Top Google exec says accountants can be creative, too – here’s how

by Ann Marie Maloney

How many times have you heard someone say, “I wish I could be creative like that.”? Or perhaps you’ve thought it yourself, looking at a cool piece of art or beautifully decorated home. Guess what? You can.

Some of you might be thinking, “I’m an accountant – I’m good with numbers, a total mess with a paint brush.” That may be the case, but you probably also know how to look at a problem from different angles – and that’s key to the creative process that lets you excel at work. “Everyone has the ability to be creative,” said Abigail Posner, Head of Strategy for Google’s Brand Unit, in a recent interview with the Association of International Certified Professional Accoutants.

Letting go of the myth that creativity is exclusively for artists could help you professionally. The World Economic Forum asked 350 executives to list the top 10 skills employers will seek by 2020, and creativity ranked third in their responses. So, knowing you can be a creative person is important. “Creativity is all about finding a unique solution to a problem,” Posner commented. Below are some guidelines Posner recommends for tapping into your creative brain to tackle a problem.

Ask the right questions

A key component to starting the creative problem-solving process is “asking the right questions first,” she said. “What am I really trying to solve for? What is really the goal at the end of the day?” (For an example, listen to this conversation between marketing strategists Dan Carlton and Dave Alsobrooks about questions used to solve the problem of a business experiencing declining revenues).  

Collect data and connect the dots

Gathering information you need can serve as a warm-up for your creative muscles. Posner points out the value of going beyond standard sources, noting that using just one source limits the data you can use to tackle the problem.

Thinking outside the proverbial box for input doesn’t have to be hard. Let’s say you have a client who repeatedly pays invoices late. You’ve talked to your admin person and a few peers about it, as you typically do, and have tried a couple of things, but the problem is still happening. What about the contractor remodeling your bathroom? He’s undoubtedly had the same issue and may have a solution. There are also peers in that LinkedIn group you’ve been meaning to check out.

Once you have answers to the questions you asked, you’re done, right? Not quite. Data are not insights, Posner cautioned. “Insights come from connecting a number of different types of data.” That connection can surface in a lot of ways; something in the data you have triggers a memory of other experiences or other points of data that helps you see a more holistic picture and consider alternative solutions.   

Sometimes, it helps to combine unlike notions or concepts. How many times have we seen a mystery show where the detective’s friend makes an offhand remark about picking up his dry cleaning, and snap! They figured out who the killer is. Scientists have shown that the more we connect the various regions in our brain, the more creative we can be; here are a few tips for enhancing those connections.

Bring in the cavalry

The dry cleaning example highlights the importance of the next step, calling a friend. While the answer may seem obvious, getting insights from the outside can be quite valuable, Posner said. Because they are less familiar with the issue, a friend or colleague is likely to pose questions you may not think of. “Sometimes we forget to ask those fundamental questions,” she observed.  

Also, a person who does not have the burden of solving the problem is freer to let their minds wander, Posner remarked. While they may not have dealt with the exact same situation you’re trying to address, they may have confronted something similar. “My friend will say, that reminds me of something I had to solve last week …and that trigger starts the ball rolling.”

Remember, you're smarter than the data

The rapid pace of technological advances has created a seismic shift for the accounting profession. Auditing, for example, was forecasted to become much more data-driven during a roundtable convened by the Journal of Accountancy. In a world populated with metrics and big data (datasets so large that traditional data processing software can’t manage them), even seasoned pros can get overwhelmed.     

While machines have largely assumed the role of data giver and even translator, our value continues to grow as the machines can only do what we tell them to do. “Data in and of itself means nothing,” Posner said. It only has significance in context; for example, how does this information compare to previously collected data?    

The human touch, she concludes, is critical on both ends of the analytical spectrum–on the front end, what are the questions that the machine should be trying to answer and on the back end, what does it mean, what can I do with it?

Give yourself credit for creativity you don’t even know you have yet in order to handle the process on both ends. And give yourself permission to enjoy it.

Ann Marie Maloney is founder of AMSquared LLC, a communications and policy firm in Alexandria, VA that specializes in researching and creating content for businesses and nonprofits.  Her previous experience includes managing tax communications for the AICPA and reporting on congressional news for CCH Inc., where she earned the company's Excellence in Action award for coverage of major legislation.Listening to the radio in your car. Staring at your phone during your train commute. These are moments that provide opportunities for learning. However, more often than not, people don’t take advantage of that time.