How One Company Is Seeking Innovative Ideas from the Risk-Averse

By Marty Graham, Contributor

When national accounting firm Moss Adams began encouraging its people to come up with innovative ideas, nothing much happened at first. Accounting firms are risk-averse, and inviting people to express new ideas in a free-form manner drew very little response. So, Mark Steranka, a partner in the firm’s business consulting practice, went to work on another approach.

The request for innovative ideas, he thought, had to have structure and freedom, as well as oversight where necessary. It also required the business to follow through on implementing the good ideas people brought to the table.

Two years after Moss Adams developed a structure that Steranka calls “innovation central,” it has received more than a hundred innovative ideas from the staff, ranging from ways to better communicate to new practices that help the firm’s clients to become more nimble with faster access to information.

“Innovation is about finding ways to do things better. It can be small or large, simple or complex. It can be technology related or not; it can involve risk or not.”

– Mark Steranka, Partner at Moss Adams LLP

And while Steranka is the first to admit there can be real risk involved in rejiggering client interactions, managing data, and rolling out new policies, 90 percent of the employees’ ideas carry little risk as they involved tweaking internal processes to become more efficient or add support where the customer would never directly see. Although few suggestions have so far required large investment or risked fallout from the business changing course, they nonetheless have an impact on the business at large.

Small or large, risky or not, the principle of Moss Adams’ innovation central is simple: “How can we tap the knowledge of our employees? How can we make what we do for us and for our clients better?”

“Your people and your clients are the universe,” he said, so why not start and stop with their creative input.

Innovation Is About People

Since the program began, Moss Adams has enjoyed a torrent of good ideas that apply to its marketing, internal communications, and resource management. Ideas have tackled how to manage collaboration across time zones or remote work environments; they’ve addressed how to use conferencing technologies to reduce travel expenses. Other ideas have improved the firm’s ability to offer clients better service and to save clients’ money.

“When you’re performing audits, there are a number of steps and tools that are handled by different team members at different points in the process,” Steranka explained. “Some of the innovations have led to streamlining those processes or coming up with ways to do the work more collaboratively.”

Yet getting to the point where employees felt comfortable making suggestions—and the business was able to implement these suggestions—wasn’t wholly easy.

Studies find that employees who face financial pressures including uncertainties in their housing or job are less likely to take risks—especially ones where they might be held responsible. Moss Adams’ executive committee eventually realized that using the freeform request model to generate innovative ideas garnered little return because the idea of suggesting new processes made people feel like they, themselves, were at risk. What if their idea wasn’t a good one, or worse, if implemented, it would damage processes in a way the employee hadn’t foreseen?

To address employee reluctance to make suggestions, Moss Adams created an innovation program structure with a well-understood path for presenting ideas.

Critical to this structure was finding volunteers in each office to take on the role of innovation champions—to coach and mentor their colleagues on how to present their ideas in a way that invited collaboration. The goal was not only to welcome new ideas, but to develop an environment where supportive colleagues could workshop these initiatives together.

“We have an innovation champion at every level, so what happens is that champion works with the people who bring forward ideas – coaching and mentoring them to help shape it,” Steranka explained.

A key to this model’s success, he explained, has been buy-in at every level of the organization. “It has to be from the top down and at every level – firm wide, regional, and local office levels,” he expressed. (Moss Adams itself has 31 offices in the U.S.)

So how, exactly, does the innovation program work? The innovation champion typically first sets up local office staff meetings for an hour or two reserved entirely for brainstorming.

“At our old weekly meetings, I would say, ‘Hey, think about ways we can innovate’ —and I could be sure it would go into one ear and out the other,” he said. Today, alongside the innovation champion, Steranka has a different approach. “On this day, we do nothing but talk about the ideas that make things better.”

Once a quarter, Steranka and his coworkers carve out an hour to talk about innovation, while they whiteboard and flip chart ideas. During the next hour, they workshop this initial batch. Some ideas are implemented right away, while bigger ones go to the regional level. “With bigger innovations, especially the ones that need investment, we submit proposals to an innovation task force,” he said. “It’s our own little shark tank.”

At the regional level, a group leader proposes the formal idea to the executive committee members who make up the task force. They consider and work through it, asking questions about its effects including return on investment.

It’s in these higher levels of the “shark tank” where prior mentoring and collaboration really matter. The initial conversations around the ideas give presenters the confidence to push their innovations to the top. “You work closely with the head of our innovation investment team before you get there,” Steranka said.

For staffers, while suggesting that initial idea might always be a little intimidating, with a clearly-defined structure, path to implementation, and the promise of support—the result has been a plethora of valuable ideas brought to the table.

The Next Level of Innovation

Steranka himself has been in front of the task force with a proposal for a firm-wide initiative, one that will need funding to implement. Without delving into specifics, he said that it involves working on tools and information that will support the ability to make much more strategic and timely decisions—both within the firm and as a tool to provide to clients.

“It’s a way for us to really up-level our clients’ abilities—to run their organizations and improve our ability to help them do that,” he said. “[It’s about] delivering value.”

Of course, in the midst of proposing client-facing ideas, Steranka and his team at Moss Adams don’t forget to look inward. “We’re doing for ourselves what we try to do for our clients,” Steranka said, “help them to improve their business.”