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For a successful career in accountancy, being able to think outside the box is now just as important as technical abilities

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Accountants are sometimes stereotyped as left-brain thinkers, better suited to dealing with the logical and the analytical and unable to harness their right-brained, creative side.

But the left versus right brain theory is a myth. Science has proven that we all use both sides of the brain to complement each other. Accountants, for example, use their creative thinking skills when they tackle and solve complex client problems.

The evolving profession

Creativity, defined as the ability to use existing knowledge in a new or tricky situation, to make connections, explore potential outcomes and generate new ideas, is one of the seven skill areas recently identified by ACCA as being essential to the evolving profession.

Susy Roberts, founder of people development consultancy Hunter Roberts, says: ‘More and more organisations are looking to accountants to be really commercially minded and it takes creativity to excel in a commercial environment.

‘You may be asked to come up with innovative pricing models, propose cost-effective methods for new products and present a number of different scenarios. All of this necessitates creative thinking; it’s not enough anymore to just be good with numbers,’ she explains.

Simon Young is managing partner at Aysgarth Accountants. He adds: ‘Politics across the globe is bringing increased levels of uncertainty to markets, businesses and consumers. Accountants need to think beyond the traditional – for example, to identify novel streams of funding or investment incentives.’

New technologies have also brought about lots of opportunities for accountants to be creative in terms of suggesting and making improvements to their own systems and processes, as well as to those of their clients.

‘The cloud with its storage abilities, virtual desktops and cloud accounting apps all mean that over the last five to 10 years some businesses’ whole infrastructures have changed,’ says Young.

Creativity is not inborn

Creativity is not an inborn, natural talent. Rather, it is something that can be learnt and developed through effort and experience.

Dr Ian Stewart, head of leadership and organisational performance at Kaplan, says: ‘Creativity is a process, not a personal quality. Being creative is something we do, not something we are, and there is a huge range of tools and techniques that you can use to develop your skills.’

Everyone can come up with fresh ideas, but first you need to learn to open your mind and start to think differently.

‘As with many things in life, the best starting point is often simply believing that you can, and banishing those condescending voices from the past that may try to tell you that you can’t. Those who think creatively often still have the same nagging doubts and self-judgements, but they have learned to ignore them,’ says Roberts.

Andi Lonnen, managing director at Finance Training Academy, believes you need to allow yourself time and space to think.

‘A fresh environment can lead to fresh thinking, so create a setting more conducive to thinking about how to approach a task or problem. Get away from your desk, go for a walk to clear your head or book a meeting room away from distractions. If you are allowed to work from home, that can give you some necessary headspace,’ she says.

Rather than simply doing what you have tended to do in the past, approach all tasks or problems as a new challenge and don’t be afraid to fail.

Young says: ‘You should draw on existing knowledge and personal experience, but your thinking shouldn’t be constrained by what has gone on before. Also, think positively about what could be done rather than focusing on why a course of action may not work.’

Don’t set out thinking that you have nothing useful to contribute or that your ideas are useless.

‘Creativity begins with just imagining stuff – and we do it all the time,’ says Piers Ibbotson, principal teaching fellow at Warwick Business School and former Royal Shakespeare Company director who uses theatre techniques to teach business executives creativity and innovation.

‘We imagine all sorts of odd and unlikely things but we are afraid to acknowledge them because people might think we are mad or just plain wrong, so we try to only voice the things that we think others will approve of. But it’s these crazy first thoughts that are often the beginning of what turns out later to be a useful innovation,’ he says.

To be useful, an idea needn’t be big or mind-blowing.

‘Dismissing small creative ideas purely down to their scale is a stumbling block to creativity, as is getting caught up in whether something is truly innovative. You don't have to be the first person ever to have had that particular idea – an exciting new application of an old idea could still be useful to your company,’ says Roberts.

Spark your creativity

Try this practical advice to get your creative juices going:

‘Use Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats model. The green hat allows people to brainstorm without limits – anything’s possible, even the impossible! Why? It wasn’t thought possible to send man to the moon. It wasn’t thought possible to have a phone without a cord. Television, the light bulb, every invention – these were once all not thought possible,’ says Lonnen.

‘Identify a particular issue and create a mind map by writing down every idea or thought that comes to mind. Crucially, it must be every idea even though your subconscious may try to rule something out based on a perception that it’s too hard or implausible. Only then use logic to assess and narrow down the broad spread of suggestions,’ says Young.

‘What would Croesus do? Imagine that resources – time, money, expertise – are unlimited and design the best possible solution or approach. Once you dream up what will undoubtedly be an expensive solution, all you need to do is figure a way to make it practical and affordable,’ says Dr Stewart.

‘Creativity gets going when the mind is obliged to work at a boundary between seemingly irreconcilable concepts, so bring together extreme juxtapositions by employing the magical “what if”. This obliges us to map one domain onto another and our imagination rapidly generates new ideas about how these domains can be reconciled,’ says Ibbotson.

‘Linus Pauling, the winner of two Nobel prizes, said that the best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas. Take 10 minutes to create 10 ideas a day for 10 days – at the end of the 10 days you will have 100 new ideas. Some of them are bound to be good,’ says Lonnen.

‘Reverse engineer. Often the hardest place to start is at the beginning, so start at the end. Ignore the problem for the time being and envisage and articulate the ideal solution. Then step by step move backwards asking “what do I need to have done?” to identify the actions that need to be taken,’ says Dr Stewart.

Last updated: 16 May 2017