How a 'Tiger Team' can make internal audits strategic

Often transformational efforts at companies, though good in intention, fail in execution. Columnist Rob Enderle recently learned of a successful effort happening at NIC, an Internal Audit Tiger Team. Here’s a look at what it is and why it’s working.

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I often think the entire U.S. industry is on a death spiral due to stupid decisions. But then I get a call that gives me hope. I’ve been involved in two transformational efforts at ROLM, the Great Place To Work department, an organization solely focused on making the company a great place to work, and the Internal Audit as a Tiger Team.

I’m still looking for another Great Place To Work department (I’ve seen some companies come close), but last week I heard of another firm, NIC, that had created under Liz Thomas an Internal Audit Tiger Team and it is paying huge dividends. You can read the .pdf report here.

Let me walk you through the amazing things Thomas, vice president of Internal Audit, and her team at NIC are doing.

Tiger Team

A Tiger Team is a team of highly paid experts typically sent in to solve impossible to solve point problems. The problem with the concept in execution is that these teams are often made up of folks with great skills but even greater egos who parachute into a company, act like they already know everything, and then provide advice that may have little to do with the problem or that the company either can’t or shouldn’t follow. It wasn’t that the idea didn’t have merit, it worked rather well for the space program, it was the execution that sucked. You needed people who understood what the company was capable of and knew that if their advice didn’t actually work they’d be held accountable.

The Internal Audit Tiger Team

Internal Audit, if properly staffed and motivated, can become a permanent Tiger Team and we proved this could work years ago at ROLM. Done right there isn’t another organization in the firm that knows how that company actually works, but often they fall into two traps. First they simply become a compliance organization that focuses only on assuring rules and polies regardless of how stupid those policies may be, second they will often learn over time that it is far better for their financial well-being and their careers if they don’t look that hard at anything and simply look busy, that way they don’t piss off powerful executives who will make their careers hell now or far later.

But there is a third path and that is the one we were on at ROLM (before IBM blew it up) and the one that NIC is on with Liz Thomas. Internal Audit becomes more than just compliance, they become the firm’s trouble shooters. Rather than blindly auditing to policy, their goal is to improve efficiency and operations, they can challenge policies that are stupid, and they are missioned to actually make things better not just assure they are in compliance.

This is a ton more fun, but also the end result is that rather than hiding from an Internal Audit team executives ask them for help particularly in situations where the executive is over their head or spending so much time fighting fires, and so worried about being fired that they can’t even see a fix for the problems they are experiencing. This also builds in a certain amount of empathy as often all Internal Audit seems to do is find a scape goat and help them get shot when the problem may not be the person but the situation. A Tiger Internal Audit team focuses on the problem not who to blame for it and, as a result, is more likely to actually make things better rather than just swapping one overwhelmed executive for another.

This process has a better chance of leaving an executive who has learned from an expensive mistake in the job rather than replacing them with someone else who will repeat it because they have yet to learn whatever hard lesson it was that caused the issue in the first place.

Lasting benefits

As Liz Thomas confirmed, the lasting benefits are policies and processes that are both better aligned to the business and are more likely to help rather than hinder those operating it. The result is a problem resolution, not blame, focused culture that spends its time making things better not just finding people to fire or punish.  

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