Just like a huge obstacle course requires solid preparation, successful fieldwork requires deliberate planning.

At our house, we like to watch American Ninja Warrior, and my kids always beg me to go on the show (it seems I’m an athletic anomaly to them). Regardless, American Ninja Warrior inspires us with their stories of preparation, which then inspires me to write about fieldwork in internal audit (because here at MISTI, we’re internal audit anomalies and ninjas).

Fieldwork is really the final obstacle course that must be won to have a successful audit. But if you haven’t sufficiently prepared for this part of the course, you’re going to crash and splash. We each do fieldwork prep, but some preps are more efficient than others. Here are some successful tips from audit managers and directors in how to win the fieldwork race and avoid those nasty bottlenecks and side cramps that arise during the fieldwork obstacle course.

Step 1. Use a risk framework to develop the preliminary scope

When an athlete decides to run an obstacle course, they have to choose the training plan that best suits the course they’re training for (i.e., doing pull-ups all day is inefficient when prepping to run a 5K). Being a fieldwork ninja requires scoping the audit effectively and early to provide for risks specific to the business.

One method to efficiently plan the audit is to connect risks in the business entity with a general framework established by the company. For example, COSO is commonly used in establishing a company’s framework. But, for auditors, COSO can be a useful tool in auditing risk in a business.

Brian Rourke of Analog Devices says, “We use COSO not so much from a control perspective, but we use it with the initial risk assessment. We map this large amount of risks to the controls (COSO) framework. Our philosophy is if we can map our risks to the entire framework, then we can create a solid audit plan.

“But if there are pieces of this framework that we haven’t mapped to, then we step back and, as a team, brainstorm what we’re missing and whether or not the risk framework is applicable to the audit.”

Gretchen Sutcliffe from National Grid also uses COSO, but in a less auditor-speak and more audit customer-friendly way. They’ve developed a questionnaire, called a control assessment, which uses questions to facilitate conversation with the audit customer to define processes and risk areas.

As you narrow down the scope of your project, you’ll have a better preliminary understanding of what you want to audit. At this point, you can begin including additional ninjas on your team – your process owners.

Step 2. Schedule meetings ahead of time with key process owners

Your next obstacle in the fieldwork course is to define your key process owners and get on their schedules. Much like a preliminary run of the course helps an athlete to understand the obstacles coming up, initiating a walkthrough meeting with key process owners 4-8 weeks before fieldwork helps to define fieldwork better. The goal here is to get all process owners on board long before fieldwork begins. In this meeting, share your preliminary scope and objectives with your audit customer.

Be clear and up front. Your process owners will appreciate this and know what to expect, and in turn, you’ll begin building the relationship of trust required to have a successful fieldwork stage.

At this time (before fieldwork), schedule weekly status meetings for the fieldwork period with your key process owners. If there is nothing significant to report, you can always cancel the meeting, but at least you have guaranteed face time with your audit customer while you’re in the field.

You Li of Population Services International, agrees that scheduling reduces fieldwork hiccups. “It can be frustrating and delaying when staff you need to speak with are unavailable during fieldwork. This goes away with planning. Know who you need to speak to and set up those meetings early before you arrive in country. Then there should be no excuse.”

Of course, things fall through and the unexpected happens no matter how much you plan. The course has a new obstacle, and you get to face it head on. But, generally knowing your key contacts and getting on their schedule early makes the fieldwork obstacle course go smoother.

Step 3. Establish consistent, open, and written communication

An athlete can try to prepare for an obstacle course they’ve never seen, but it sure helps to see it. In fieldwork, rather than relying on verbal communication, make sure your audit customer sees your communication.

Too often, informal verbal communication results in miscommunicating issues or the issues being forgotten. To keep fieldwork on track and set an expectation with the audit customer, communicate the format that you’ll be using to share questions and symptoms, and then use that format. There are several ways to document communication:

PowerPoint. Use a PowerPoint slide to illustrate weekly findings or symptoms during fieldwork. This way, you won’t be taxed with a pile of issues to sift through and revisit after fieldwork ends. Identify and share symptoms early so you can work through them together with your audit customer.

Email. For every verbal conversation you have, always follow it up with an email to confirm what things were said and documents and files that need to be provided. You Li says that this “is especially true in non-native English speaking countries. And always cc their supervisor as a sign of courtesy, but it also works in your favor if things do not come through.”

Word document. Gretchen Sutcliffe of National Grid says to be picky about how issues are written. “Using the wrong language to describe an issue can make the business defensive. Spend some time understanding the issue so you can write it properly, factually, and helpfully. Focus on the issue’s tone and support.” Chances are you’ll be doing issue follow-up or auditing this entity again, and you want to be returning to positive vibes that were established from the previous audit.

Don’t assume all process owners have been through fieldwork before. Tell them what to expect: you’ll communicate symptoms weekly, follow-up verbal conversations with an email, and communicate final issues in a Word document.

When your audit customer knows what to expect and how to respond, they can quickly jump on board during fieldwork and keep your fieldwork moving.

Step 4. Leverage your own audit team’s knowledge

Most ninja warriors have a posse on the sidelines cheering for them. You can have that too. Many companies have weekly or monthly status meetings within their own audit groups. Depending on size, this can be a perfect time to not just provide your audit statuses but to also ask for help.  Using subject matter experts or fellow auditors who have completed similar audits in the past can really shed some light in a dark abyss of fieldwork.

Brian Rourke and his team use team meetings as a way to learn more. “I take the different perspectives and suggestions with me to help me move forward much quicker. Previous teams I’ve been on didn’t use team meetings in this way.”

Every workout for an athlete counts. Make your meetings count too. Reconsider how your company uses team meetings and make a small and deliberate enhancement to learn all the information you can in every setting.

Step 5. Plan, plan, plan

Guaranteed those ninja warriors didn’t get to the first obstacle and say, “Whoa, I did NOT see that coming!” Maybe a little further down the course, but not the first obstacle. Plan for your obstacles so the initial obstacles won’t be obstacles at all.

Define your scope, schedule your meetings, request documents, and then follow up. And make sure you and your team has made all the proper travel arrangements. Especially in international situations, you may need special safety training, visas, drivers, and hotels.

“Plan, plan, plan! You really can’t plan enough,” says You Li. “Plan right down to the detail. Know where you need to travel to, how you’re going to get there and with whom. For international trips, get the right visas and plan logistics both getting to the country as well as in-country logistics. There’s nothing worse than not knowing where you’re staying, who is picking you up and how you’re going to get there – don’t get stranded at the airport on the first day – that will put you off for the duration of the trip and complicate fieldwork more.”

Although fieldwork may initially seem formidable (like a long obstacle course), with the right planning and foresight, fieldwork will be an exciting obstacle you are prepared to conquer.

Interested in specific details to put these steps into action, then download this sample timeline to get started.

Brian Rourke and Gretchen Sutliffe will both be speaking at our upcoming Audit World Conference & Expo in Las Vegas this November. Their session titled "Using COSO 2013 to Plan Internal Audit Projects," will detail a unique audit planning methodology, provide an overview of the 2013 COSO framework, and teach attendees how to create an audit program that addresses control design and operating effectiveness.