an organization is more about interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence than any best practice logical process.

In an educational session last summer, we were taught strategies for managing personnel based upon personality types (sound manipulative to you?) The speaker, whose book promotions I now receive weekly (see “What’s the Value of a Name,”) had categorized challenging workplace behaviors into 7 stereotypes, and provided advice on controlling—excuse me—supervising each type.

The process of getting to a useable number in compiling budget submissions from various departments requires unraveling motivations to get to the base numbers to which organizational priorities can be applied. While I have the privilege of working with a group of high quality program managers who are very aligned regarding the direction of this organization, the various characteristics of budget challenges creep into each of us at one time or another. I’ve created my own stereotypes to use as a tool to start the deciphering task:

  • Social Justice Champion: Priority is the protection of one’s projects or personnel without regard for competing projects and personnel, organizational priorities or the revenue required to support them.
    Symptom: All expense budgets are increased by 30%+ without corresponding revenue changes.
    Action: Cut expense budgets across the board by the cushion the preparer assumed would be necessary to get to base numbers for discussion.
  • Boy/Girl Scout: Priority is to be prepared for all possible contingencies.
    Symptom: Revenue reserves are budgeted and costs proposed to address several projected threats.
    Action: Work with the scout to identify one most likely outcome instead of budgeting for all threats occurring simultaneously.
  • Inside the Box: Priority is process and preservation of the status quo.
    Symptom: Massive detail is provided to support what the numbers would be if we do exactly what we did last year.
    Action: More work is required here to identify strategic possibilities for program change and introduction of new priorities.
  • Politician: Priority is positioning, recognition or influence.
    Symptom: Elements of the strategic plan or pet projects of the executive are well highlighted.
    Action: Chances are, what’s in the budget is pretty well aligned with organizational priorities identified by the Board. See what’s not sufficiently addressed that’s more operational or mundane.
  • Martyr: Priority is getting the project done even if it kills them.
    Symptom: Drastically cutting initial projections to achieve budget goals and promising that we can still get the job done without the resources.
    Action: The challenge here is putting realistic budget numbers back in to have adequate resources to achieve priorities (or adjusting priorities to be realistic given the resources available.)
  • Bulldog: Priority is world domination (or at least office domination).
    Symptom: Serves as your sergeant at arms to twist everyone else’s arms and get every last cushion out of the budget proposal.
    Action: Needed for professional skepticism. However, complete control can mean inflexibility for the coming year – set some limits.
  • Realist: Priority is establishing the numbers against which they’re going to be measured in the coming year.
    Symptom: Resists political pressure to change their numbers despite all of your best arguments.
    Action: Thank them – you’re going to be measured against those numbers too.

In the end, skills in budgeting are probably no different than those needed to for successful project management in any organization. Multiple perspectives need to be synthesized to balance the budget and arrive at agreement on priorities. I feel lucky to work with those in my organization.

What’s the value of a name?

December 2, 2008

With the Internet providing instant access, much of the world’s information has become commoditized in a world of perfect competition. If not the latest, however, the hottest battleground over information is in the realm of personal data.

Spam-blockers, firewalls, privacy initiatives, identity-theft services and new insurance products have risen along with the economic demand for personal information.

The Ohio Society of CPAs places the highest priority on protecting the confidentiality of member data, but isn’t immune from attempts (unsuccessful) to repurpose it. Several times weekly we hear the latest clever proposal from a prospective vendor of how to increase membership value by providing free access to member data for them to market indiscriminately to our members.

This trend is increasing in CPA firms as well, on the legal as well as ethical front. While CPAs don’t have legal privilege over confidential client information, we do have a confidentiality requirement under state administrative rule and our professional codes of conduct. The number of calls we receive at the Society regarding threats to client information has increased significantly in recent years.

Let me first qualify what follows with the statement that I am not an attorney and am not qualified to provide legal advice. Please consult your attorney regarding any of the observations that follow should a similar situation apply to you.

The profession’s confidentiality rules require a CPA to comply with a validly issued and enforceable subpoena or summons. A frequent concern I’m hearing concerns what appear to be overreaching legal requests. For example, instead of requesting specific workpaper schedules relevant to an allegation, a request may be made for “all records” of a client, or worse, the computer upon which those records are stored (and which includes records of other clients, definitely not relevant to the case.)

A recent example involved a CPA who had left his former firm and did not have a non-compete agreement. His former employer subpoenaed all workpapers and billing records of the firm in a civil case supposedly to quantify the business that the CPA had stolen from his former firm. Without knowing the specifics of the case, I responded that the FTC has allowed CPAs to compete and market their business since at least 1990, and suggested that he call his attorney regarding the enforceability of the subpoena.

If you suspect that a subpoena is truly a fishing expedition or if it appears that complying with the request would be a violation of your confidentiality requirement regarding other client information, your first step should always be to contact your attorney or advise your client that they may wish to consult with legal counsel regarding whether the request should be challenged.

Be forewarned, but by no means reference this posting as permission to not comply with a validly issued and enforceable court request.

“P” is for Psychic

December 2, 2008

Did you know that “professional intuitives” have their own association and codes of ethics? (I like the one here.)

I’ve been taking a lot of calls this week from member CPAs facing disputes over client record and confidentiality matters. Dealing with a difficult communications breakdown, one member grumbled “Do they think the “P” in CPA stands for psychic?” Reflecting on his comment, I’m thinking that in the public’s collective mind, the answer might be “Yes.”

The AICPA CPA Vision Project defined CPAs as:

… the trusted professionals who enable people and organizations to shape their future. Combining insight with integrity, CPAs deliver value by:

  • Communicating the total picture with clarity and objectivity,
  • Translating complex information into critical knowledge,
  • Anticipating and creating opportunities, and
  • Designing pathways that transform vision into reality.

I highlight the words that illustrate the profession’s own use of skills of perception regarding the future. I believe the public does have an expectation that CPAs possess a level of intuition to allow us to convert information to higher value knowledge that helps businesses prepare for the future. The marketplace expects us to be knowledgeable about the future before it is, and assumes that CPAs serve a role in designing pathways to that future. (Sound like professional intuition to you?)

Examples of intuition in practice include not just analyzing information in a linear manner based upon known rules, but also the need to detect unique patterns in disaggregated bits of information, or to sense what pieces of information may be missing. In a world where information in real-life situations is more often chaotic than logical, intuition is a critical skill for CPAs.

Intuition compliments reason in order to provide the insight that the public expects from us as trusted advisors. Colin Powell comments in My American Journey, “Dig up all the information you can, then go with your instincts. We all have a certain intuition, and the older we get, the more we trust it…I use my intellect to inform my instinct. Then I use my instinct to test all this data. Hey, instinct, does this sound right? Does it smell right, feel right, fit right?”

If intuition is a critical skill for CPAs, is it something we can hire for or something that can be developed through training? In a two-part series on “Intuition in Business,” Dr. Lynn B. Robinson suggests that intuition can be learned. (The Powell quote was originally sourced from her paper.)

Whether a hunch, feeling or instinct is a result of learned experience or genetic cognitive skills, it helps CPAs find answers more quickly. As the world of accounting shifts further toward the needs for professional judgment, professional skepticism, risk analysis and a reliance on principles in the absence of rules, intuition will be an increasing important skill for tomorrow’s CPAs.

Maybe I’ve found a new market niche for the first CPA/Psychic!

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