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In praise of quick fixes (and sticking plaster)

Sometimes it is better for legal teams to apply quick fixes to service delivery problems than defaulting to deep-dive analysis first and then proposing a range of more elegant (and expensive) solutions later.

I think this is common sense.  Others may disagree, saying this is equivalent to applying sticking plaster for a quick fix.

Perhaps, but what is wrong with sticking plaster?  Used in the right context, applying the equivalent of sticking plaster is a valid approach to take.

In this post I will explain my reservations about always defaulting to deep-dive analysis.

I don’t dismiss analysis completely but I prefer to keep it quick and light, especially during short on-site training workshops (often people paying for short course training ask for help with solving some of their problems too).

I also set-out steps for helping legal service delivery teams solve problems and implement changes quickly.  A light process, if you like, for the correct application of sticking plaster!


The underlying challenge: being able to change

I think the underlying challenge legal service delivery teams face is not so much about fixing specific problems.  It is more about being able and willing to implement change.

In our personal lives most of us are quite happy to make changes, mostly small and sometimes big.  In our professional lives however we often approach change with caution and in extreme cases try and avoid it completely.

Applying even a small dose of legal project management requires legal service delivery teams to change the way they work in some way.

The key thing for me therefore is to get people to start to change.

Hence the main focus should be on getting the team to change some aspect of the way they work, even via a quick fix, and then being prepared to build on that.


Why detailed analysis is not always appropriate

It is easy to become absorbed in a very detailed analysis exercise.  It is intellectually satisfying, especially when on paper the problems are identified and neat solutions proposed.

For consultants deep dive analysis can also provide a commercial safety net: ‘only when the root problem has been found can we be confident of supplying potential solutions’.

Unfortunately over analysing problems can sometimes make them, and their potential solutions, appear more complex than they need be.

After a problem, or series of problems, have been diagnosed as complex the usual next step is to propose a change project to fix the problems identified by the deep dive analysis.

Any change project is a daunting undertaking, regardless of the organisation and its level of project maturity.  Front line legal service delivery teams in law firms and in-house legal departments have relatively low levels of project maturity compared to other sectors.  This means that implementing change can be especially challenging in the legal services sector, not least because most legal service delivery organisations tend not have a ‘change machine‘ for driving and implementing change.

For busy legal teams, perhaps struggling to cope with their day to day work, proposing a significant change project is likely to be used as another excuse not to change at all (‘we just don’t have the time for all this’).

This not in anyone’s interest because the essential thing is to get the team to feel comfortable about making some changes to existing practice.


Applying sticking plaster?

As noted earlier some may contend that not doing lots of root cause analysis and taking at face value problems identified by the team is likely to lead to a short-term solution, akin to applying sticking plaster.

Well, what’s wrong with sticking plaster?

Sticking plaster does a good job of stopping surface bleeding and protecting minor sores.  No-one would suggest trying to cure a very serious illness or disease with sticking plaster, but as an emergency treatment for surface scratches and bleeding, sticking plaster is fine.

Some legal service delivery teams may have the equivalent of a very serious illness.  The fact is that most don’t.  Most are usually already quite successful, but they are hurting in some way and they know it.

It may be that client feedback is telling them that their communications, matter scoping or risk management needs to be improved.  Whatever it is, they know they are hurting and their immediate need is a quick fix.


Improvement does not necessarily require serious surgery

Of course there is scope for improving the performance of every legal service delivery team, just as there is for all teams everywhere.

Improving performance does not necessarily require the equivalent of complex surgery.

Applying some quick fixes for pressing issues can be a great start toward improved performance, especially when followed up by team training to become more skilled and more effective at what they do.


Respecting the team

Another reservation I have about defaulting to deep dive analysis is that its tantamount to saying the team is always incapable of identifying some issues which are important to them and their clients.

Legal service delivery teams are made up of intelligent, talented and enthusiastic professionals.  They have daily experience of the problems they are facing.

So why not accept what they are saying and use the issues they have identified as a starting point for change?


Applying sticking plaster requires a process

When you think about it, even applying sticking plaster requires that you follow a process.  You must clean the sore, perhaps apply some ointment and, most importantly, make sure you apply the sticking plaster in the right spot.

The equivalent of applying sticking plaster to a legal service problem also requires a process.

I said at the outset of this post that I do not dismiss analysis completely. The problem analysis should be light, quick and enjoyable (yes, you read that last item right).  A little bit of thought beforehand should enable you to run design led project meetings which are fun and where real work gets done.


How to start fixing issues and making changes

I would suggest the following steps:

  1. Facilitate a short brainstorming meeting where everyone on the team are encouraged to recognize, articulate and own the problems identified. Having a senior lawyer saying that the team has a problem with X is not enough.  The reason is that successful change can’t be imposed from above.
  2. As part of the facilitation exercise, get the teams to rank the problems in order of priority. I usually do this by getting people to do dot voting.
  3. The most important point: at this stage, just focus on the number one problem. Park the rest for now.  Avoid the temptation to fix and change too much, because otherwise you run the risk of introducing too much complexity.  Keep it simple.
  4. Once everyone in the team has agreed what the most pressing problem is, they then need to agree about what needs to change to try and solve it (via facilitation again).
  5. Some specific change actions should be proposed and agreed by everyone on the team. These actions are what the team must commit to doing in order to fix the most pressing problem they have identified.  They should be relatively simple actions, capable of being broken down into even simpler discrete steps.  These steps are the change behaviours.  As far as possible, make each step easy to do.
  6. The team should then agree upon some criteria to measure the progress of the change(s) agreed. There are two types of criteria here:
    1. to measure the extent to which the change steps outlined above are being followed.
    2. to measure the effect of the change(s) on the team and, most importantly on their clients.
  7. Once you have your change criteria, track results over time. Assign someone with responsibility to keep track of the change criteria and report regularly to senior stakeholders about whether the change steps are being followed and whether they are translating into commercial effectiveness.


Quick fixes?

You may think the steps outlined above are quite complicated and can hardly be described as setting out a road-map for applying quick fixes.

Please rest assured.  In practice this is less complicated than it appears.  I have just set out the steps in some detail for you.

In summary what is required is to work with the team to:

  1. Identify the most pressing problem the team is faced with
  2. Agree actions which are likely to resolve the problem
  3. Monitor and report on the actions taken over time.

In my next post I will explain how further change can be promoted and sustained.

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