Refining your portfolio of management projects can require difficult choices

This article first appeared in Managing Partner Magazine Volume 15 Issue 6 in March 2013 and is reproduced with their permission

The majority of law firm leaders want to be liked and to pursue strategic objectives which are popular and engaging. The danger however is that in trying to please everybody, the managing artner ends up with an overly broad set of strategies and initiatives that lack enough focus in any one area to have a good chance of implementation success. By trying to run multiple strategies to satisfy all constituents, the firm ends up both with a batch of uncompleted or half-finished projects and a handful of only moderately well executed initiatives. What differentiates the best from the mediocre in terms of project execution is the discipline of linking the firm’s overall strategy with a tailored (and not too large) portfolio of projects and initiatives which directs the scarce investment resources of time and money to the firm’s strategic development and towards the fulfilment of its strategic intent. I suggest three essential steps in order to help firms decide what to do and what not to do.

Distinguishing between the three types of management projects

The first step is to obtain clarity over the various types of management projects under consideration. Management projects fall into three basic types– operational, improvement and transformational – and it is important to differentiate between them. Operational projects are those which relate to the day to day running of the firm and which the firm needs continually to execute in order just to stand still. Improvement projects are concerned with the progression of the firm towards being better in terms of service, the achievement of financial hygiene and the attainment of best practice in people and general management. Transformational projects are truly strategic in that they are aimed at taking the firm to the next level in terms of beating competitors, qualitative growth and the firm’s strategic positioning – all the elements of a firm’s plans that enables it to achieve its strategic intent (identity, purpose and vision).

Operational and Improvement Projects are clearly vital and may at times require tough decisions, heavy investment and concerted effort. The business case, however, is often straight-forward and the projects themselves often form core parts of the day jobs of the managing partnership and the senior management team. It has to be recognised, nevertheless, that such projects are often difficult to implement as they may require the leadership to grapple with emotive issues of underperformance. Transformational projects are less easy to prioritise and justify (particularly in terms of investment cost) to anxious, negative or change-averse partners. These definitely form areas where partners can be difficult to please. Differentiating between project types can however help a firm to distinguish between urgency and importance.

Making the hard choices between Projects

The second step requires projects to be prioritised. Longer term transformational projects will be needed to support an ambitious firm’s overall strategic intent to become one of a small group of dominant firms geographically, sectorally or in terms of its service portfolio. The choice of such projects may imply some exciting investments but often also may involve difficult and unpopular consequential decisions to discard unprofitable or irrelevant teams, partners, clients or work types as the firm seeks upgrade its brand and to replace and rebuild its resources and capabilities. As the famous saying goes “what got you here may not get you there.”
A logical and business-like approach can help to take the emotion out of the debate. Just over two years ago I wrote an article called “Juggling Priorities” for Managing Partner (December2010/January 2011) which examined the effective prioritisation and implementation of strategic initiatives. In it, I suggested that strategic initiatives should be tested and prioritised against four criteria – how well the project supports the firm’s strategy (strategic alignment) , an assessment of the expected outcomes and results (strategic benefit), the implications in terms of time and money to bring the project to success (resources), and the firm’s overall ability to deliver success (capabilities).

The Importance of Engagement

The final step is to gain commitment to the choice of projects. Using the four prioritisation tests both rigorously and with well-considered metrics can often help to attain what has been described as project engagement. As Mark Morgan, Raymond Levitt and William Malek put it “Engagement directs the scarce resources of time, money, equipment and attention to the right mix of projects and programs…….Engagement is the central imperative of strategic execution. To state the imperative another way: get your investment governance right, choose the right projects, and endow the projects with the resources they need to be done right”. Successful engagement requires engaging with partner and stakeholders to understand their specific needs as well as their fears, uncertainties and doubts. Perhaps more importantly, it provides a further reality check on the practicality and achievability of the firm’s strategic intent.