From Failing Plans to Successful Change

Avatar photoMatt Rampe / Apr 12, 2023

business people sitting around a table speakingTimes have changed dramatically for CPA firms: staffing crises, remote workers, technological advances, retiring partners, new expectations about what a work week should look like…. Traditional strategic planning has become less effective. We need a new model that works in our new era. Let me introduce you to it.

The Decline of One Person Having the “Right” Answers … and the Rise of Good Questions  

Our world has become so complex and fast changing that no one person is capable of having all the right answers anymore. In a simpler time, the managing partner could evaluate a firm’s situation and detail a course to success based on what worked in the past. Now we face numerous situations for which there is no prior history: 

  • Hybrid and remote work policy and process 
  • Recruiting in a staffing crisis 
  • Creating non-CPA and non-accounting career paths, even to the top of a CPA firm 
  • Automating work with artificial intelligence 

To succeed today, firms need to tap into more points of view and more diversity, and make faster decisions – even intentionally experimenting to learn quickly. To facilitate this strategic planning process, we need to shift from looking for the “right” answers from a small group of people to asking great questions of a more holistic group of people. 

A strong strategic planning facilitator must be well versed in asking great questions. 

Here are some questions to ask in your strategic planning process: 

  • What are the three most important topics we need to focus on? Who needs to be involved in this discussion? 
  • What’s not being talked about (the elephant in the room)? How can we productively address it? 
  • What are our strengths as individuals? As a firm? How do we leverage those to excel? 
  • What kind of future for this firm would we be proud of? What matters about that to the people in this room? 
  • What are the keys to unlocking major growth? 
  • What are 10 ways we could create outstanding staff recruiting and retention? 
  • What might non-CPA and non-accountant career paths look like to support our success? 
  • What structures do we need (or have) in place that will support ongoing execution of our plan? 
  • What will each person commit to doing? By when? 


How Question-Based Strategic Planning Adds Value … and Where the Old Model Falls Short 

Keeps you focused on the highest-value topic areas 

✔️Question-Based (QB) planning – Asking questions to your partners and more widely in your firm gives a comprehensive view of what really matters most, so that can take center stage at your strategic planning session.  

❌Answer-Based (AB) planning – The consultant’s (or managing partner’s) bias can dictate the agenda, which may be overly tactical or too focused on a specific topic. 

Helps you have hard conversations (a.k.a. overcoming the elephant in the room) 

✔️QB – Questions beget conversation. People need to feel safe sharing hard things in respectful, productive ways. This is the key to high-performing teamwork. Once we can resolve these sore spots, executing as a united team is much easier. 

❌AB – Sweeping tough issues (e.g. sticky relationship issues between partners) under the rug can perpetuate hostility, silence and other unproductive behaviors. When we’re just handing down the “right answer,” there is no room for the kind of dialogue that can resolve this. 

Creates great alignment – among partners and all staff 

✔️QB – By discussing what people see as opportunities, concerns, hopes and fears, we get to know each other and see where our ideas overlap. When we ask people what matters most, consensus often naturally emerges – we usually have more in common than not! 

❌AB – Alignment of partners and your firm won’t happen by decree. That’s not how humans work. Even artificial intelligence like ChatGPT can provide the “right” answer in some cases, but that isn’t at all the same as people feeling ready to stand behind a solution. 

Supports implementation 

✔️QB – Asking each person what they will commit to doing, when, and how we’ll know creates buy-in at the personal level – and also invites an honest discussion about any pitfalls or conflicts that could stand in the way. Embracing the realities that exist inside your firm helps you create a plan that can succeed in the world you are actually living in. 

❌AB – Many CPA firm strategic plans fail at the implementation stage. One reason is that people didn’t buy in during the strategic plan. Or people got busy. Or some people did well and others don’t want to be accountable. Only telling people what they “should” do during your planning won’t solve this because it doesn’t ensure people are capable and willing to own their piece of the plan. 

But Expertise is Still Necessary 

Solely searching for someone who has all the “right answers” is less relevant for CPA firms, but expert knowledge is still valuable. Someone with current insights into the CPA industry and deep experience with those topics is very valuable. This expertise can complement your question-based approach by being added in the right amounts, in the right areas at the right time as needed in your strategic plan, to fill in the gaps or keep your planning process on course – instead of dominating the process. 

A question-based strategic planning method, paired with the right use of expert knowledge, allows your CPA firm to develop a strategy that’s built to win in the modern era. 

If you’re facing modern challenges in your CPA firm and need a strategic planning approach that will work, reach out to Matt Rampe, head of Strategic Planning at Rosenberg Associates, to find out how our model can work for your firm. 

You can reach out to Matt by filling out the contact us form or setting up a call with us here.

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