“The most important and visible outcropping of the action bias in the excellent companies is their willingness to try things out, to experiment. There is absolutely no magic in the experiment. It is simply a tiny completed action, a manageable test that helps you learn something, just as in high-school chemistry. But our experience has been that most big institutions have forgotten how to test and learn. They seem to prefer analysis and debate to trying something out, and they are paralyzed by fear of failure, however small.”
Tom Peters and Robert J Waterman Jnr, In Search of Excellence, pp.134-135
This still bugs me: the inability of legal practice to embrace change – whether that is organisational, systems, management, leadership, cross-functional excellence or constantly looking for a better or improved way of doing things.
But for me it is the people dimension where the biggest change needs to occur (perhaps that is the umbrella under which all of these issues sit). If those in charge truly believed that their people are the firm’s biggest asset, then for God’s sake start treating them like it.
But, equally, where your people are holding you back, you need to find ways of tackling the issue, and if that means spending money on (meaningful) training, or moving them internally or, as a last resort, agreeing that the firm is not for them, then do something NOW. Not tomorrow, not next week or even next month. Seize the moment. Stop procrastinating and making excuses. Of course, these are highly sensitive issues and no one wants to make a mistake and find themselves on the wrong end of a claim but if you don’t address it urgently, then you are merely storing up an even bigger problem for the future.
I also feel that many professionals are living their lives out in the heads and the real person lives somewhere else than in the office. They know what they need to do but either the system has worn them down to such a point that it is hardly worth bothering or ‘management’ has put so many obstacles in their way as to make the realisation of their mission or purpose practically impossible.
My vision: To see everyone single person in professional practice be the most of anything. To build a firm without barriers to human development. And to enable everyone to contribute to the success of the firm, no matter its size. Partners, members or directors however brilliant they are (or think they are) don’t have all the answers, and need to accept that the rules of the game have to change if the firm is going to prosper and/or survive.
And now to the ‘main’ point of the post.
Change and Change NOW
In Search of Excellence made Tom Peters, and he would be the first to admit it. But given its success and the 8 basic principles that were enunciated (as long ago as 1982), you would have thought professional practice, by now, would have worked out that change is not just an inevitable incident of running a business but, more importantly, a necessary component of success.
In the late Sir John-Harvey Jones’ book Making it Happen he devoted a full chapter to change (Chapter 5: “All Change”).
He said (and with which I fundamentally agree):
“Management is about change, and maintaining a high rate of change. There are special attributes required for this particular activity, yet there is also a natural, almost symbiotic kind of change, which can be maintained without paying particular attention to ‘change management’. This differs from organisation to organisation and from country to country, and in this respect the United Kingdom suffers from some unique problems.”
What he goes on to say is that because of our successes in the past – our industrial heritage – we have contempt for the new and a love of the old. This infuses our DNA and habits.
Sir John was, of course, an industrialist and, on first blush, it would be tempting to argue the semantics of one sector over another; but the fact remains that in far too many cases the lack of change has seen off one business after another. Call it adaptation, a lack of innovation, poor management or entrepreneurship, the fact remains that as a nation we only seem to recognise the need to change beyond the point where we can make a meaningful difference, often leading to disastrous consequences.
It is far better to change without the full exactitude of the market bearing down because in that way, much like the decision-making in our own lives, we can do so in an air of relative calm. It is far better for us to change before we are changed.
Change is not some ethereal concept. It is not something that lives out there but rather change has to start at an individual and personal level. There is no point thinking it is someone else’s job. You may have delegated some of the functions to a given group but that does not mean you can sit back and expect them to come up with all or any of the answers.
But hang fire. If my clarion call is for each and every person to embrace change then as I have alluded to, you are not going to give a fig if, having suggested something in the past, it has either been ignored or, even worse, been adopted by a certain (climbing the greasy pole) person as their idea. In other words you got no credit. I can understand why you might not be interested in tackling the issue again, but tackle it you must. If you give up on the system, then frankly you might as well just curl up, find a nice warm place and accept that your fate is firmly in the hands of someone else but don’t complain if you end up doing something you hate.
Of course, the ‘individual’ is not outwith the partnership. Indeed the biggest change is still to come from this cohort. And the reason they don’t change is because they will see that they have the most to lose. That might be OK for those that are nearing retirement but for a significant number who have only just started their partnership careers or have a size-able period still to run, please accept that by falling in with the old order way of doing things – which means not challenging the status quo – you are simply giving into that voice inside your head which convinces you that if you push it too far or hard, you might lose everything you have worked so hard to build. And yes up to a point I am with you … but where we part company is on one simple point: if you were looking at a profession that was not looking down the barrel of an ABS/Legal Services Act gun then you could get away with tinkering. Tinkering with the service offering; tinkering with the fees; and tinkering with the people development. But of course unless you are living in legal dream-land then before you can say “Bless my quill pen”, those competitors whose names we talk of in such hushed tones will have climbed all over ‘your’ so called clients and decimated your fees, profitability and firm structure. Hell you may not even have a job.
The thing is that a law firm, even a modest one, has such diverse interests that sometimes even if you wanted to change you can’t. Just getting a new policy through on billing is hard enough. Imagine what it might be like when you start talking about introducing tiered service levels, money back guarantees, an extranet so that each and every client can check on the stage of their matter and making sure that the right people are dealing with the work. You may even decide to look at more radical ideas for the firm but the truth of the matter is that you are going to meet resistance and in some cases a personality that is so immovable that you will either end up making an exception or you may end up, mistakenly, skirting round the person just so as to make your life easy. This is just a cop out. Sorry.
Change by itself is fine but, as I expressed yesterday, a vision is a critical component to the development of a firm and no more so at the stage of trying to inculcate change. The reason: you need to have a very clear picture of what the firm will look like when it is finally done with all this change. In other words, you need to envision a completely different business to the one that you are currently running.
In summary, change comes from within. It is not his job or their job. It is your job. In fact it is everyone’s job to accept that if you want to face up to the challenges of the next few years that you have to start now in changing the moribund culture.
If you are fed up being told all the time just how rubbish the profession is then your inclination might be to pray in aid the relatively healthy position of some firms but I believe that that would be folly. Just because some firms have shown good PEP doesn’t mean that they don’t need to embrace radical change.
Change isn’t about applying copycat strategies either. You have to be creative, embrace the technological revolution, build on the very best bits of the old (but don’t assume anything is sacred – there has to be a sound business case) and do some modelling on other sectors where change has happened. You only have to look at the speed of change in the mobile market to realise how rapidly some sectors move. And a number of those business are quite a bit larger than your firm. If they can do it then what’s holding you back? Nothing I would suggest except fear. But you need to weigh up which is the better option: dictate change or let it dictate to you? I know which camp I am in.