What management accountants can find in fiction

Great novels can teach us a thing or two — from managing risk to reflecting on the human condition and developing empathy. Here are a few suggestions to add to your packing list.
Summer reading

Management accountants tend to be a practical bunch and might be tempted to read something useful in their down time, such as the latest management or leadership book. But fiction can be equally valuable. Reading a literary work during a flight or on a sunlounger on the beach can be part of your learning and development plan, as well as a delight.

For instance, storytelling is an essential part of the finance business partner’s toolkit for communicating analysis and insights. How better to develop your skill in this area than to read some good stories and build up a store of examples that you can draw on?

Novels can also help you think more broadly to solve problems and understand business risks. In Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn From the Humanities, a literary critic and an economist join forces to argue that reading great literature involves constant practice in empathy. “If one has not identified with Anna Karenina, one has not really read Anna Karenina,” the authors point out.

Like Leo Tolstoy’s novel, works by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Henry James, Edith Wharton, and other great psychological realists are all good for developing ethical judgement, and understanding different motivations and perspectives — in other words, good for developing the all-important human skills.

Novels can also help develop skills needed for horizon scanning and risk management. Author Eliot Peper argues that science fiction can help us question our assumptions and “it reframes our perspective on the world”. This is particularly helpful in the context of accelerating technological change, he notes in Harvard Business Review.

If sci-fi is not your thing and reading War and Peace feels like too much for a relaxing holiday, there are many alternatives. Here are some suggestions by area of focus:

Problem-solving

Those good old holiday standbys — crime novels and thrillers — often have a flawed and/or idiosyncratic hero/heroine who manages to solve the problem in unpromising circumstances. These characters provide a counterpoint to the messages we can perceive from some CPD or self-help tomes, which insist on following the recommended steps to perfection. Such tales send the message that you can still get results even if you are not perfect — developing involves getting stuck in and learning as you go.

Writing in The Guardian recently, Sophie Hannah argues that “crime is the only genre that puts puzzle-solving — making sense of what the hell’s going on — at the centre of everything. It’s closest to our core motivation, as we blindly stumble through life, needing but never being given all the answers.”

Options in this category abound, from timeless classics such as Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, or Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, to more recent bestsellers such as John Grisham’s thrillers, the Nordic noir genre, and George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones series.

Creativity and imagination

Like sci-fi, the fantasy genre can feed your creativity and imaginative skills, helping you think more broadly and overturn convention. In the workplace, this ability can be applied to thinking about innovation and alternative business models, or to understanding emerging risks.

I like creative worlds that interact with the real world — Harry Potter perhaps being the most famous example. Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is another great story. Let’s not overlook children’s and young adult fiction, which is very strong in this area: Ransom Riggs’s series about Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree are among the titles to choose from.

Critical thinking

Another way of developing your imagination and ability to think laterally is to read stories with an unexpected twist where the author appears to lead you down a particular path before confounding you. Jessie Burton’s books The Miniaturist and The Muse are good examples of this. Such stories make readers realise the importance of thinking critically about the information in front of them rather than jumping to easy or obvious conclusions — or in management accounting terms: evidence-based decision-making.

Effective communication

If the thought of a 600-pager puts you off, consider a succinct story in which every word counts. You can learn a lot here about how to express a powerful idea in few words. Susan Hill’s books such as The Woman in Black and The Mist in the Mirror are good examples, and you get a good fright in the bargain. Alternatively, try collections of short stories, such as those by Roald Dahl or Muriel Spark.

What are your suggestions? What other skills do they help you to learn about?

Gillian Lees is senior director, Governance & Risk Research–Management Accounting at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jack Hagel, an FM magazine editorial director, at Jack.Hagel@aicpa-cima.com.