In our most recent post, we broke down the art of persuasion, and looked at the styles for change that you may be seeing within your firm. I should also add that there’s really a fourth style too, and that’s the belief that no change is necessary – I didn’t cover this in any depth, and won’t, because the group that believes no change is necessary is unlikely to change their minds any time soon, and it’s not worth the investment of your time to try to force them to. At some point, they’ll either retire, or self-select out, and you’ll be left with the remaining three categories, all of which you can successfully work with.

So what are some practical things you can do when implementing change? As you’re getting started, I heartily recommend doing some research for support – one of the books I read that gave me some great food for thought was Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization. I am naturally drawn to any book that helps me to identify ways to better engage my lawyers in the relationships that drive their business, so this was a perfect fit, and a smart read. There’s a lot to it, so I’ll encourage you to read the entire book and I won’t dive too deeply into it today, but there are two key principles I’d like to touch on for what will help bring about effective change in your firm.

Finding a Noble Cause

One of the things that the authors talk about is the idea of finding a “noble cause.” This is the state that you want to bring about in your organization or firm through your action, and it must be bigger than what any one person can do alone – it’s the “thing” that everyone can get excited and fired up about, so that regardless of how challenging change it, or when inevitable failures or roadblocks come up, you have this uniting cause that pushes you forward.

To get at this idea, you bring your “tribe” together and ask them – what is their highest aspiration for the tribe? And keep asking them “in service of what?” until you drill down to what you’ve identified as your noble cause. There are four questions you dig into along with this:

  • What’s working well?
  • What’s not working?
  • What can we do to make the things that aren’t working work?
  • Is there anything else?

This is clearly some uncomfortable work – and this is where the “how to” comes in for the Stockdale Paradox. If we’re serious about taking a look at the “brutal facts of reality,” then we need to dig deep and look at these things for our firms and organizations.

And yes, the idea of “tribes” and “noble causes” might sound a little bit silly to some of you. But consider for a moment the idea that you are building something bigger and stronger than just yourself with your firm. How do you unite with your colleagues in service of a common ideal? If you think that you’re already there, are you sure? Is it at least worth a check in with your partners, associates, and other professionals to ensure that you’re all working towards a common goal that you’re all enthusiastic about? It doesn’t have to be all pom poms and fireworks when you come into the office in the morning, but how about some quiet satisfaction that you’re in the right place, doing the right things, hand in hand with the right people? I know that’s what I want more of.

Once we have our noble cause (and it’s different for each firm/organization), what next?

Ask the Tough Questions

The authors of Tribal Leadership tell us that we have to ask ourselves some more tough questions (I know, so many tough questions).

  • What do we want? What is the outcome? What is the present state of success that is going to morph into an even bigger victory over time? This is really about goals, and you may have to think critically about exactly what those goals mean and look like – not in general terms, but in specific ones. When discussing what you believe these mean, don’t be afraid to talk about what you really want. You may be surprised to find out that what sounds like a “reach” goal for you is exactly what your colleagues are willing to work towards as well.
  • What do we have? What are our assets? What do we have a knack for doing better than anyone else – and this is a really tough question that is hiding as an easy one. It sounds like a brochure question, right? What’s our specialty?! But this is where we’re required to be rigorously honest – what do we really do better than anyone else? This isn’t about where one of your strongest rainmakers sits, or what the new lateral hire you just invested in practices – it’s about the true, key practices, service offerings, industry expertise, etc. that your firm offers. Bear in mind that to get at this information, you may have to ask outside stakeholders how they view this.

    Then, the tribe must answer “yes” to three critical questions. First up: (1) Do we have enough assets to accomplish the outcomes from the first point? This is another question where rigorous honesty comes in, because our tendency is to want to say yes. But we may get stuck here if it’s a no, and a no is okay to start with. If it’s a no, look at how we build our assets, including writing down all behaviors that will build the assets that are needed – these can be physical (office space), they can be people, they can be whatever you deem them to be (education, etc.).

  • What should we do to accomplish the outcomes? From the first two questions, you know what you want, and what you have (and it’s critical, says the authors, to have everything you need before you move onto this step). Now, you want to write down what the members of your tribe will do to be successful. This is what they WILL do, not what they are already doing – so unfortunately, my habit of writing things down on a list that I’m already doing, so that I can cross them off, will not come in handy. This is also where the next two critical questions come in:
    • (2) Do we have enough assets for these behaviors? What assets do we have that we haven’t identified yet? Is there a faster, cheaper way to get this done? This may be a place where innovation pops up – is there a technological or human solution that you can be using to do things differently than the way you’ve done them before? How can you be more efficient and effective?
  • These are some really hard questions, and I would anticipate that some firms would get hung up here (if not earlier). That’s why I think it’s critical to begin with Mark’s lessons on leadership, and understanding the various ways that people approach change, and how you can build consensus within your firms/organizations. If you’re a bit of a pragmatist, like I am, you want to wipe the slate clean overnight and start fresh with big sweeping changes. This can sound great, and be entirely impractical in practice. The greatest lesson I learned when I started in legal was that any big idea I had was going to take at least two years to happen, and I was going to have to filter it through to a few other people so that they either championed it, or believed they had come up with it. Change in legal takes time and requires monumental amounts of patience. If you understand that, you can be successful.
    • (3) Will these behaviors accomplish our outcomes? This is also a deceptively easy question, because it seems that of course the answer would be yes. But again, we have to look critically at the behaviors being suggested, the motives behind them, and whether or not they will really contribute to the overall goals and outcomes. And sometimes, when the answer is no, there will be some challenging follow up that is required by leaders, which will ultimately make your firm successful but may cause some sleepless nights in the short-term. This is why it’s essential to start with the noble cause FIRST, so that you return again and again to that idea every time you falter when needing to make the difficult decisions.

Much of the above hinges on a critical factor, and that’s having the right people in place – as we mentioned in the beginning, some will self-select out over time. Your tribe will be small to begin and will grow over time. Your noble cause will help you to recruit the right people as you need to grow, and will show you who may no longer serve your needs. But there will (may) be a lot of growing pains. I’d love to get your thoughts on diving into this hard work of addressing the different approaches to change in your organizations, how to find a noble and uniting cause, and then asking these tough questions.