A blog by Joel Barolsky of Barolsky Advisors

Posts Tagged ‘growth’

From pyramids to rockets to ecosystems

In Articles, Commentary on 19 October 2017 at 8:36 am

The pyramid has been the foundation operating model in professional services for the past century. Put simply, a typical pyramid has a partner at the top, one or two senior practitioners below him or her, and then four or five juniors below them. These ratios obviously vary from practice to practice. Leverage of the mid and lower levels of the pyramid is currently the profit engine of most professional firms.

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More recently there has been much talk of the pyramid losing its bottom left and right corners and becoming a rocket. In this model, there are far fewer juniors and their work will now be done by a combination of technology and lower-paid process workers. The rocket is being driven by powerful clients demanding that services be ‘disaggregated’ (using Susskind’s term), that is, highly-trained practitioners doing advisory and judgement tasks and technology and para-professionals doing process activities.

In my view, the rocket is not the destination but merely a stepping-stone. The rocket model doesn’t really take into consideration the growth of client co-creation and client involvement in the delivery of services. It largely ignores the role of third-party software vendors, freelancers and experts in adding value to the firm’s offering. And lastly, it underplays the potential impact of HR, IT, BD and Pricing functions.

Take this recent case study for example. In August 2017, Allens-Linklaters won the highly-coveted ILTA Innovative Project of the Year award for its Real Estate Due Diligence App (REDDA). Allens’ Chief Legal Technology Officer, Beth Patterson, stated that REDDA was “the result of a collaboration between partners, real estate lawyers, technologists, project managers and business analysts at Allens, client representatives and artificial intelligence provider Neota Logic.”

This case study illustrates a future with a delivery model where a partner or project leader will configure up to six different types of resources, in the form of an ecosystem, to address a client’s need or solve a problem (see diagram above).

A cup of latte is pictured at a cafe in Sydney

Source: vocative.com

It’s important to distinguish this ecosystem model from a multi-disciplinary offering. The latter involves multiple professional services or technical disciplines working together. The former is focused on one service line, such as legal, integrating multiple resources, both people and technology and both firm and client, to provide the most cost-effective solution.

Even if I’m half right, there are profound implications of moving to the ecosystem model for firm strategy, culture and operations. Almost everything is likely to be impacted, most especially the firm’s basic economic model and profit engines. It will also profoundly change recruitment and development, measurement and reward, pricing and firm governance.

How ready is your firm for this kind of future?

The State of the Legal Market

In Articles, Commentary on 27 September 2017 at 4:26 pm

This is my conclusion, as lead author, to the 2017 Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor Melbourne Law School report on the state of the Australian legal market…

Screen Shot 2017-09-27 at 4.18.55 pmOver the past 30 years, larger law firms in Australia have had to make only two major strategic decisions: [1] whether to become a national firm and how, and [2] whether to become an international firm and how?

They now have to make a third.

The 2017 Peer Monitor data leaves little doubt that technology is changing the practice and business of law and that firms need a clear and coherent strategic response. Firms might decide to be pioneers investing in lawtech start-ups, teaching their lawyers how to code and experimenting with new cognitive technologies. Other firms might prefer to keep their powder dry and wait to see what works, which platforms take hold, and what their clients prefer. Either way, an active choice needs to be made. Each comes with their own risks and opportunities.

A key challenge in investing in a new way is that the current core business is still very successful. The 2017 Peer Monitor data suggests that despite a flat market overall, a fair number of firms are still making healthy profits. The challenge comes in balancing the old with the new.

One way for firms to address this balance is to think about strategy as two parallel streams: one being Exploit and the other Explore (based on the work of O’Reilly and Tushman). Exploit refers to efforts to leverage current strengths and capabilities to make the current core business as good as it can be. Explore refers to new exploratory and experimentation efforts that will hopefully bear fruit in the future.

One approach is to make the whole firm ambidextrous, that is, change the firm’s culture so that everyone embraces Explore AND Exploit in their everyday work and client interactions. An alternative approach is to keep the Explore and Exploit far from each other and avoid cross-contamination. In this instance, Exploit is the cash cow and hires the suits, and Explore is a cash burner and hires the black skivvies. A third approach is to try to do both.

 

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Source: academiedecafedemontreal.com

In an environment of rapid change and hyper-competition, every firm needs a healthy portfolio of both Exploit and Explore initiatives. A genuine commitment to Explore will most likely mean substantial changes to the firm’s dividend policy and capital structure. Firm governance and structural arrangements are also likely to be impacted, as will marketing, pricing, IT, operations and HR.

The role of managing partners is to lead the thinking around these issues and prepare the firm for its third really big strategic decision.

10 questions for your PLAN B

In Commentary on 1 June 2017 at 8:04 am
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Source: CoffeeStencil

MY 50th BLOG POST…

What’s your firm’s PLAN B?

