How Tolstoy understood Tax Technology projects


“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
– Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)

Recently we were asked to deliver a workshop to a group of senior VAT function personnel from a diverse set of large corporations. The prearranged title was –

5 secrets of success for automating tax determination

Over the next 2.5 hours the discussion was lively, illuminating, informative and worthwhile, but we could not help feeling that some delegates left not completely satisfied. They did not receive a definitive bullet-point list of 5 secrets that, if followed resolutely, would guarantee success in their Tax Technology projects. Is such a list even possible?

A stalwart of Tax Technology conferences is for companies, often with their consultants by their side, to share the experiences of their project with the wider audience. In the past decade in Europe there have been hundreds of such presentations. Each was completely valid, but even if it was possible to attend every one and take detailed notes, it is doubtful that a comprehensive list of actions could be put together that would guarantee success. Of course there were commonalities, but each also had its own critical factors or activities that led to success that in combination made each story unique.

Using families as a proxy for Tax Technology projects, the implication from the opening sentence in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, is that there are as many reasons for less successful Tax Technology projects as there are such projects in existence. This has a ring of truth about it. It’s never one thing that goes wrong, or even ten things; good solutions die by 1,000 cuts. Similarly, Tolstoy implies that successful projects all look alike, including those without much risk in the first place. This also rings true. As a wizened old project manager once said, “good solution, last a long time”.

If Tolstoy is correct, this has significant implications for the way you approach a global Tax determination project. If there is no prescriptive route to success then this bolsters the importance of having highly relevant experience within your project team. In addition, even your most skilled and experienced person(s) must be willing to listen and adjust, as by Tolstoy’s definition they can never know it all. It will also matter how those skills are deployed; and there are other implications, but these are beyond the scope of this short article (see below).

Next, we will show our propensity for contradiction by providing a list of exactly 5 secrets. However, as just discussed, they cannot be prescriptive and therefore lack detail, but they can serve as guidelines and starting points for astute practitioners and project governance:

  1. Put communication first in all aspects and at every level amongst stakeholders and project members
  2. Think of the solution in terms of the entire end-to-end VAT function and not just one piece at a time
  3. Put the business before the technology – the technology is important but ultimately it must serve the business, not the other way around
  4. Put the solution design before the project methodology – methodologies can provide a great framework, but no matter how sophisticated, can never deliver a great solution by itself
  5. Assume nothing – front-load your project, document comprehensively but with meaningful essentialness, test everything.

If this list leaves you feeling unfulfilled like some of the delegates, we urge you to think again. The industry around global indirect Tax automation has progressed significantly.  Provided the offerings available in the marketplace are leveraged appropriately, highly visible and successful projects are achievable.  Please join our blog at, where we lead an independent discussion on these matters as one step along the way towards the effective digital transformation of the Tax function at major corporations.

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