Book Application – Essentialism by Greg McKeown

As a leader and an employee, I am constantly looking for new approaches to the problems I face each day.  There is no better way to learn (short of by making my own mistakes) than to learn from some of the best thought leaders of our time.  Many of those learning opportunities come from books and magazine articles.

For today’s post, I am reviewing and finding practical application in a book I think every business leader should read, Essentialism by Greg McKeown.

There are four sections in the book:

– essence / What is the core mindset of an essentialist?

– explore / How can we discern the trivial many from the vital few?

– eliminate / How can we cut out the trivial many?

– execute / How can we make doing the vital few things almost effortless?

There are so many learning points in this book that can be applied in your career building and in developing a world class audit function, but for today I’d like to on a sub topic in the explore section entitled escape. To put this in context, the basis of essentialism is that you have a choice in what you do, and you’ll be more successful if you focus only on the things that really matter (and few things really matter). Sounds a lot like risk assessment and audit planning, doesn’t it?

So are you still planning audits on a cyclical basis?  Under the principles of essentialism, you’re working too hard and accomplishing less. You’re living the life of a non-essentialist.   You can choose to approach things differently. You can choose the few things that really matter and ensure you get the right things done.  An essentialist’s approach has you focusing on the vital few risks in your business.  Like a surgeon, you know where and how deep to cut.

This is where we get to the success cornerstone of audit essentialism. Escape.

You have to dedicate time and focus to weeding out the trivial risks and controls so you can find those that are vital. This is much harder than it seems. Too many times I’ve seen audits where we approached the engagement wanting to spend 20% of our time on planning, 70% on fieldwork and 10%  on reporting only to end up with a ratio of 10:50:40 and we often blow past our budgeted hours. The reporting process drags on and on as we struggle to reach consensus with management.


Because, as Greg McKeown offered in his book, we don’t take the time to escape.   As he so aptly put it, “We need space to escape in order to discern the essential few from the trivial many.  Unfortunately, in our time-starved era we don’t get that space by default – only by design.” Does your audit process provide for escape by design?  Are we giving our audit managers, in-charges and auditors the time and space to escape?

I’d like to explore both of the time and space criteria, because both are important in gaining benefit from the effort.   In my time as a Chief Audit Executive, I’ve been on 100’s of international flights. I’ve found the time alone on these extremely valuable for developing creative solutions to my most vexing problems.  It turns out, quite by accident I found my escape.

In order to improve our audit process I realized that I needed to flip the process upside down. Instead of spending 70% of our audit time in fieldwork, we needed to spend 70% in planning. I now ask my auditors to target a 70:20:10 time ratio.   The results: the auditors have more time to think and plan. And the number of audits completed per quarter increased!

What this book now has me thinking about is the space criteria.  Many of my auditors have offices, but some do not. Are office distractions preventing them from having the space they need?  Is space an individual thing?  Some people are better at tuning out distractions than others.

As you can see, this book has given me many valuable learnings that I’m working to apply to my internal audit shop.  I’m sure we’ll get another opportunity to discuss other parts of the book.  For now, I’d like to share an amazon link and encourage you to get this book (disclosure: I do get a small commission if you purchase through this link.  I appreciate any support to keep this site growing).

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *