You can’t get it right

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Accountants crave certainty. PKF are just the latest to show a desire for this wholly unattainable and illusory panacea. We delude ourselves if we think we could ever get near this goal.

For that reason I think all accountants should read an article about the doctor who helped inspire the TV show Grey's Anatomy in yesterday's Guardian. I edit highlights like this:

Atul Gawande cannot forget the first time he sliced someone open. More than 10 years and roughly 4,000 operations later, Gawande has never lost sight of surgery's narrow divide between the sacred and the profane. Even now, before every procedure - no matter how routine - he runs through a checklist of the top three things that could go wrong and mentally prepares for these eventualities. And yet still things go wrong. "Each year I do about 400 operations and have about a 97% success rate," he says. "This means that 12 of my patients - two of whom will probably be dead - leave the theatre worse off than when they came in.

This guy is good. Seriously good. To be 97% right is above normal human performance ratios. And there is no certainty in his work. In fact, he kills people. Could you live with that?

The reality is that if you're an accountant you do, even if the results may not be as dramatic. You get things wrong. If not everyday, then frequently. As Gawande puts it:

If you ask any doctor when he or she last made a misdiagnosis, the truthful answer would always be in the last month.

That's how often you get tax wrong too. And a set of accounts. Or whatever it is you do. Because you're human.

The tax office does the same.

So does your client.

Live with it. In accountancy no one will die as a direct result. Be thankful for that. But as a profession let's drop this pretence that we know what we're doing all the time. We don't. Too often (and I've done this, frequently) we sit in front of a client and know we've never seen the situation they're describing before, have no direct reference point for dealing with it and no way of searching for a solution in any tax or accounting text ever written. The situation is just too complex for such an answer. And if we're good we have confidence in our judgement and offer it all the same. That's why people will pay really good fees on occasion.

But let's not for one minute pretend that this has anything to do with certainty.In fact, it's the exact opposite. People really want us when we are a light in the darkness that surrounds them, and us too. So embrace that fog. It's what this game is about.