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Busy season is most famous as a time when we, as CPAs, put our heads down and work crazy hours.  It’s the time of the year that we most hope to “get through” so that we can enjoy the rest of the year with more flexibility.  Busy season is also the time of year that we can most learn from as Firm owners.

When things get busy and the work is piling up faster than we can get it out the door, we all but lose our ability to hide our warts.  Any process inefficiency, client service breakdown or mis-use of staffing will be glaringly obvious during this time of year. But, we’re too busy to address it.  More often than not, even with the best of intentions, that breakdown or inefficiency will not be addressed. Other things come up, vacations take precedent (as they should!) and they fall through the cracks.  We typically remember all of the changes we had intended to make in October when it’s too late to implement major changes before the year end rolls around again.

The Post-Mortem (a.k.a. debrief meeting) is one of the most valuable tools available to you as a firm leader when done correctly.  Virtually all of my clients who run accounting firms have implemented the post-mortem meeting into their organizations in some form.  There are a number of ways to go about these meetings, so I’ll share what I believe makes for the most effective use of this tool.

First, understand what information you are looking to gain from the meeting.  Are you looking for overall feedback or are there specific areas you’re curious about as a leadership team?  This will help you decide what questions to be asking your team. For example, if you are looking for general feedback a simple “What worked & what didn’t work” will suffice.  However, if you’re looking for more specific feedback about your tax return packaging and billing process, consider calling that out separately to ensure you get the type of feedback you’re looking for.

Next, consider who to include in the feedback.  Some firms opt to keep the post-mortem meeting at the manager level and above.  Depending on your firm dynamics, that might be the way to go. However, we’ll make the case for including team members at all levels in the feedback discussion, or at least in the survey process which we’ll cover next.  We believe that each level within your firm has a unique perspective and unique interactions with your business processes. Limiting feedback to only the highest levels may cause you to miss out on valuable perspectives that could impact your decision making.  

Now it’s time to consider how you will collect the feedback.  Some smaller firms (10 or fewer individuals) opt for the in-person meeting.  With larger firms, it becomes time prohibitive to hear everyone’s feedback in a meeting lasting less than 17 hours.  Let’s be honest…no need to create another meeting that could have been an email! We prefer a written survey paired with an in-person meeting.   The written survey allows the respondent time to thoughtfully organize and share his/her feedback. You can then hold a shorter meeting with decision makers to debrief the feedback you’ve received- read on for more!    

Finally, what will you do with the feedback you’ve received?  This is where things get a little dicey. Many times, we receive valuable feedback and a LOT of it.  It can be overwhelming to think about how you will address it and where it’s going to fit into your already busy schedule.  I work with my clients to sift through the feedback they’ve received and prioritize key themes for action.

We closely consider all of the feedback before deciding what suggestions to implement and in what order.  We recommend choosing no more than three key initiatives to focus on in any given year. In my experience, this is the magic number where you are able to experience tangible growth in multiple areas.  With more than three key initiatives, leaders can become overwhelmed and you may see minor progress in each area but generally not enough to move the needle. One final thought on prioritization: Make sure that the key initiatives you choose are aligned with your firm’s goals for the year.  

Finally, let your team know what you’re taking on.  If your staff has taken the time to provide feedback to you, they will be interested in learning what you’ve decided to implement and how they can help.  Consider forming committees to own the larger initiatives and find volunteers to own the smaller initiatives. Spreading the work around allows for you, as the firm leaders, to manage your time, and can present an opportunity for others to rise to the occasion.  In many cases, this can even improve employee engagement- giving them ownership over a project that they’re interested. Wins all around (feel free to happy dance).
Have you done your busy season debrief or post-mortem yet?  Let us know what you learned! If you have questions about how to implement this or other tools in your firm, email us at Hello@wellbalancedaccountants.com.  We’d love to help.