A blog by Joel Barolsky of Barolsky Advisors

Five steps to becoming a more agile firm

In Articles, Commentary on 31 August 2016 at 1:37 pm

Most professional service firms have woken up to the reality that if you’re changing slower than your competitive environment you’re going backwards. So the next question is, how do we change, or better still, how do we change faster?

This post offers a simple step-by-step guide to address this question.

Step 1: Choose your firm’s innovation approach and risk appetite

There are four broad options for consideration:

  1. Pioneer – seek to create a first-mover advantage by inventing new things of value.
  2. Fast follower – seek to adopt emerging ideas that appear to be working and allow others to bear the risk of failure.
  3. Sync with majority – seek to be part of the majority of firms that adopt new ideas when there is a clear and compelling case to do so.
  4. Laggard – seek to adopt new ideas when the opportunity cost of retaining the status quo becomes unbearable.


It is important recognise that in the absence of an active choice, the Laggard option is the default position for most professional service firm partnerships. There are many well-documented reasons for this, but perhaps the most compelling is that most of these firms have cash-hungry shareholders unwilling to invest meaningfully in long-term R&D.

Step 2: Choose the type of innovation

Many firms tend to think of innovation as the invention of new products or services. This is just one of many types of innovation available along a firm’s value chain. A really useful typology has been put forward by Larry Keely and others in their book: 10 Types of Innovation:

For professional firms, the only thing I’d add to the Keeley model is “Pricing, risk and value” in the Offering (yellow-shaded) section. This will include innovating on pricing structures, risk and reward sharing models, and value creation/ communication/ demonstration.

Step 3: Choose the focus of innovation

Adopting new information and communications technology (ICT) is often thought of as the primary way to innovate. There are countless examples of ICT being used to offer something new, to improve service or take-out cost, eg. smartphone apps, online stores, workflow tools, document assembly software, cognitive technologies, e-discovery, client portals, etc.

Before leaping head first into high-tech solutions, it’s important to recognise there are two other options available:

  • High-touch. This type of innovation involves changing the way you recruit, induct, train, develop, career manage, lead and motivate your people. It does not necessarily involve new software or hardware, but rather novel ways of getting your top talent to stay and perform to their full potential.  A recent example of this is Grant Thornton Australia and Gadens who now offer all their staff 6-months paid parental leave.
  • High-design. This type of innovation involves addressing the underlying client problem by making a change in the process or approach. A famous illustration of this, is the case of the engineers who were asked to quote on upgrading the lifts in an old building after a string of complaints from tenants. The engineers offered two solutions: a multi-million dollar lift upgrade or a $1K solution that involved placing mirrors in each foyer to distract waiting tenants. The client opted for the second solution and complaints dropped off markedly. In reviewing the list of recentAustralian legal innovation award winners, many of the examples relate to co-designing or co-creating solutions with clients.

Firms seeking to innovate their client service experience might wish to think of a combined high-tech, high-touch and high-design solution, the combination making it truly distinctive and difficult to emulate.

Step 4: Calibrate the degree of change and align expectations

It’s important that firms calibrate the degree of change and align outcome expectations with all stakeholders. This involves agreeing where on this continuum are you seeking to play: from incremental tactical small-scale changes, through to large-scale transformational interventions that come with much bigger risks and returns. Creating alignment on this point is extremely important so as to ensure you under-promise and over-deliver.

Step 5: Choose innovation projects or process or both

The fifth step is to agree whether your firm will be focused on a series of discrete innovation projects, or to try to develop an innovation culture that will pervade everything the firm does? Most firms try do both simultaneously, but I observe that many professional service firms tend to do better when they start with a projects focus, get some early wins, and then extend their effort into adapting the firm’s culture.

A project-based approach can be more co-ordinated and discerning. For example, this method allowed one leading Australian law firm to create an internal competition for great ideas with a panel of experts deciding which ones to fund. The problem with a centralised approach is that it’s often biased towards big ideas rather than incremental improvements. Another issue is that a number of staff with great ideas might be intimidated by entering a tank full of sharks.

Adopting a culture-focus often means the innovation effort is decentralised and relatively uncoordinated. This bottom-up approach can free up everyone to be enterprising and yield a major benefit from diversity. It can also mean nothing actually happens because everyone’s so busy trying to meet their utilisation targets there’s no time nor incentive to try do anything different. It can also result in duplication and a waste of resources on well-intentioned, but strategically sub-standard ideas.

A subsequent post will explore the levers that firms can pull to accelerate their progress on the innovation culture journey.

