Regrets? They’ll have a few

OK, so we’ve all got them.  You know, those things that we look back on and think “what the hell – why did I do that?” or, (even worse) “why didn’t I do that?”

I’ve had plenty – more of the former type than latter, but it all forms part of the rich tapestry of life that we humans form part of.  And, much as we may regret things, it helps us develop into the people we are and forms the foundations of who we will be.  Great.


BUT, what would happen if you knew that something was going to happen and, despite every nerve in your body screaming at you to do something, you didn’t “do it” (whatever “it” might be) – is that really a regret?  If you adopted a stance of denial, does that turn into a form of regret?

How is it that, even when confronted with massive amounts of evidence supporting a reality that is going to occur (and I’m not talking “consensus” here) – I am talking incontrovertible facts – you still don’t make the moves that are required?

I’m not going to launch into semantics here (I will leave that to my far more learned colleagues in Verasage), I am just trying to posit the argument that often times, people do not do what they should and don’t take action when they should or find a million reasons not to do something they know they need to because, well, they have lost something.

What is the loss they have made?

Consider if you will the current state of the accounting profession.  We are seeing massive changes set upon us – mainly from technology/cloud solutions, but also from offshoring operations.  Did you know, for example, that most of the Big Four have established offices throughout Asia to which they “in-source” their compliance work at (about) AUD10 per hour?  I know of an Australian example where a large corporate has moved a significant volume of their processing/admin work to a Pacific nation as the effective wage rate there is AUD1.20 per hour – a bit better than the award rate over here!

This is all happening now.  Today.  To our beloved accounting profession.  And what are the vast majority of our colleagues around the world doing about?  Nothing.

I posted some time ago about the changes that were occurring to our profession.  The changes that were coming then are rolling out even more quickly than I anticipated.

So, what is the profession doing to adapt to this change?  Not much.  Some of us a screaming to all who can be bothered to listen that there needs to be a change in business model.  Hardly anyone seems to be listening.  Or caring.  And we are not, by the way, being “chooky looky” – the sky is falling in!

What are most accounting firms doing to try and combat the inevitable?  They are trying to be more efficient.  Making better time recording platforms and putting greater emphasis on staff productivity.  Anyone recall Danny DeVito in “Other People’s Money”?  Buggy whips.

To make the process more precise isn’t what’s required in the accounting profession today (or tomorrow).  As Ron Baker is fond of saying – “I’d rather be approximately right than precisely wrong”.  Bravo Ron!  But tell that to the Luddites who persist with a 1950’s business model 65 years after it was made common place and 64 years after it became redundant.

The time-sheet is an anachronistic tool that does not fit with today’s requirements.  Staff hate them, admin hates them, managers hate them and Partners/Directors hate them.  The people who hate them most however, are the second most important people in your business – your customers.

In some respects, I am advocating a “back to the future” scenario – get rid of time-sheets – but with some important changes.  Changes like agreeing the scope of work and price up front with your customer.  The change which includes and involves your people in determining scope – and price!  The one where you truly empower your people to shine rather than record their misery in 6 minute increments.

Ed Chan of Chan & Naylor last week posted on Linked In.  Chan’s argument is that accountants sell time.  No.  We don’t.  We sell solutions to our customers’ problems.  His argument is that the “solutions” (I am expanding his argument a little here, but I believe it is in the same vein as what he has written) are all compliance-based whereby all we are doing is the “same thing” for each client.  As I have illustrated above, the basis of a lot of the compliance work is going to be automated or off-shored.  So scalability only applies if you’re doing basic, processing and bookkeeping work.  Not exactly what we’re trained for is it?

Similarly, setting an arbitrary hourly rate to charge them for your time isn’t reflective of their need or the value that they place on the work to be done.  Using the same rate for everything you do makes you pretty “average”.  And remember – average is where the best of the worst meets the worst of the best.

My belief is that every customer is unique and have their own set of fears, needs and the like.  To try and put them all in one basket is to demean both them and the people who work on their files.

Chan’s argument is also based on the premise that all you have to do is to hire more people and more customers will come to you.  Oh, to live in such a wonderful world!

From my experience (such as it is), the only way you can achieve this is to discount your offering to a level that drives people to you.  And then, what happens to “the margin” that Ed believes is the Holy Grail?  That and the fact that you’ll generally get the bottom-feeding clients who don’t value what you do anyway and will bring a whole heap of their “friends” along with them – High School Chemistry – like attracts like.  You will also not exactly engage your people as they merely become cogs in a never-ending grind out of tax returns.  Inspiring isn’t it!

So, in Ed’s world, where “you build a business to prepare a tax return”, I believe there will be regrets.  Lots of them.

