Falling in Love Again

Business success requires evolution, and that means new strategic and marketing programs. This can be difficult to roll out in firms at the best of times – but it’s almost impossible when the first attempt was a failure.

Professional services organizations exist for the delivery of a service to clients and a living to professionals.   As the availability of work or expertise needed are not givens, service organizations must constantly adjust and evolve in order to position themselves to continue to practice.  And to maintain good service providers, they need to show there is hope for improving the financial circumstances of those professionals.  This requires that firms aim to make a profit each year while keeping up with the increasing cost of living.  And as this suggests that status quo won’t cut it.  So firms must constantly search for a better way to manage themselves, and serve their clients.  And that means embracing change.

Professionals such as lawyers and accountants are creatures of habit. They like facts, experience, protocols, and evidence.  They like doing things the same way they’ve successfully done them before.  They don’t like change.  But they are prepared to stomach it when proven to be necessary or at least strongly advantageous.

This tolerance end s abruptly after an attempt at change falters. The originating concept for the change will be forever marked with a big black X.  Been there, done that, didn’t like it much, let’s not go there EVER again.  Attempting to convince such professionals to try the process again (although better this time) is like trying to convince a broken hearted teenager that they will ever fall in love again.

Professionals – and in my experience, especially lawyers – have incredibly long and emotional memories.   They don’t like failure, and they don’t give many second chances.  Strategic planning is a great example of ghosts past because consultants of yesteryear charged (and received) fortunes for creating documents that purported to lead the way for firms to be far better managed and far more profitable.   So when, a year later, nothing much had changed in those firms, partners tend to throw out the baby with the bathwater and declare the original objective unnecessary.

This is an unfortunate habit that is understandable, but does not serve partnerships well. Whether the original need was for a strategic plan, a client service program, a practice team management process or an alternative work structure, a bad process does not reflect on the ultimate value of building and implementing those processes well.  Firms owe it to their partnership to separate bad past experiences from the valuing process, and give good business evolution strategies another try.

Here are some things to consider when contemplating a restart of an attempted change management tool. Ideally you would work on these five points before attempting to sell the concept to your partnership – they’ve going to need to see rationale for trying again, reasons for why it didn’t work last time, and a plan for ensuring it works better this time around:

  1. Be clear on the purpose: concepts with wishy washy objectives result in wishy washy plans. “We want to have a better sense of where we’re going” should be upgraded to “we want a five year strategic plan that enables us to plan our revenue targets, target client base, legal talent, support structure, technology investment and logistics to support the attainment of those goals from now to then”.   Rather than saying “we want to improve our client service”, try “We want to develop and implement a client service program that proves our brand at every proof point, helps to guide our practice management and marketing decisions, and demonstrates value to our clients through work expansion”.
  2. Be clear on the document creation process: What is the time line for this project?  What will be the outcome (a document, a presentation, a list?)  Who will participate in the creation of this document? What will be the steps of the project?  Have a game plan that all agree will be sufficient to get you to where you need to go.
  3. Do all of the appropriate due diligence first: What internal v. what external research needs to be collected and analysed?  Who within the firm will be interviewed?  What historical information from the firm will be considered?  If the process occurred before and was unsuccessful, what was the challenge with that process and how will you do things differently this time?
  4. Ensure you can implement: Too often, programs falter because the implementation component has been ignored or improperly developed.  It is unrealistic to expect lawyers to carve off 50 potentially billable hours for non-billable implementation.  It is inappropriate to have partners take on implementation roles that are not within their core competency.  If the firm has a mentoring issue, it makes no sense to engage the people who have not been mentoring, or who have been mentoring poorly, to oversee such a program yet that happens all the time.  Be honest about the value and appropriate of bringing in outside expertise to help implement what the firm has determined is a worthy and important objective. You might not be able to provide a full implementation plan until you see the results of your program development.  But show that you’ve thought about it, and suggest the kind of support the firm may need to be prepared to put in place to ensure that whatever you build on paper can realistically be constructed in real life.
  5. Build accountability into your implementation plan: Professionals will always pick billable work over non-billable work.  This frequently causes delays or rushed work on important non billable program implementation.  If your professionals have to contribute to aspects of your implementation plan, then make their contribution realistic (not a burden), and keep them on track by creating regular reporting periods. Most professionals are type a personalities.  If they have to report to their partners on the accomplishment of certain tasks, they’ll ensure they are ready to report.  Make accountability public, and regular.  I like quarterly reporting periods: frequent enough to ensure things stay on track, but not so frequent as to appear micro-managing.

Good business ideas don’t automatically translate into good business processes, but that doesn’t mean the idea is bad – just the prior execution. To help professionals overcome the bad taste in their mouth from their last experience with the business concept you want to propose, build a business case to remind them of the importance of the project, explain to them what went wrong last time, and show them how this new process will be much better.  And remember: people really do want to fall in love again.  They just need a friendly push to help them get there.