PLAN B addresses the scenario of your firm primarily selling talent, to selling a combination of talent, technology and data. It means moving from the pyramid to the rocket business model (read this BCG report if you don’t know I’m talking about). It’s about the digitisation of professional practice.

These 10 questions may be helpful in crafting your PLAN B:

#1 How big do we need to get?

Economies of scale have not traditionally been a key success factor in talent-heavy professional services. One shining example of this is Wachtel Lipton Rosen & Katz, which is one of the world’s most successful law firms despite being a relatively small single-office partnership.

With the addition of technology and data to the mix, there may be specific advantages that larger firms may have over smaller rivals, including…

  • deeper pockets, that is, the ability to wear the risks of technology-related R&D, software and start-up acquisitions;
  • bigger footprints, that is, the ability to deploy new technology in more relationships and in more markets; and
  • more data, that is, the ability to develop better analysis, insights and products.

Small may be more nimble and cosy, but if you can’t afford the new bright shiny toys clients might stop playing with you.

#2 What’s our dividend policy?

Be they partnerships or incorporated entities, many traditional professional service firms tend to do more handing-out than hoarding when it comes to profits.

The “cash burn” phase of new technology acquisition is generally much longer than that of new talent. It took Amazon over 20 years to turn a profit. Firms need to re-align their dividend policy and balance sheets to suit their business models. Without patient capital, firms won’t be able to invest in or acquire the new tools necessary to compete.

#3 How do we (re)structure ourselves?

The rocket model raises a range of interesting organisational design issues:

  • Do we keep the suits and skivvies separate or together?
  • How do we structurally protect the core traditional business, while we invest in creating the new?
  • Is there a structural solution to the problem of improving the digital literacy and experience of everyone in the firm?
  • Do we structure our new firm primarily around practices, processes, products or technologies?
  • Do we separate sales from delivery?
  • How far do we locate the laboratory from the surgery?

#4 Who can become a partner in our firm?

Most firms see “multi-disciplinary” as adding more work types or professional disciplines. With the onset of the rocket model, this definition might need to widen to include designers, technologists, project managers, marketers and sales engineers. It is interesting to note that Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) recently appointed the head of their ALT business as an HSF partner.

#5 What do we measure?

David Maister’s profit formula (Leverage X Hourly Rate X Utilisation X Margin) has been the foundation of measurement (and therefore reward), practice management and pricing for the past four decades. The key assumption in this model is that the core asset being leverage is human capital. With new tech-based assets and products, firms will need to radically transform what and how they measure things. To illustrate, if a firm sells compliance systems and AI tools via a subscription model, tracking staff utilisation will not only be meaningless, but dangerous.

#6 How do we price?

Time-based pricing will be less prevalent in a talent + data + technology world. New pricing models will be required to set, communicate and capture value. This will include things like user license fees, subscriptions and incentivised retainers. What constitutes a “fair price” will become more complex, and need to factor in development costs and risks, IP fungibility, the scale and scope of application, and duration of benefit.

#7 Who are we competing with?

In 1960, Ted Levitt published a brilliant HBR article called Marketing Myopia. He cited the example of US railway companies going out of business because they defined themselves as competing in the railway rather than in the transport industry. In a world, where the client solution includes a combination of talent + technology + data, your biggest competitor may not be the lookalike firm three floors up, but rather the software vendor who is using your firm to iron out bugs before attempting global domination going directly to your clients.

#8 Which clients do we say ‘no’ to?

There is a general trend towards more co-created integrated solutions between firms and their clients. In this environment, firms may be forced to choose target clients, not on size, scope or sector, but rather on systems sophistication and complementarity. One could imagine a very progressive firm not being able to service clients who were technology laggards. Platforms and standards could equally determine relative client attractiveness.

#9 How do we adapt our talent pipeline?

The pyramid model creates a “tournament” where a large group of aspirants start at the bottom and are encouraged to beat their peers on the way up. The rocket model potentially changes the game with far fewer recruited at the bottom and a philosophy of retention rather than competition. It also challenges the apprenticeship system of learning and development.

On the plus-side, the rocket model opens up a number of new career pathways and facilitates a more diverse talent pool.

At more senior levels, the prerequisites for partner promotion might need to shift to include digital literacy, project management and solution integration. Partners need to be able to supervise people who are not like them. They also need to be able to align clients’ needs with the firm’s full talent + technology + data offering and be confident in selling it.

#10 What kind of culture do we want to become?

Many professional service firms have technical excellence as the dominant cultural norm. In the end, it’s scarce specialist knowledge, advice and skill that clients are willing to pay for. In changing the business model, firms need to question the kind of culture they’d like to become and what constitutes “cultural fit”. The new culture could be anchored around things like…

  • the client experience,
  • the client relationship,
  • navigating change,
  • digital literacy,
  • experimentation/innovation,
  • collaboration, or
  • operational excellence.

Your next strategy workshop

Rather than focussing on reviewing or tweaking PLAN A in your next strategy workshop, run an “alternative futures” session and flesh-out your PLAN B. As stewards of the firm, you owe it to your partners to have thought through these possible futures and your contingency plans. An expert independent facilitator would add considerably to the discussion. Call +61 417 305 880 to speak to one.

Are your practice groups primed to win?

In Articles, Commentary on 26 April 2017 at 8:23 am

If each of your practice groups is primed to win, then there’s a pretty good chance your firm will win as well.

With this in mind, there’s much benefit to be derived by assessing all of your practice groups on two dimensions:

  • A winning strategy – from strong to weak, and
  • Execution capability – from strong to weak.

 

Illustration of portfolio map – not real data

 

If most of your practice groups are in the weak-weak quadrant, perhaps it’s time to take that call from the headhunter. If all the groups are strong-strong, don’t change a thing! If you have a mix of everything, it’s time to get to work…

A winning strategy

There is a range of factors to take into consideration to assess whether a practice group has a winning strategy for the next three years:

  • Does the practice have clear aspirations to win? Is there a stretch intent?
  • Are they competing in sizeable, growing and profitable market segments?
  • Does the practice have a compelling value proposition, that is, clear reasons why clients should choose them over others?
  • Does the practice have a profitable and sustainable business model? Bonus points if the model is scalable.
  • Is there a Plan B if non-traditional competitors strengthen?
  • Are there pilots and experiments in place creating options for future growth?
  • Is there a clear implementation roadmap with accountabilities, measures and timing?
  • Is it clear what they say ‘no’ to, and why?

Execution capability

On paper, the practice group might have a world-beating strategy but it may not have the skills, resources and systems to implement it.

a cup of coffee on the wood table.cafe latte with tulip latte art pattern on the wooden background.

Source: fotolia

The first, and most important, the question is whether you have the right practice group leader. Is she a true leader or merely a convenor? Does she lead or just manage? While she might seek to lead, does she have loyal followers? Does she have the ability to inspire and support team members to be their best? Is she strong enough to stand up to the recalcitrants?

Other questions to ask around execution capability:

  • Is the team a real team or just a loose coalition of colleagues?
  • Does the team generally follow-through on their commitments?
  • Does the team own its strategy and take accountability for it?
  • Does the team have the right talent necessary to win, now and in three years time?
  • Does the group have access to the right technology, processes and systems to underpin its business model?
  • Is there sufficient open-mindedness to adapt to new inventions and work methods?
  • Are there mechanisms in place to regularly review progress and tweak their plans?

The portfolio

While it’s important to assess the competitiveness of each practice, there’s also a lot of value in assessing the inter-dependencies, synergies and gaps across the portfolio. Another portfolio overlay is the amount of partner equity allocated to each group and expected ROE (return on equity).

A review of the portfolio should indicate which practices require investment, divestment or just be maintained. Handling the politics of these decisions is a topic for another post, or three.

In conclusion

While a firm is more than just the sum of its parts, the parts play a critical role in sustaining success. Your firm’s strategy needs to reflect firm-wide themes like overall market positioning, culture, brand, strategic clients, talent, R&D, infrastructure and support. It also needs to deep dive into the practice portfolio, making sure each plays its part and leverages the strengths of the whole.

Firm purpose. Seven options.

In Articles, Commentary on 5 April 2017 at 12:45 pm

I’d highly recommend Jordan Furlong‘s new book, “Law is a Buyer’s Market – Building a Client-First Law Firm”.

Furlong argues that firms should answer ‘the why?’ question with a statement around creating client success. He states that this approach is congruent with the pursuit of professionalism and will enable the firm to withstand the challenges of increased competition and rapid technology change. Furlong suggests that firms adopt a client-centric purpose statement, something like, “our firm exists to serve the interests of clients in our chosen markets by addressing their legal challenges and opportunities so that those clients can achieve their objectives”.

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Source: fotolia

Last weekend I had the opportunity to road-test Furlong’s recommendations in a client strategy workshop. It became clear quite early on in the workshop that while there was strong resonance with a client-centric purpose, it didn’t tell the full story for this firm. They felt that defining purpose solely on clients risked making them client-compelled in areas like pricing and write-offs, and, interestingly, less likely to innovate. They cited numerous examples of innovative ideas that didn’t come directly from clients expressing their needs, but rather from an intrinsic desire to do better than competitors.

