A blog by Joel Barolsky of Barolsky Advisors

Posts Tagged ‘Workshop facilitation’

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.

Butcher butcher’s paper

In Articles, Commentary on 27 May 2016 at 9:29 am

One of my most popular posts covered my top 20 workshop facilitation tips and secrets. I have Tip #21 and thought you might find it of interest.

During strategy and planning workshops it is quite common to organise breakout groups and assign them a specific problem or opportunity to explore. The convention is to ask a nominated group spokesperson to write up key points on butchers paper and report back to the wider group.

If you forget to pick up the meat on the way to the workshop, Google Docs provides a great alternative, and it works like this…

Level 1

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Create a Google doc or slide and send the link to the group’s nominated (tablet or laptop with wifi) scribe. As the discussion progresses the notes are automatically saved and displayed on the facilitator’s computer. As a facilitator you can keep track of each group’s progress and focus your attention on those groups that are struggling or off-topic. When it comes time to report back, the only thing needed is to project the document. It’s really easy to add additional comments and suggestions from the wider group to the live document. At the end, all the discussion is documented and there’s no need for post-workshop write-up. And no butcher’s paper.

Level 2

An extension of this technique is to give two or three breakout groups the same topic with the same link. In this instance they’re all working independently but collaboratively on the same thing. With the ground rule of no deletions of others’ content, competitive instincts over take over and the outcome is a snowball of good ideas that become great ideas.

One could do this exercise with a very large group as well. Say you have 120 participants in 15 tables of 8 people. One could allocate three topics to clusters of 5 tables. The report back would just involve three relatively short presentations on the collaborative documents.

Level 3

In some instances it is logistically too expensive to get all the key people you need in the same room at the same time. One can run a similar Google doc workshop with teams in multiple locations and linked via video. It requires a bit of set-up and you need a skilled facilitator, but in my experience, the benefits far outweigh the costs of the alternatives.

In conclusion

Google docs is virtually free and offers a myriad of ways to transform strategy and planning workshops. Start experimenting today and let me know how you go.

Key takeouts from major new legal market report

In Articles, Commentary on 28 August 2015 at 10:14 am

I’m proud to be lead author of the Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor report on the Australian legal market, prepared in collaboration with the Melbourne Law School. The report received good coverage in the Friday 28 August edition of the Australian Financial Review.

In summary, the report reveals that the Australian legal market bears all the hallmarks of a mature industry: declining demand, increased price-based competition, worktype decomposition, entry of market disruptors, technology substitution, and growth in both consolidators and niche players.  While market conditions are tough, they’re not calamitous. The larger firms generally have shrinking profit pools but have kept their heavy-hitters happy by de-equisiting other partners and cutting headcount. The contention that a firm cannot cut their way to greatness probably doesn’t hold true if one looks at how the larger firms have performed in recent years. However, the point when cutting comprises the underlying business model of scale, range and reach cannot be far off.

Coffee art AUIn my view, the biggest structural change in the market has not been NewLaw entrants or even globalisation, it has been the dramatic shift of work in-house and an increase in buyer power and sophistication. This trend has been prevalent in Australia for over a decade but its impact is really being felt in a benign economy and a demoralised political environment.

Some specific takeouts

  • While the long-term trend is negative, the last quarter of F15 saw an increase in demand and the first half of 2015 saw firms rehiring lawyers. It would be great to predict a bottoming out of the market and upside from here on end, but it’s foolish to pick a trend from one data point.
  • It’s been Christmas all year for firms with strong property and construction and M&A practices. It’s been Good Friday all year for firms with big banking and finance practices.
  • In the global versus local scrap, it appears the domestic firms are winning in litigation, IP and general corporate, with the globals making headway in property and M&A. It begs the question whether a global brand puts a firm at a disadvantage in targeting work perceived as domestic or jurisdiction-specific?
  • The data suggests that the firms that have gone down the global route have had a greater drop off in demand but have increased profits per equity partner. Perhaps it is these firms that have had more radical changes in their equity partner ranks and downsizing some practices.
  • In these tough times it appears that technology is the biggest investment area of the larger firms. In other sectors of the economy facing maturity, marketing and BD expenditure tends to increase relative to other areas. The signs are that law firms are banking on technology to make step-change improvements in efficiency and effectiveness.
  • The headhunters and recruitment firms supplying the legal market are popping champagne corks. Expenditure increased over 10% in this area in 2015 versus 2014.

Image sourced from www.theaureview.com

Advancing the retreat

In Articles, Commentary on 21 January 2015 at 8:12 am

Planning to run a partners retreat, off-site or conference later this year? As a facilitator of many retreats I thought you might find these five design principles helpful in crafting your 2015 agenda.

#1 Open Eyes

The retreat needs to go beyond the regular monthly performance update. It should open partner eyes to the true strategic health of the firm – the good, the bad and the ugly. The aim should be to tell the truth in a constructive and considered way. A glossy state of the nation address serves no one’s interests.

As a practical example of this, I was recently engaged to interview 10 clients, 10 competitors and 5 consultants to provide a fresh independent perspective on how a particular firm was positioned to meet the challenges of the Australian legal market. This strategy health check yielded a rich discussion on the firm’s distinctive strengths as well as one or two blind spots.

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#2 Open Minds

Many professionals are trained sceptics. This scepticism, coupled with stellar career success, leads to very conservative thinking and behaviour – what’s worked in the past will be the foundation of success into the future. This mindset is dangerous in a rapidly changing, intensely competitive environment.

Some of the best retreats I’ve been at have included “light-bulb” presentations from outsiders opening partner minds to fresh perspectives and methods. These outsiders have included, in descending order of impact, leaders of successful peer firms, key clients, heavy hitters from industry, respected alumni, market commentators, researchers and content experts.

Another approach I’ve seen work really well is to run live “what-if” simulations. The firm’s P&L is presented and then a series of scenarios presented to demonstrate the long-term impact on partner income. The discussion then opens up and what-if questions are then simulated and the results revealed in real time. This is partly firm economics 101 in disguise, but also it’s a really useful way to show the long-term impact of things like margin erosion, cost containment, staff engagement and strategic investments or divestments.

#3 Open Hearts

“Building relationships with colleagues”, often tops the best things list in post-retreat feedback. As firms grow in both size and footprint it gets harder for partners to partner. They simply do not know their colleagues, what they’re like as people, what they’re really good at and how they might add value to clients.

Structuring (but not over-structuring) social time and activity is critical. It amazes me how often firms will book retreats at expensive resorts with glorious recreational facilities and then spend 95% of the time in meeting rooms observing other guests enjoying them.

#4 Open Questions

Retreats are often good opportunities to work on the business and solicit partner views as owners and stewards of the firm. One constructive way to address this is to ask a few carefully crafted open questions and to structure a debate around these dilemmas. For example, “Australian patent firm Spruson & Ferguson IPO’ed late in 2014 and now has a market cap over $570 million. Should we do the same?” 

These open question sessions can be set up with a presentation of relevant background data and commentary. The key is to let the discussion be open and unstructured while at the same time keeping it insightful, strategic and relevant.

#5 Open Doors

Almost every retreat I’ve attended starts out by welcoming new partners – both internal appointments and lateral hires. Other than a cursory mention of their name not much else is done to truly open the door to those joining the club. I think this is a missed opportunity to get fresh perspectives on the firm and to avoid group think.

One firm I know asks all their lateral hires to do a short presentation comparing their old firm to the new on five dimensions: culture, governance, pricing, work practices and strategy. This is really helpful in three ways: profiling competitors, benchmarking and showcasing their new partners.

In conclusion

While retreats can be a black hole in terms of time and dollars, many successful firms continue to see a return from this type of investment. The trick is not to view it as an extended partners meeting but rather as a major opportunity to build the spirit and the strategy of the partnership.

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