Transitioning to the New Norm - Planning

A Plan for Planning

If there’s one thing 19 years of consulting, training and coaching in the legal sector has taught me – it’s that lawyers hate plans!

But some strange things have happened in the sector over the last few months, including the sudden appetite for lawyers to make plans.

I wrote in my first Insight blog of this mini-series;

“Partners and indeed firms who have previously had an allergic reaction to even the merest thought of a strategy and a written down plan have effectively been forced into upping their game”.

It's clear that the turbulence caused by Covid-19 has triggered a significant increase in planning at firm, team and individual level. For example, one of the most popular areas of my coaching and consulting work since March has been individual development plans for partners – not for moving firm or career development, just to document exactly what they’re doing and what they’re trying to achieve.

As well as being good for productivity and overall performance – at firm, team and individual levels – a plan can reduce anxiety and provide comfort, confidence, and direction.

In this blog, I will look at

  • what has happened in terms of strategy and planning
  • the ongoing challenge
  • the risk
  • what lawyers and law firms should be doing now
  • my top tips on how to make effective plans

And I’ll follow Rishi Sunak’s lead – he’s dispensed with his usual budget and instead is concentrating on the short-term. Likewise, given that most firms are doing the same I’ll focus on short-term planning rather than long-term strategy.

What has happened?

Here’s a common scenario at a Positively Legal training workshop on planning. We do a survey with the delegates either in advance or at the start of the workshop. Questions include

  1. Do you have a plan?
  2. If you answered Yes to 1, is it written down?

Usually, over 50% answer Yes to 1, but most respond No to 2. Among most groups of lawyers on average only around 1 out of 6 has a written down plan of any description. The frequency of written plans at firm and team level is higher but – again, most of the time but not always – still way short compared to other sectors like aviation, pharmaceuticals and engineering. Bear in mind also that there is of course a big difference between having a plan and actually implementing it!

Undoubtedly, Covid-19 has triggered an increase in the development and usage of plans in law firms, covering a multitude of areas, including, people, financials, IT and facilities, client relationships, service delivery, business development, etc. Currently, these are mostly short-term plans, focusing on tactics over the next few weeks or perhaps months, but lacking longer-term strategic vision and objectives.

Below is my analysis of what has happened since February / March in terms of planning in law firms.

pl-arrow


Having been consumed with the immediate and the short-term, some firms are now starting to look again at long-term strategy.

The planning challenge

“Implementation is the graveyard of strategy”.

How often does the following scenario happen? A series of strategy meetings, partners and business support involved, often off site, analysis work carried out, heated debates, strategy developed, a plan created and finalised, off to a pub or restaurant to celebrate the new, shiny strategic plan.

Then no-one looks at it until the day before the next strategy awayday.

The challenge is that as a more plan orientated culture has developed in the past few months, the focus on planning continues. Key to that is for plans to be seen as worthwhile. And key to that is for them to be constantly used, reviewed and updated – in other words, they become ‘living documents’. I give some advice on how to do this successfully in my top tips section below but it’s worth talking about the fundamental point here.

There is no right or wrong format for a plan. It can be in Word, Excel, Powerpoint, handwritten in fountain pen or felt tip. It can have bullets, tables, mind maps, paragraphs, infograms, whatever. It doesn’t matter what it looks like as long as it works for you. Usually the simpler the plan, the better it is – if it’s going to win Best Law Firm Plan Ever at an awards ceremony it’s actually unlikely to be practically useful!

The planning risk

As the New Norm evolves, lawyers revert to previously learned attitudes and habits. Crisis management goes, and with it focus. Plans are left on the shelf, tactical changes aren’t documented, and team engagement in planning becomes a distant memory.

Remember, this is the honeymoon period of the New Norm. We’re only seven months in.

So, what should law firms be doing now?

The key points are

  • continued focus on short-term planning
  • ensure everyone in the team has an individual plan
  • start to look to the long-term.

Here’s my recommended Plan for Planning for firms to adopt over the next 6 months.

What?

Who?

Action

Short-term plans

Whole firm and teams

Update or create short-term plans with objectives and tactics to take you through the next week/month/3 months. Use whichever time period suits the group best.

Ideally have aligned plans for all teams.

Review and update

(i) use as the business agenda at meetings
(ii) formal review at least quarterly, ideally weekly or monthly
(iii) combine with the long-term strategy when it has been developed, to create a strategic business plan including overall vision, objectives, and tactics.



What?

Who?

Action

Development plans

Individuals

Make sure everyone has an individual plan – this can include longer term objectives and short-term tactics. Some of these will be aligned with the firm/team plans, some may be individual career development objectives.

Review and update

(i) for the individual, as often as works for them to be effective
(ii) with line managers or peer partners, review and update short- term tactics as frequently as required, and long-term objectives 6 monthly.



What?

Who?

Action

Longterm strategy

Whole firm and teams

Update or create your long-term strategy (usually 3 or 5 years but 1 year may be right at the moment).

Ideally have aligned plans for all teams.

Review and update

(i) combine short-term plan and strategy to create a strategic business plan including overall vision, objectives, tactics
(ii) use as the business agenda at meetings
(iii) formal review usually annually but currently 6 monthly.


Individual engagement in the process is key. A big influence of how successfully firms come through this change period will be how the firm’s strategy, objectives and tactics make people feel.

Remember, the plans don’t have to be works of art. If they’re effective, they’re good.

Effective plans – top tips

An American ex-colleague of mine said to me early on in my in-house lawyer career “Murray, a checklist is merely a chronology of corporate mishaps”. Applying that to my experience of lawyers and their approach to planning, these are my top tips;

  • Format. Spend time on this. Adopting a template usually doesn’t work. If the plan is for a team, clearly their input to content is critical, but also get them involved in what they think the plan should actually look like. This improves usage of the plan – it stops the subconscious mindset that some lawyers have of “It’s a template with lime green bullet points and I don’t like lime green bullet points so I’m just going to ignore it and get on with my work”.
  • Length. Maximum 3 pages and if necessary use sub-plans e.g. a BD plan including client information. Make your plan too long and it won’t be used.
  • Words. Minimise them. Use bullets points, tables etc.
  • Objectives and tactics. Make them SMART - specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. Remember, they don’t need to be complex to be valuable (the objectives and tactics, not the lawyers!).
  • Accountability. Every tactic should have an allocated individual(s) with responsibility for successful completion.
  • Timescales. Include them in for every objective and tactic. Use specific dates - “by 8 December 2020” - not “3 months” because if it’s a difficult or unenjoyable task you may tell yourself you forgot what the starting date was, so you don’t know the target completion date, so you use that as an excuse to delay!
  • Critical Success Factors. Identify and incorporate them. A CSF is something which has to be done otherwise the project will fail. It helps focus, prioritise, and change behaviour to ensure the CSFs are met. For example, I have three for running Positively Legal – retain my health, my energy and enthusiasm, and my driving licence.
  • Business agenda. If the plan is for a team, use it as the agenda for meetings – or at least ensure that it’s referred to. Update as required.
  • Review. Decide how often the plan will be formally reviewed and incorporate that and the next review date in the plan.
  • Project manager. If it’s a team plan, appoint a project manager. The main aspects of the role should be to facilitate the smooth running of the project by organising project meetings, coordinating team activities, ensuring the plan is updated and reviewed. The PM shouldn’t be a partner – it’s not cost-effective and being a PM is good experience and career development for an Associate.

No guarantees, but if you adopt some or all of these you have a decent chance of creating a living document and achieving successful implementation!

What next?

I hope you’ve enjoyed this read and, more importantly, found it useful. My third Insight blog will look at the impact of Covid-19 on business development behaviours and how to get better at BD in the New Norm – there are plenty of opportunities to do so.

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