Project Implementation: Start with a good pilot for a better chance of reaching your destination.

I can think of several instances where it would have been really beneficial for a law firm to run a pilot project, but it just never happened.  I always thought that not committing to a pilot was a great pity.  An awful lot can be learned from pilot projects when run properly.  So what gets in the way of pilot projects and how can the obstacles be overcome?

Two of the most common obstacles are the fear of failure and fear of wasting people’s time. The culture of most law firms is still rooted in viewing ‘time as money’.  In reality, time-only pricing and billing is becoming increasingly out-dated and there must surely be relatively few firms now that price and bill wholly and exclusively by time taken to do the work.  Nevertheless the cultural aspects of billing according to time spent still pervades throughout a lot of law firm activity, with one consequence being that proposing anything which may involve lawyers in non (or reduced) chargeable time activities is challenging (to put it mildly).  Added to which professional support staff sometimes seem reluctant to propose pilot projects in case the projects are considered ‘failures’ and therefore reflect badly on them.

The purpose of a pilot project should be to test the practical feasibility of an idea, with minimal disruption to the organisation as a whole.  The mind-set should not be ‘pass’ or ‘fail’, but rather ‘test, review and recommend’.  The recommendation at the end of the pilot may well be not to proceed any further in light of the evidence: the point is there should be no such thing as ‘failure’, only ‘feedback’. Good feedback provides a solid platform on which to base decisions.

Pilot projects need not, indeed should not, become a waste of fee earners’ time.  Part of the risk assessment and management process (see below) should be focused on ensuring minimal disruption to business as usual while the pilot project runs. The most obvious way of achieving this is to make sure the pilot project is performed by a small group of fee earners and perhaps referencing a sub-set of their files when running the pilot processes. This way if a pilot project adversely impacts on fee earner work then, worst case, for a short period of time some fee earners may be a little less productive than usual.  There should also be potential for them becoming more productive during the pilot, with the likelihood of increased productivity being replicated throughout the firm if the process being piloted is implemented more widely. In short, a pilot project is a calculated risk which may involve some short-term business disruption, but the risk can be minimized and the calculation should be that the process, if implemented fully, could result in improved productivity and profitability.

A pilot project does not materialise out of thin air.  If preparatory work is done properly, then all those concerned, especially the firm’s senior partners and management, will understand the need for the pilot and support it.  The best way to garner such support is to document why the pilot is required and have this proposal document signed-off by the relevant people in authority.  The pilot proposal document need only be short, say 2-3 pages long, and refer to factors such as:

  • Identification of a business problem which needs to be solved.
  • An outline of the potential solution to the problem identified above.
  • An explanation about where the solution fits strategically in the firm’s business development plan.
  • A summary of benefits to the organisation should the proposed solution work effectively.
  • A pilot project outline, made up of:
    • Resource Identification
    • Timeline
    • Project Milestones – with particular reference to the pilot end date and pilot project review.
    • Project Risks
    • Summary Statement  – explaining the purpose of the pilot, which I’d suggest should begin with something like ‘to test that…’ or ‘to investigate the potential for..’
    • Assessment Criteria – I’d also suggest putting in some KPI’s or benchmark indices to help assess the pilot.  Think in terms of SMART KPI’s, those which are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound.

Of course it is possible to have proposal documents much more detailed than that outlined above but overly detailed documentation, often accompanied by a stifling bureaucratic approach to the approval process, can act as a real dampener on project initiatives.  Processes and projects which are light yet sufficiently rigorous can go a long way to promoting innovation and dynamism in all organisations, not just law firms.  Isn’t this what we all want?  Happy piloting!

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