Almost 70 percent of organizational change initiatives fail. At that rate, you might wonder why law firms – which are notoriously change resistant – would try at all. But they do. And some succeed by taking a more thoughtful approach right from the start.
Change can evoke pain, loss and uncertainty. All too often, change initiatives are communicated in a way that causes people to feel defensive, rather than inspired.
Perhaps it’s a matter of taxonomy; “transformation” or “evolution” might be better descriptions of the adjustments that many firms need to undertake to improve performance and profit.
Regardless of how your initiatives are labelled, Linda Ackerman Anderson and Dean Anderson, authors of The Change Leaders Roadmap, say that true breakthroughs require attention to three critical and interdependent areas:
- Content: clarifying what must change in your firm in terms of strategy, business structures, etc.
- People: understanding the human dynamics of resistance to change with respect to mindsets, firm culture, politics, motivational factors, skills training, etc.
- Process: how the change is governed, designed, paced and course-corrected.”
Most of us spend too much on focused on content and not enough on people or process, which sets good ideas up for failure (Anderson et. al., 2010).
It’s much less messy to plot out a flow chart of an improved staffing strategy or software implementation, than it is to engage people in conversations about adjusting attitudes and letting go of long-held beliefs.
All stakeholders should be involved in designing and implementing changes, albeit at different levels.
Don’t fool yourself into presenting your brilliant vision at a staff meeting and thinking that it will be meaningful to the people hearing it for the first time. They won’t execute a plan just because it looks good on paper.
Principles for a successful transformation:
- Create a disciplined process that checks assumptions and engages potential resisters right from the start so they can avoid the victim’s narrative of being cut out of the process.
- Bring in a cross section of associates, staff, administrative leaders, clients and others as you design your initiative. They might not have power within the traditional sense of firm politics, but they are on the front lines. They know things partners don’t know.
- Map out the consequences on your operating structure, systems and relationships. Create scenario models and validate them with the people who would be involved, adjusting your process according to their feedback.
- Create a compelling rationale that appeals to emotion and logic. If it doesn’t resonate with every individual from the mailroom to the managing partner, reframe it or reconsider it.
- Acknowledge anxiety. Your soothsayer powers are limited when it comes to determining how clients, regulators, courts and financial markets will evolve in the next year. People will be nervous about the future and mournful of the past, but they will also provide insight if you give them a chance.
- Walk the talk. Ask what you need to do in order to be seen as credible in your leadership of the initiative, even though the answer could be scary.
- Implement a strong communications plan. Change initiatives require leaders to receive at least as much as they transmit, to publicize successes and failures and to help people learn to make the most of the transformation.
- Re-examine incentives. Are you compensating people for taking smart risks acquiring skills and persevering, or are you compensating them for doing the same old thing?
Successful transformations ask people to think differently and behave differently. It isn’t enough to say that you’re open to change; you have to actually experiment with it and coach your team through the steps. There is no other way to prompt innovation. Done well, change initiatives can energize your firm and propel it forward. You might never look back, except to say “what took us so long?”.