In conclusion

Taking the five steps together, you might elect to become a Pioneer (#1), innovating around the client experience dimensions (#2), seeking a combination of high-tech, high-touch and high-design solutions (#3), open to transformational changes (#4), through a series of carefully selected projects (#5).

Or you might just remain a Laggard…


Photo source: dreamstime

Five lessons from five years going solo

In Articles, Commentary on 1 June 2016 at 6:03 am

On 31 May 2011, I left Beaton Research & Consulting and a day later Barolsky Advisors Pty Ltd started trading. The next day I flew to Newcastle to facilitate a strategy workshop for a consulting engineering client. Business has been brisk ever since.

So what have I learned from five years going solo?

Lesson #1: Leave well

coffee beansI started working with George Beaton in 1990 when I first joined the Melbourne Business School as a case study writer. After five years as a part-time contractor, I became a full-time Beaton employee based in George’s home-office in Armadale.

George was a fantastic mentor and coach. I learned the craft of consulting primarily from him and for that I’m eternally grateful.

Leaving Beaton on good terms meant I could get a running start in my own business. Clients felt comfortable and I could start marketing my practice with a clean conscience.

Lesson #2: Growth can take many forms

“So, when are you hiring?”, is one of the questions I get asked frequently. I made a decision early on not to grow in size, but to grow in stature. I’m well aware that one can make a lot more money though leverage, but the stress of managing people and constantly feeding a hungry team was something I preferred to live without.  Partnering with specialist consultants and contracting super smart Melbourne Uni students fills most gaps.

Building a consulting business independent of personal brands is extremely difficult. Barolsky Advisors will cease trading when I decide to do something different. There will be no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Lesson #3: A touch of chutzpah never hurts

Chutzpah is when a man kills both his parents and begs the court for mercy because he’s an orphan. It has both positive (i.e. confidence/nerve) and negative (i.e. cocky/arrogant) connotations, but as a freelance consultant you need a bit of it.

Last year I approached Sue-Ella Prodonovich to assess her interest in co-presenting a public seminar focused on practical BD for lawyers. Sue-Ella in some ways is a direct competitor. She works as a strategy and BD advisor to professional service firms and we share many clients and contacts.

In March 2016, we ran Practice Reboot in Melbourne and Sydney, and based on its success we will be doing it again in September and extending the locations to Brisbane and Auckland. Approaching her took a bit of cheek, but hey, nothing ventured nothing gained.

Lesson #4: Abundance trumps scarcity  

Most of my social media connections know that I curate content daily and blog my own material monthly*. Since starting, I have had over 22,000 views of my blog posts, and thousands more of curated material.

The major benefits of blogging and curating are:

  • Staying top-of-mind amongst clients and prospects,
  • Facilitating sales prospecting and conversion,
  • Developing fresh ideas and refining my thinking through feedback, and
  • Keeping abreast of current trends and research.

There is little doubt that having an abundance mindset has paid off handsomely. The true value of content is in its application and execution.

Lesson #5: Transform fear into fire

In 2012, a very large consulting assignment with Leighton Contractors ended unexpectedly when my main client contact left to become a CEO of another organisation. This left a huge void and a very thin pipeline. The risk of business failure was high at the time but, with the support of my wife Tonia, I was able to transform this fear into positive thinking and energy. Three months later I was back on my feet.

Only around 5% of my business is annuity work. I have to prospect and sell roughly 95% of my annual target. Part of selling is recognising that you win some and lose some. My fear and loathing for losing is a powerful motivator. I use it every day to light the fire in my belly.

In conclusion

The fifth anniversary of Barolsky Advisors will pass without a huge staff party. I felt the need to commemorate this milestone in an manner consistent with other significant experiences – write a blog post about it!

A huge thank you to all my clients, contacts and friends for your support and endless encouragement over the past five years. Apologies to all those victims of my chutzpah. I promise not to kill you and then claim on by business continuity insurance.

* I blog on Relationship Capital and mirror the posts on LinkedIn’s Pulse.


To coincide with Barolsky Advisors’ fifth birthday, we’re proud to announce the launch of a new public seminar called, MBA IN A DAY. The seminar has been designed for mid-career lawyers to learn more about business and deepen their understanding of clients. Click here for more information.

Note: Barolsky Advisors is now located at Suite 6, Level 3, 350 Collins Street, Melbourne, VIC 3000, Australia. Other contact details remain the same: mobile +61 417 305 880 and email joel.barolsky@barolskyadvisors.com

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