To help things along, I presented SEVEN related, yet distinct, purpose statement option:

  1. Client-centric: our firm exists to make our clients more successful.
  2. Business-centric: our firm exists to maximise returns to shareholders.
  3. People-centric: our firm exists for our partners and staff to practise their craft, earn the respect of their clients and peers, and make a good living. In short, the firm is about fun, fame and fortune.
  4. Community-centric: our firm exists to add value to the communities we serve.
  5. Benefit-centric: our firm exists to reduce and manage risk.
  6. Quality-centric: our firm exists to make all other firms look second-rate.
  7. Innovation-centric: our firm exists to set precedent, break new ground and pioneer new products and processes.

I’m happy to report that we came up with a hybrid version that everyone was very excited about. Sorry, I can’t share it here in this post.

Which one of these options, or combination, best describes YOUR firm’s purpose?

Is 2017 the year the fat smoker quits?

In Articles, Commentary on 19 December 2016 at 12:38 am

Eleven years ago David Maister published a brilliant article on the barriers to strategic change in professional service firms. In Strategy and the Fat Smoker, he stated…

Much of what professional firms do in the name of strategic planning is a complete waste of time, no more effective than individuals making New Year’s resolutions (to lose weight or give up smoking).

David argued that most firms were far too successful to seriously consider any radical shifts in strategy. He stated that unless partners faced imminent existentialist threats, equivalent to cancer or a heart attack, they were just going to pay lip-service to a strategy that involved any sort of change.

Much of what I’ve read and experienced as a strategy advisor affirms David’s proposition. But is 2017 going to be the year the fat smoker quits?

Early signs

Over the past six months I have been involved in a significant strategy project in a 100+ partner law firm. One thing that has struck me about this project compared to many others, is the degree of partner engagement in the process. They’ve all turned up. What’s more they all turned up with their their phones turned off. They’ve all seriously tackled the questions of where they will play, how they will win and what change is needed. It’s still a bit early to see if they will execute on their plans, but the early signs are positive.

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Source: Shutterstock

In undertaking the research for the 2016 Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor Melbourne Law School report, I counted more than 25 case studies of established Australian BigLaw firms launching new services, business models or joint venturing. Each one of these changes would have had to pass through a vote of partners. This points to a resolve to innovate AND, more importantly, the ability to follow-through.

The typical resistors to change are very well document, but I think there are three factors that might make 2017 the year of slimmer, healthier professionals.

#1 Transformed leaders

“Company transformations accelerate when a critical mass of leaders transform themselves… Insight is the first step. Choice is the second step. Practice is the third step.” Carolyn Aiken

It’s a big call, but I think many of Australia’s professional service leaders have begun to transform themselves. They are going through the personal change journey of rejection and denial, through to acceptance and commitment. Many have seen the writing on the wall, challenged their beliefs and sought to reinvented themselves. This has in turn has led them down the path of changing the people around them and crafting a new strategy and culture for their firms. With a stronger guiding leadership coalition, firms themselves are in a much better position to embrace change.

The evidence for my transformed leader assertion is not definitive. It’s based largely on the tone and content of discussions at recent conferences, retreats, panels, media comments and blogs. The dialogue at this fabulous Chris Merritt-hosted panel is a clear case in point.

#2 Hip pocket

The 2016 Peer Monitor report indicates lower overall profit per equity partner due, in part, to declining client demand, increased discounting and rising expenses. The data also suggests a wider variation between top- and bottom-earning firms.

For many partners, there is increased pressure to justify their equity status and share of profits. Even a small drop in earnings or a delay in distribution payments, signals the reversal of a long-term trend of growth and abundance. The misfortunes of KWM in Europe have also raised more than a few eyebrows. The hip pocket is now in play, even though at this stage it’s more symbolic than catastrophic.

#3 Client pressure

Leadership guru, Simon Sinek, has a very simple but compelling message: start with why! His view is that success comes from finding an authentic purpose for the firm. The answer to the “why” question in most professional firms is about helping clients succeed, that is, saving clients money, reducing their risk, solving their problems and realising their opportunities sooner. The voice of the client is a big deal in many professional firms. How clients think and feel is a key catalyst for change.

With a shift to a buyers market, more and more clients are speaking their mind and voicing their pains and gains. Many more are asking for their professional advisors to share risk and justify their fees. While this client pressure is not a new phenomenon, 2017 will seek a continuation of this trend and force many professionals to adapt to new models of service and pricing.

In conclusion

The pace of change is only likely to increase in the years ahead. While many commentators paint a picture of doom and gloom, I have a more optimistic view and see clear signs of firms remaking themselves. There are forces at play softening the ground for fundamental and sustainable change. Yes, there will still be laggards, but as Maister concludes…

If we are prepared to rethink how we view strategy and business life, then people can achieve things they never thought possible. If I can become a fit, nonsmoking exerciser, there’s truly no limit!

Postscript

Thank you all my clients, referrers, collaborators and friends for a fantastic 2016. It’s been the best year yet in the life of Barolsky Advisors P/L.  I hope you have a safe and rejuvenating holiday season and a prosperous 2017.

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