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Should you argue with your accountant?

I think there are times you and your accountant should be arguing.

To explain my thinking this I want to talk about a fantastic doctor who was around in Oxford in the 1950s. Her name was Alice Stewart was both unusual and brilliant.

Unusual because she was a woman, which was rare in the 1950s but also because she continued to work after she got married and had kids. And, even after she got divorced and was a single Mum.

Brilliant because at the time she was the youngest fellow be elected to the Royal College of Physicians.

Alice was interested epidemiology – the study of patterns in diseases. And, like every scientist she appreciated that to make her mark she needed to find a really difficult problem and solve it. The problem that Alice choose was the rising incidence of cancer in children.

At the time, most diseases correlated with poverty but the kids who were dying with cancer seemed to mostly come from affluent families. So, what could explain this anomaly?

Now Alice had difficulties getting her funding, a bit like many businesses today. Eventually she got £1,000 which meant she only had one shot for getting her data.

Now, she had no idea what to look for, it was a needle in a haystack so she ask every question possible.

  • Had the child eaten boiled sweets?
  • Did they drink coloured drinks?
  • Did they eat fish and chips?
  • Di they have indoor or outdoor plumbing
  • When did they start school?

And, when her questionnaires started to come back one thing jumped out with a clarify most scientists can only dream of. By a ratio of 2:1 the children who had died had mothers who had been X-rayed while they when pregnant.

Now that finding flew in the face of conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom held that everything was safe up to a point and huge enthusiasm for the latest cool technology of X-ray machines. And, it flew in the face of doctors themselves who saw themselves as helping patients not harming them.

Never the less, she rush to publish her finding in the Lancet in 1956 and there was talk of the Nobel Prize. She was in a hurry to study as many cases as she could find before they disappeared but she didn’t have hurried. It was nearly  because it took 25-years before the British and American medical establishments abandoned the practice of X-raying pregnant women.

The data was available but nobody wanted to know.  A child a week was dying but nothing changed; openness and information can’t drive change.

So, for 25 years Alice had a major fight on her hands. But, how did she know she was right?

Well, she had a fantastic model for thinking. She worked with a statistician called George Kneale and he was everything Alice wasn’t.

Alice was outgoing and sociable while George was a recluse. Alice was warm and empathetic with patients, George preferred numbers to people. But, he said this fantastic thing about his job. He said “my job is to prove Dr Stewart wrong”. He actively sought disconfirmation; different ways of looking at the data with the aim of disproving her.

He saw his job as creating conflict about her theories because it was only by not being able to prove she was wrong that she had the confidence she needed to know she was right.

It is a fantastic model for collaboration; thinking partners who are not echo-chambers.

How many business owners have, or dare to have, such a collaborator?

Alice and George where great at conflict because they saw it as thinking. So, what does that constrictive conflict require?

Well, we need to find people who are different from ourselves.

That means we need to be counterintuitive and resist our instinct, the biological drive to work with people like ourselves. We need to collaborate with people with different skills, background and different experience.

It requires patience and energy and that is a intimate relationship with caring because you won’t commit the time and energy if you don’t REALLY care about the other person. And, it also means we need to be prepared to change our minds.

So, if conflict is thinking, how do organisations and businesses think?

Well, the truth is that many don’t. Not because they don’t want to but because they can’t. And they can’t because people are too afraid of conflict and too afraid of what the answers will be.

In a survey of European and American executives 85% acknowledged they had issues and concerns at work that they were afraid to raise. They were afraid of the conflict and arguments they didn’t know how to manage and felt they were bound to lose.

This means that 85% of business can’t do what Alice and George did i.e. think together. And, it means that most people who run business who do all they can to attract the best people fail to get the best out of their people.

So, how do we develop the skills we need?

First, everyone needs to see conflict as thinking and practice. We need to understand that  argument is outside most people’s our comfort zone but this is where we can be most creative. Difficult questions get better answers.

Could it be that an Accountant is the perfect conflict partner for a business owner? At the end of the day, the entrepreneur is often the opposite to an accountant.

Could be it that the budget is where the conflict should be focussed? Budgets allow detailed planning but provide space for strategic discussions.

Here is a video from Xero on budgeting to show you what is possible with new technology: