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Does accounting prevent creativity and innovation?


Photo (techlabs.com)

Accounting is often criticised, and one of the common criticisms is that too much focus on money in a business causes a short-term focus which may not be good for a business. I would agree to an extent, probably because I am more into management accounting and have seen businesses take bold decisions which eventually paid off. Of course, financial accounting (the external reporting of results basically) is less helpful (or “completely useless” as one business owner told me a few weeks ago) in situations where decisions need to be made. And sometimes, these decisions involve a lot of brave and bold creativity and innovation which accountants seen to have a reputation of pouring cold water on.

I read two articles recently which made me think about  accountants and creativity/innovation. The first one was a few months back on Forbes. The piece by Eric Savitz mentioned how creative type toys (like Lego) can be crucial to later creativity. Here’s a quote from him:

Lego, loosely translated, means “to put together” in Latin. But “to put together” doesn’t fully encompass the value – and purpose – of those buckets of colorful bricks. Legos are about putting together, then taking apart, then reassembling in new ways. That’s why I got so upset recently when a friend told me that she and her daughter had built a pirate ship out of Legos, arranged the pieces until they were just right, and then glued the whole thing together. That, I exclaimed, is not the point.

Legos unleashed my creativity when I was growing up. They drew out the part of me that had to know what things looked like from the inside out, how they worked, how they might work better. The hours I spent with them — sprawled on the floor, building and rebuilding, puzzling and visualizing — became my first lessons in engineering. There was magic in those little bricks.  There still is.

Reading this I wondered how would Savitz be as an accountant.  I think he would have a good chance of being creative, but not in a bad way. I think, like the Lego, he might be throwing away the rule book and creating accounting information which might meet the needs of the organisation where he was working. This of course is what good management accountants should do, but do they all? I don’t know, perhaps its partially our fault (i.e. educators) and we need to encourage lateral (but always ethical and proper) thinking about accounting.

The second article I read was in this week’s Time, “What would Steve do?”.  Steve Jobs was an obviously brilliant innovator – and eventually made Apple one of the richest firms in the world. In the article the author (Rana Foroohar) makes a strong claim, but she is probably fairly correct. She states ” Jobs stands out as an exceptional leader not so much because of his in-your-face style, but because American business has become dominated by bean-counters focusing on hyper-efficiency rather than by innovators focused on real growth”. I suppose this is a classic case of too much focus on short-term financial goals over longer-term business development and growth. I don’t have a quick-fix solution for such a problem, but certainly an open mind by accountants towards innovators would help.

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About martinjquinn

I am an accounting academic, accountant and author based near Dublin, Ireland.

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