Customers don’t want tax returns.  They want advice.  Support,  Counsel.  Encouragement.  SOLUTIONS.  The tax return work is only there because the government stipulates it.  Nobody really “values” it in the true sense of the word.  And the ultimate disruption?  I know of at least one of the Big Four that will be offering their clients compliance work for $0 in the coming years.  How’s “the margin” on that?

Getting the business model right for accounting firms is critical given the disruptive times we are in.  Making a bigger or cheaper version of what exists won’t answer the challenge – it merely cements in a race to the bottom for those firms that don’t adapt.

Regrets?  Yep, I have them.  A number of them.  One I do not have however is getting rid of time-sheets and moving to a business model that will sustain our business, our people and our customers for a long time.

Oh – the loss they have made that I referred to above?  It’s a loss of self esteem and belief in why they do what they do.  And that, my friends, can be scaled!

May 15, 2015 Show Notes: Public Choice Theory

Winston Churchill said,

Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Public Choice Theory describes the extension of analysis to the political alternatives to markets. Many commentators talk about “market failure,” but far fewer ever mention government failure. Public choice theory sheds light on how government employees face incentives as much as employees in the private markets, and how these incentives can create bad policies, costly regulations, and other negative consequences.

Identify a problem to be “solved” by government. But there are no solutions, only tradeoffs.

Nobel laureate James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, founders Public Choice Economics, insisted:

Any formula for government intervention that ignores political realities is unscientific.

Gordon Tullock wrote that public choice was “politics without romance.”

Economists are often blamed for having a religious faith in markets, but no one has pointed out more market failures than economists.

We underestimate how well markets work and over-estimate how well democracy works.

Four Insights from Public Choice Economics

1. Special-interest-group effect (concentrated benefits, diffused costs)

  • Sugar program cost each American $9.24 yet it raised each sugar grower’s annual income by an average of $617,000 in 2012

2. Rational ignorance—your vote won’t determine election

  • Put more time into developing your job skills, or a major purchase then into an election. You’ll only get small amount of benefits, or pay small amount of costs

3. Rent-seeking—lobbyists wasteful to society, redistribution transfers slices of the pie, does nothing to increase pie

4. Bundling effect—Example: shopping supermarket

  • Imagine having to pick between two shopping carts pre-filled with food. You could look, put not move items from one cart to the other
  • Outside observers cannot know that you chose that Cart A despite its offering of diapers and dog food rather than because of them
  • We can say nothing about the majority’s preferences for any individual policy
  • So politicians don’t know why they won (or why opponents lost)

The Myth of the Rational Voter by Bryan Caplan

Why are voters predictably irrational?

H.L. Mencken: “Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.”

Voters are asked to do brain surgery and they can’t pass basic anatomy.

Democracy is a relatively inferior way of making decisions: marriage, career, state to live, home to buy, etc.

Most voters are worse than ignorant, they are irrational, according to Caplan. He claims democracy fails because it does what voters want—a built-in externality.

Wisdom of the crowds doesn’t work with voting because of systematic errors

Most voters have four biases:

  1. Antimarket bias––tendency to underestimate the benefits of the market mechanism
  1. Antiforeign bias––a tendency to underestimate the economic benefits of interaction with foreigners
  • Incessant worry about the “trade deficit”
  • Ideological purity is free! Severe biases can’t exist in betting or prediction markets, but can in voters
  1. Make-work bias––a tendency to underestimate the economic benefits of conserving labor
  • China excavating land with shovels; Milton friedman asks, why not tractors? Need jobs. Oh, then use spoons
  • We wouldn’t think this way in our household, where we love labor saving devices
  • You don’t worry how to spend the hours you save buying a washing machine
  • Saving labor is progress and responsible for our ever-increasing standard of living!
  • Illusion that employment, not production, is the measure of prosperity
  1. Pessimistic bias––a tendency to overestimate the severity of economic problems and underestimate the recent past, present, and future performance of the economy.
  • Pessimism sells: Club of Rome, peak oil, Malthus, etc.
  • As you do better, your children have to do even better, optimism declines

Analogy between voting and shopping flawed. You don’t “buy” policies with votes.

Democracy let’s people with severe biases continue to participate at no extra cost.

If people are rational consumers and irrational voters, it’s a good idea to rely more on markets and less on politics.

Other Books and Resources

An unhealthy Alliance video

Episode #44 Preview – On Public Choice

“Democracy is the worse form of government…except for all the others.” — Winston Churchill


In this episode, Ron and Ed will examine public choice theory, which describes the extension of analysis to the political alternatives to markets. Many commentators talk about “market failure,” but far fewer ever even mention “government failure.”

Public choice theory sheds light on how government employees face incentives as much as employees in the private markets, and how these incentives can create bad policies, costly regulations, and other negative consequences.

In addition, we will also talk about the dynamics of group decision making in private organizations. Some of the same challenges confronted by government officials are also faced by people in private business.

We will explore the question, “What are the best ways for groups to make collective decisions?”