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Tax Tech & Innovation

Employing project management techniques to keep innovation alive in your tax practice

Samantha Mansfield  Consultant & Leadership Coach / ConvergenceCoaching, LLC

· 6 minute read

Samantha Mansfield  Consultant & Leadership Coach / ConvergenceCoaching, LLC

· 6 minute read

By introducing innovative project management techniques into your tax & accounting practice, firms can increase their workflow efficiency and client service effectiveness

Innovation is required to keep an organization healthy and sustainable — and tax & accounting practices are no different. Yet today, tax & accounting professionals often feel overwhelmed by deadlines and insufficient capacity to meet the increasing demand for their services. This leaves little time to drive the necessary innovation that could curb the pain that these and other challenges create.

Or as legendary management consultant Peter Drucker once said: “If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.”

More than two-thirds (67%) of projects fail in organizations that don’t value project management, according to the Pulse of the Profession 2020 survey from the Project Management Institute. Instead of wasting time and money on incomplete projects, however, firms can leverage project management principles to more effectively implement innovative initiatives. Here are four critical areas of project management that tax & accounting professionals can leverage to drive change in their practice:

The Vision

Some people perceive project management as just another workflow that needs to be defined or another person pestering you about things you need to complete. In actuality, project management adds structure to what can often be a nebulous process. It makes room for creativity, monitors risk, and maintains boundaries around a project’s scope while keeping the team focused on the overall vision.

One best practice that project managers use is to develop a charter at the project’s onset. The charter keeps the team on track and identifies the agreed-upon resources. Its purpose is to document key aspects of the project without overcomplicating the information. These key aspects include:

        • vision for the project;
        • scope and key objectives;
        • deadlines and milestones;
        • resources (budget, team members, etc.); and
        • communication protocols.

This vision exercise should not describe the end product but instead, the desired result. An effective innovation process will take twists and turns as you develop the final solution. Several years ago, the co-founder of Netflix, Marc Randolph, told a room full of tax & accounting professionals at the Digital CPA Conference that iterating as you go is essential during innovation. At the time, Randolph was not trying to develop a DVD mail-order business; instead, he wanted to change how people accessed their home entertainment — the result, not the end product. Having a clear goal keeps the team focused on creating an impactful solution.

The Timeline

While tax & accounting professionals are accustomed to deadlines, it’s important to consider what how critical the due date is for an innovation project. Some have a small window of opportunity, and if that window is missed, your organization can go from being ahead of the curve and defining new expectations to playing catch-up and competing with others.

Project management documents the due date and pertinent milestones along the path to completion. The process considers which deadlines can flex, which need to stay firm, and how to manage available resources to keep the project on track. Consideration needs to be given to the availability of each member of the innovation team as well. If everyone involved has the same busy season, look for who can be included to keep various activities going while the core of the team is heads down in client work.

Keep in mind that project management is not a workflow, so steps can be done out of sequence depending on the availability of resources and what can be moved forward.

Testing

Not every idea works, so there needs to be a testing phase or even multiple phases. You should test how well the concept works and the reception the project receives from the target customer or stakeholder. “The project management principle of scoping the vision helps to provide an outline of the parameters of the end result,” says Jessica Hartsfield, a project management professional and founder of Maven Source International. “In essence, it tells you what the customer or group wants, so the internal team gets a sense of what to look for to ensure they are hitting the customer’s objectives. This scope should then turn into a listing of necessary testing results.”

By documenting the scope from the beginning, the team knows for what it should be testing. Is the solution developed achieving the vision defined in the charter? If not, then it’s good that the team has this feedback before investing in an official rollout. If further iteration is required, the team should not feel they failed. In truth, this is part of any innovation process.

Project management principles promote risk management, including giving users the ability to track risk factors and testing. Do not skip this step just to expedite the process.

Deployment

Project management allows users to oversee the entire process, from conception through deployment. Often, because the team nurturing and developing the solution is very close to the details, they may lose sight of what is needed for the rollout. Not everyone in the firm may even remember that this particular initiative has been in the works.

You can counter this perception by investing in how the idea will be introduced to the audience and key stakeholders. Explain what is in it for them with the launch. Once you have buy-in, communicate how the project will be rolled out and when key stakeholders will be able to reap the benefits. Make sure that you are answering questions such as: Will it be launched in stages? Is there training required? Will everyone have immediate access? Additionally, share what will change and what will remain the same once it is launched.

After the launch, collect feedback on the development process and the final project outcome. Project managers will need this information to debrief the team and note enhancements for implementing future innovative initiatives.

As tax & accounting professionals look ahead to the next busy season, begin ideating on how to improve the workflow, offer talent a better work/life balance, and provide higher value services to clients. Then look to the expertise of project managers and how their methods might ensure a greater chance of completion on budget and on time.