Curiosity killed the cat is a metaphor used to convey the dangers of questioning the status quo. It is often used to discourage people from asking questions. However, there is true productivity and power in asking questions. Imagine if the Wright Brothers had not asked, can man fly like a bird or if Henry Ford had not asked, why do we have to walk everywhere. The airplane and the automobile may have never been invented.
So does curiosity really kill the cat? There is an untold story here. The original phrase was not “curiosity killed the cat” but rather “care” killed the cat. Care, in this instance, referred to worry. William Shakespeare used the phrase in his famous work Much Ado About Nothing. In the 1800s, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable adds the following extension to the original saying.
“Care killed the Cat. It is said that a cat has nine lives, but care would wear them all out.”
Now you’re probably thinking, “What does this have to do with internal auditing?” Well, I think we can all agree that worry not only killed the cat, but it kills us physically, mentally and spiritually. We have anxiety, high blood pressure and unnecessary reactions to life’s stressors. As auditors, our job is to be curious. We ask questions so that we can evaluate operations and provide stakeholders with some reasonable assurance that the business environment is operating effectively (or ineffectively if that turns out to be the case). Our evaluations, in turn, allow our stakeholders to worry less.
All too often, however, auditors are discouraged from asking questions. We “worry” about how asking questions will make us look. For example, there is a fear of looking stupid by asking a dumb question. And clients realize this and can do a good job of reinforcing the fearful feeling. Some clients will challenge your “expertise” in their process. Well newsflash, you are not an expert at every process in your organization (see auditors embrace your non expert status). As an auditor, you may have a strong familiarity with an industry, but your true strength is taking that knowledge and truly asking good questions, analyzing evidence and data, interviewing clients, evaluating control environments, facilitating change, remaining objective and concluding on the effectiveness and efficiency of operations. You do this by asking questions…by being curious. So care (worry) killed the cat, not curiosity.
There are three things to remember the next time you question your curiosity:
1. There is no such thing as a stupid question
2. Your audience is important
3. Timing is everything
There is no such thing as a stupid question
Seeking knowledge is never a stupid endeavor. The fact that you’ve identified that there is something you do not know and have taken measures to find the answer, is in fact very intelligent. You see, there is absolutely no way we can all know everything. And those who try to make others feel insignificant due to knowledge differences have their own self esteem issues that they are projecting on to others.
What would you do if a sink broke in your house and you did not know how to fix it? My guess is, you would call a plumber. That’s exactly what I did. And while he was repairing my sink, I asked him a lot of questions. They were probably basic plumbing 101 questions, however, I did not know the answers and wanted to know.
So what’s the point? Just because you have a CPA or PHD, it does not mean you can fix a sink. Just because you know the answer to a question, does not mean that everyone has the same understanding you have. Asking questions brings enlightenment.
Asking questions is never a stupid endeavor. However, questions must be directed to the appropriate audience and at an appropriate time frame.
Audience is important
My friend John runs a small audit department that was about to start doing data analysis. They were interviewing vendors to help start the program (i.e. select the software, build the first queries, and train the staff). John likes the IDEA data analysis software, but did not like ACL (for whatever reason). He told me about one vendor’s sale pitch that was truly amazing. The guy provided an overview of his organization’s project process and the popular tools available (ACL and IDEA). He then recommended the organization use ACL for its initiative. This part of the sales pitch (the “ask” for business) droned on for over 30 minutes without addressing John’s concerns with the product. He actually never asked if anyone had a preference. The poor vendor was probably not even aware of John’s bias. Needless to say, the vendor did not get the job mostly because he did not know his audience when asking for business.
As auditors, we must identify the appropriate audience when we have questions.
Timing is everything
Imagine you are the middle of an audit engagement and the primary contact becomes ill and needs emergency surgery. You really want to wrap up the audit and only have a few questions remaining. Going to the hospital to question the client may not be a good idea. Visiting the client on their first day back at work may not be a good idea. No matter how important the question, the timing can be a significant factor in the quality of the answers you receive from clients.
So what’s the point?
There is no such thing as a stupid questions. Asking questions actually makes you smarter. When you have questions for clients, make sure you identify the appropriate person. After identifying the appropriate person, make sure to ask at the best time possible.
If you like this article, consider bringing the great communications audit course “Ask Better Questions, Get Better Answers, Perform Better Audits” to your audit group.
^ “Curiosity killed the cat”. Gary Martin. Retrieved 2-21-2014