A blog by Joel Barolsky of Barolsky Advisors

Success = Ability + Stability + Agility

In Articles, Commentary on 23 March 2016 at 9:41 am

It’s remarkable how many professional service firms have flourished for years by focusing on just two things: [1] their technical and service ability, and [2] maintaining the firm’s cultural stability, including partner cohesion and retention.

In my 27+ years consulting to lawyers, accountants and other advisors, I’ve come across many successful firms with undifferentiated brands, poor management disciplines and ho hum business models. Super profits were generated merely by being technically sound and keeping things collegial. More or less, they succeeded by just showing up!

But no more…

A new string to the bow

coffee time , watch drawing on latte art coffee cupWith the pace of environmental change accelerating from snail to supercar, firms need to add a new string to their bow. Sustained success will require a combination of ability ability, stability and agility. To my mind, agility refers to three main capabilities, all done with pace and precision:

  1. Sensing – picking up relevant changes in the client and competitor arenas.
  2. Nous – identifying creative options and making good commercial choices.
  3. Adaptation – executing changes to meet new needs and realise new opportunities.


Are we risking it all?

The message around agility is not new.  The problem is that many practitioners hear this message, but implicitly reject it. In their minds, the call to be agile potentially contradicts the other two foundations of firm success, namely, ability and stability. Typical questions/objections: how can we innovate and be stable at the time? How do we self-disrupt and retain our cohesion? How can we proclaim expertise in things we’ve never done before? Why should we risk the very things that have enabled our success to date?

What to conserve. What to let go.

The key leadership challenge is dealing with this issue is to discern what what to conserve and what to let go. Firms need to have honest and intensive conversations around the things to protect, and the areas of change. The inherent contradictions and paradoxes of ability, stability and agility need to be explored and worked through. At the same time, leaders need to to be resolute that it’s an AND argument not an OR argument – the firm needs all three, not just one or the other. Without this level of introspection, innovation will just be a fad and will never become a core strategic capability.

Foundation questions

If you’re serious about competing in a fast-changing, intensely competitive environment, you need to ask how to become a firm that…

  • values stability AND agility?
  • values precedent and evidence AND is willing to try something new and unproven?
  • wants people to have the freedom to fail and to take risks AND ensures accountability?
  • wants to invest in long-term innovations AND delivers on short-term profit expectations?
  • is good at making AND buying (i.e. co-sourcing to add speed and capability)?
  • is systematic about making commercial decisions AND is super responsive to intrapreneurs?
  • frees people up to develop and execute new ideas AND rewards utilisation and monthly billings?
  • is good at high-tech AND high-touch?
  • is good at starting new projects AND stopping bad ones?
  • has the ability to listen and respond to clients AND the ability to offer new things not asked for or expected?
  • fosters partner collegiality and autonomy AND is willing to let go of sacred cows?
  • is prepared to develop and roll-out rapid solutions AND be committed to precision and error-free service?
  • has the confidence to be a leader in its field AND the humility to co-create with others.

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