A methodical and practical approach to convert dreams into reality and aspirations into action
Most professionals – lawyers, accountants, doctors and academics – are invariably quick to pick up and understand concepts. As intellectual workers, we are trained to reason, to analyse, to diagnose, and to create solutions. Transferring concept to action, however is less easy particularly for lawyers totally subsumed in their legal work. Strategic and business planning can accordingly become an abstract piece of work, the perfect and glossy documentation of which may well end up filed in a drawer never again to see the light of day.
There are three main obstacles to successful implementation of aspirational ideas.
Obstacle 1. Unrealistic Dreams
The first is that because concepts are relatively easy to formulate, it is tempting to create dreams and aspirations that are impossible to fulfil. To aspire to be the leading firm in the world or in your locality may be a worthy aspiration but unless the firm has the necessary strengths and potential to realise it, a lesser but more pragmatic aspiration may make more sense.
Obstacle 2. Feeble Excuses
The second problem is the oft-cited excuse that partners are too busy. I have lost count of the number of times in the last twenty-five years that partners have used that excuse to me as a reason for failing to take agreed actions. Sometimes, but by no means always, the excuse is borne out by a bulging book of business and high levels or utilisation, but more often the excuse appears insubstantial
Obstacle 3. Grasping the need for personal action
The third obstacle is that many lawyers fail to grasp that implementing strategy requires them to take on projects, change behaviours and – almost always – to work harder or at least more effectively. In other words, most lawyers are happy to plan strategy as long as it does not materially affect them adversely. What is more, some lawyers only consider themselves accountable for their legal work, and for revenue producing activities. Non-chargeable activities often then take a back seat.
The Three Principles to convert concepts into action
Turning concepts into action hence requires a methodical and practical approach that converts dreams into reality and aspirations into actions. Assuming that the firm has an appropriate governance and decision-making structure, there are three principal foundations on which successful execution can be constructed in any professional services firm regardless of size, culture and background
Principal 1. Resource Planning
Whether a firm is expanding, opening offices, reorganising its practice groups, overhauling its compensation structure or merely trying to improve, it needs an honest and realistic assessment of its internal financial, intellectual and people resources to achieve success. This is not just to act as a reality check on unrealistic aspirations but to understand the possibly huge or disruptive implications of the firm’s plans. The biggest issue often is time – or the lack of it. The investment cost of course needs to be carefully budgeted. It also sometimes helps for individuals – from the leadership team down to the most junior people – to create a time and effort budget for their part in the implementation process. This can then be assessed as part of the opportunity cost for the plan.
Principal 2. Project Management
The most successful way of turning ideas into reality is to frame each concept into a project plan that has a scope, a project plan, measurable objectives, timeline and budget. When firms review or renew their strategic plans, they often find that they can reduce the plan to four or five discrete initiatives or projects some of which may be internally focussed but, importantly, several of which are externally directed. Choosing a project leader with time and energy is an important element in this and proper resource planning will hopefully enable an appropriate budget to be set. Project planning techniques and tools will help to keep the project team on task and accountable.
Principal 3. Personal Contribution Plans
When the partners or senior members of a firm indulge in aspirational and visionary planning processes, they often fail to ask themselves the question “how is this likely to affect me?” No worthy plan can be executed without individual pain and effort. Blood sweat and tears may not be needed, but the ability to embrace change is an almost invariable accompaniment to strategic planning. I have often pointed out the necessity of having clear lines of sight between the organisation’s overall strategic plan and the day-to-day work of the firm’s people. Concepts need to get close up and personal in order to transform ideas into reality. Effective implementation requires all members of the firm to have compelling convictions – preferably expressed in writing – about their roles in the firm’s future and their contribution to the firm’s future success. Personal Business Plans or Personal Contribution Plans can help to achieve this
Culture, leadership styles and performance management regimes will of course all vary a lot between firms. There are of course many ways to persuade, cajole or even force people to move or to take action but the three principles that I have adduced should be invariable in all professional firms regardless of sector.
This article first appeared in Managing Partner Magazine Volume 17 Issue 2 for October 2014 and is reproduced with their kind permission