Stop putting out fires, at least for an hour

By Kim Nilsen

Futurist, author, and business adviser Daniel Burrus has revealed his biggest concern for the accounting profession. It’s a problem that appears simple but is stubbornly challenging to solve.

His deepest fear for accountants—intense and chronic busyness.

Accountants are so busy that there’s little time left for examining trends surrounding business models or contemplating opportunities. “We can busy ourselves right out of business if … not careful,” Burrus said, “because of the dramatic, transformational changes that are taking place around us.”

Burrus, CEO of Burrus Research, addressed AICPA’s Fall Council meeting on Monday. In an interview before his speech, he spoke about the need to move from crisis management to opportunity management.

His prescription for getting started is surprisingly low-tech for a futurist who peppers his speeches with references to disruptive companies such as Netflix and Uber. His call to action for accountants? Give the future one hour a week. Block out your calendar for a weekly retreat of at least an hour from putting out fires and getting the day-to-day work done. Be religious about protecting that time.

Use it, Burrus exhorted, for looking at what lies ahead. Instead of asking “What don’t I know?” ponder “What do I know?”

Consider hard trends—things that will happen without a doubt, he said. An example of a hard trend is the fact that Baby Boomers will continue to age and ultimately leave the workforce.

Another hard trend, he posited, relates to how public accounting firms bill for services. Three digital accelerators—storage, processing power, and bandwidth—are growing at an exponential rate and fueling amazing changes. “It means that next year we’ll be able to do far more in less time than we can this year,” and so on, year after year, Burrus said.

“In other words, if you bill by the hour, it’s completely predictable you’re going to make less money” in the future as certain tasks speed up, Burrus said. He recommended accountants consider a blend of hourly and value billing.

Accountants can find certainty in an uncertain world by separating hard trends from soft trends—the things that might happen and can still be influenced. “When you know what will happen, when you have that level of certainty, you have the confidence to make bold moves,” Burrus said. “Strategy based on certainty has low risk and high reward.”

A successful beginning to this future-focused, anticipatory approach is identifying low-hanging fruit—not the could do’s and should do’s but the must do’s, he said. “Right now on planet Earth there is more opportunity than ever before.”

Technology and globalization are inextricably woven into that opportunity. “I don’t want you to be a technologist. That’s not your job,” Burrus said. “I want you to be aware of what cloud and virtualization and mobility and taking data and [putting] it into a visual, personalized dashboard—what things like that can do for you and for your clients. Because these are hard trends that are shaping the future. And if it can be done, it will be done. If you don’t do it, someone else will.”

Kim Nilsen (knilsen@aicpa.org) is the JofA’s publisher.

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