How to become a more creative thinker

Innovation is becoming a prized skill for accountants.
By Anslee Wolfe

Creativity is about more than composing a song or painting a picture. It has its place in the accounting profession as well.

"Historically, people would not associate creative thinking with accounting, and maybe they still don't. But I think it's trending in that direction," said Luke Selvig, CPA, a senior accountant with Boyum & Barenscheer, a CPA firm in Minneapolis, Minn. "CPAs are doing so much more than taxes and auditing now. In our firm, we do a lot of consulting. A lot of it is looking forward to help people tackle issues that may arise."

Thinking creatively can also help CPAs prepare for changes in the profession.

"You need to think ten or twenty years ahead and try to predict what will be happening in your field," said Rod Judkins, a London-based artist and author of the book "The Art of Creative Thinking."

"Are you training to do things that will soon be obsolete? Someone who can think creatively finds it much easier to adapt and think up new ways of doing things," Judkins said.

While we tend to think of creativity as a trait—as something you intrinsically possess or lack—it's actually a skill. That means there are steps you can take to become a more creative thinker. Here are some of them:

Ask questions. "Whatever field you work in, we all fall into the trap of accepting that things are done the standard way," said Judkins, who has served as a creative consultant for various businesses, including accounting firms, banks, hospitals, and airlines. He teaches people how to come up with better ways to perform habitual tasks, which can be as simple as asking questions: How many alternative ways can this be done? What can be improved? What could I be wrong about?

Likewise, asking more about your clients or colleagues can help you to gauge their needs, which you may otherwise overlook.

"Switch the perspective," Selvig said. He suggests you ask questions such as "What more can we be doing for you?" and "What else is going on in your life?"

Think visually. CPAs tend to be logical thinkers who view the world through the lens of rules and numbers. Trying to process information in a different way, though, can lead you to creative insights. It can also improve your communication with non-CPAs. Judkins gives the example of how Richard Branson, who founded the Virgin Group, didn't grasp the difference between net profit and gross profit, until one of his board members, thinking creatively, drew pictures of fish inside and outside of nets to explain it.

Take mental breaks. Being stressed or tired works against creativity. Elizabeth Watkins, CPA, a tax preparer with Flood, Bumstead, McCready & McCarthy, an entertainment business management firm in Nashville, Tenn., says she takes a walk when she's feeling worn out.

Travel. Encountering new people, places, and cultures exposes you to different ways of doing things, both personally and professionally. When traveling, "you step outside your routine, your comfort zone, and open your mind to new ideas and potential innovations," Watkins said. "You also work your creative muscle because traveling rarely goes exactly as planned, so you have to be flexible and willing to adapt given ever-changing circumstances."

Keep learning. Looking for less technical conferences or learning programs is a good place to start. Watkins attended AICPA's Leadership Academy this fall, and left energized and in a creative mindset. The program encourages peer sharing to help attendees discover different solutions to problems they had faced.

"Being around peers from all over the country and discussing this was transformative to me," said Watkins, who's developing a leadership program for her co-workers based on what she learned. "It's all about collaboration. Working in teams and tackling the issues is huge. We're helping clients together, not just in isolation."

Creativity is abundant, but sometimes we don't recognize that we actually are being creative, Watkins said.

"We all have a creative side," she said. "It's just a matter of broadening your understanding of what creativity is. It can be looking at a problem and thinking of four different ways to solve it. We do creative things every single day."

Anslee Wolfe is a freelance writer in Colorado Springs, Colo. To comment on this article, email senior editor Courtney Vien.

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