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Some small steps towards implementing legal project management (and which improve productivity along the way)

People who work in law firm knowledge management, business development and operational delivery sometimes say to me that they can see how Legal Project Management (LPM) would benefit their firm, but they have yet to convince the firm’s partners to give LPM a try.  They ask: ‘what can I do to convince people so we can start an LPM initiative?’

The conventional answer

The conventional answer, and one that I confess to providing in this blog before, is to write-up a short business case outlining the need for an LPM pilot project; then run the pilot project successfully which should turn sceptics into fans.

Unfortunately this is sometimes easier said than done.  Suffice to say that even with a partner or perhaps a very senior manager or director championing the cause, there is no guarantee of success. The realisation of this alone is enough to put many people off trying.

Show and tell

Rather than try to convince people of the benefits a project based approach can bring, why not show them?  You can start with a small project that you own.  Practically everyone, especially those in a managerial position, will have a project of some kind running (even if they do not ‘do’ project management).

For present purposes, it does not matter what the project is.  It just needs to be something which has a discrete number of steps.  It does not even need a definite final delivery date, nor does it need a project team.  It could just be you with a project made up of a number of discrete tasks.

Outward facing project tools

Most important is to select a project methodology which works and is capable of delivering results for you.

To further the longer term goal (ie, perhaps establishing an LPM pilot project) a methodology is required which can get people talking and start to inspire a more pronounced ‘project mind-set’ in the organisation.

So the methodology needs to be highly visible and immediately understandable.  People need to ‘get it’ instantly.  It also needs to be a cheap, practical demonstration of what it means to ‘do’ project management.

It needs to be something you can apply quickly as an illustrative example of project based thinking, without the need for a business case.  Hence any additional resources required will need to be minimal.

Post-it notes, a pen and some wall-space

The above is all you need.  Here is how you use them.

  1. Get some post-it notes
  2. On each note, write down a stage or discrete task of your project
  3. On a wall or board of some kind (ideally a whiteboard is best), create three columns, left to right as you look at the board with the headings: ‘To do’, ‘In progress’ and ‘Done’.
  4. Now place your project tasks written on the post-it notes in the ‘To do’ column, in sequential order, starting with the first task and ending with the last.
  5. As you start to do a task, move it to the ‘In progress’ column.
  6. When you finish a task, move it to the next column on the right, the ‘Done’ column.

Congratulations. You have just created, and perhaps even started to work with, a Kanban board.

Kanban Boards

Kanban boards are visual representations of process and project flows.  They are most often associated with Lean and Agile project practices. I have seen them work well in Agile software development environments.

Kanban is really a production scheduling system, where work is moved through each stage of a production process. Kanban boards are are especially useful for highlighting and identifying where production blockages or slowdowns occur.  They can be applied successfully in many contexts, ranging from personal productivity to managing small-ish projects and project teams.

The boards can contain richer information than the simple outline suggested above.  For example, you could assign people to tasks with completion dates (all written on the post-it notes), have different coloured post-it notes for different kinds of tasks and, most importantly, have an independent assessor – a project sponsor – sign-off each task as being ‘done’ and therefore placed in the final column.  You could also add more columns if you wanted to, such as ‘in testing’ or ‘on hold’.  The possibilities are endless.

Go with the flow

Now I should point out that many people well versed in Lean and Agile thinking may expect to see a discussion of the ‘value stream’, ‘product backlog’, ‘work capacity’, ‘pull systems’ and perhaps much else besides here.  These concepts are indeed useful, particularly to people with some experience of process improvement and project based delivery systems.

However I am not going to discuss these now, for several reasons.  I think lots of people in law firms are put off from considering process improvement and project management techniques by the terminology used.  People often end up feeling these methods and techniques could be terribly complex to understand and apply.  Non-lawyers must get much the same feeling when lawyers start talking in legal jargon.  I plead guilty here twice over, as I am both a lawyer and project manager.  I am sure I have used my fair share of jargon over the years so apologies to those who have had to listen to it or read through it!

Kanban boards are so intuitive most people can grasp their purpose quickly.  The aim of this post is to help promote more project based thinking.  So, in every sense, shall we just go with the flow?

A talking point

Kanban boards are visual.  They get noticed. Often people outside the project team will see a board and ask ‘what’s going on?’, ‘what are you doing?’.  It’s always great to be able to explain a project, especially one that is going well.  So be sure to enjoy this part when people ask you about your board.

The odds are that people outside the project team will come away wondering if they can apply the same technique to one of their projects.  Of course they can.  Moreover, you can show them how and help get them started.

Often it follows that people begin to wonder whether there is anything else they can do ‘with all this project management stuff’ to help them and their colleagues become more organised, efficient and productive.

As regular readers of this blog will know, there are indeed lots of things lawyers and related professionals can do to achieve these aims.  In some law firms, the biggest hurdle to overcome is the very first one: how to make a start?  I’d suggest for many this question might best be answered by a Kanban board.

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