Seven ways to address common obstacles to internal projects

Law firm partners and leaders often come up against obstacles to the implementation of agreed strategic projects. Below are four of the issues which can quickly turn into obstacles and seven ways to address them.
Barriers to change

1. Multi-faceted change initiatives
Changing profit sharing is a classic example of a situation in which the issues of personal change and organisational change overlap. People tend to resist change most when personal change, organisational change and macro change – political, economic, social and technological change – are taking place at the same time and overlap.
If the system changes, partners will inevitably be concerned about the possible impact on them. Even if they are conceptually supportive in organisational terms, they may quickly become obstructive or silent objectors if they feel personally threatened. Thus, it is almost always easier to change compensation systems during a benign economic period or during a firm’s growth period, when the possible impact of some of the overlapping issues is at its lowest.

2. Partners burying themselves in client work
Law firms are people businesses, but this can also mean that the ability of the management team to get initiatives completed is constrained. In many firms, the movers and shakers quickly become apparent – those who can be always relied on to implement projects. However, this often results in a small number of partners always taking on more than their fair share of projects whilst other partners become disengaged with management.

3. Personality-based attitudes to change
Different personalities have different attitudes towards change – from those who love change to those who positively hate it. Many leading partners – and those who are very ambitious – are highly driven personalities who tend cheerfully to embrace the new and untested; there is little by way of change which they will seriously resist.
On the other hand, some law firm partners are highly analytical and lean towards perfectionism. They are used to dealing with facts, data, logic and details and are sometimes slow to make decisions because they want to be sure before taking action. As a result, they may appear cautious and risk averse.
Other more amiable and social partners may attach a lot of importance to the building of relationships in a stable and secure setting; they can become stressed or uncooperative if their comfort zones or relationships are threatened by impending change.

4. Evolving perceptions of new initiatives
Most projects require change and partners go through a cycle of emotional phases as they react to and attempt to handle anything new. The intensity and speed of the transition curve will vary between partners depending on their personal attitude to change, their position in the firm, their perception of the level of perceived threat presented to them and their level of confidence in their own ability to survive and prosper.

Gaining buy-in
The following seven implementation steps should be applied in any internal project to maintain project enthusiasm and avoid partner cynicism.
1. Understand and engage your partners, taking care to ensure their agreement and involvement and to allay any fears. It is helpful to identify how some partners might react in the face of new proposals, particularly if a major shift is envisaged.
2. Empower people and avoid heavy controls. A punitive and aggressive implementation process is more likely to generate an atmosphere of fear or cynicism than one of motivation and enthusiasm.
3. Focus on clear and measurable goals. Many plans are vague and unrealistic, with the result that discouragingly little progress is made, at the cost of morale and commitment. To avoid this, make sure the project plan is understood in some detail and that the milestones are carefully set and adhered to.
4. Avoid short-term thinking. This is usually exemplified by a focus on fees and hours and practically nothing else, to the detriment of long-term investment. The focus of any change programme should be oriented to the long-term health and strategic success of the firm. At the same time, if some shorter-term successes can be created, this helps to keep up the momentum of the change project.
5. Make sure you follow through. Lack of careful review can give the impression that the leaders do not take the project seriously.
6. Improve communication. Managers often fail to communicate adequately, consistently or even at all. It is vital to keep people informed and to stimulate enquiry at all stages.
7. Prioritise important projects. Managing partners can get bogged down in trivial administration and miss out on the important task of interacting with their people. Heads of department are often as bad; by spending a disproportionately large amount of time on client work, they succeed in losing precious management impetus and risk devaluing their management currency.

This article first appears in Managing Partner in June 2015 (Volume 17 Issue 19) and is reproduced with their permission