Cathy Kirby: Out of Practice

After three decades in practice, Cathy Kirby has joined Baskerville Drummond as a consultant, to share a lifetime of learning and hard-won experience across the law firm technology and business strategy space. In this series of articles, Cathy will be exploring a range of IT-related topics through the fascinating lens of a recent – but now liberated – practitioner!

This past year has been a sea of change of a type that none of us could have predicted. I could write many paragraphs about the impact of coronavirus on businesses and the move to remote working, but this conversation has been saturated. So instead, I will focus on the future and how we move forward, embedding the advances achieved during this reactive period whilst striving for more organised enhancements.

The most challenging question firms are faced with is:

How do we now successfully deliver change to a workforce that are most likely working harder than ever and are saturated with change?

Change the attitude to change!

IT changes are very rarely a one-off project. Usually you have an end goal (i.e. replacing a Practice Management System) but to achieve that single goal you often need to embark on a major program of preparatory projects. For example, you may need to change your infrastructure, remove or implement other software, consider integrations that you have or want, redevelop processes, etc. You then have the task of implementing the new ‘end goal’ product followed by the ongoing project to make the best of that product, which may include anything from enabling the redesign of the firm’s staffing models and working practices, to simple tweaks to the new software.

IT change is also very rarely the objective – it is a consequence. Proactive objectives are usually to streamline, modernise and/or increase profitability. Your IT systems and software are simply there to support this. Reactive objectives are where a firm is forced into making a change to environmental issues (such as COVID or systems becoming end of lifed). With the recent pandemic this has been highlighted and underlined and many firms are now actively looking to change how they operate due to their positive experience of rapid technology adoption. Those whose IT systems were not capable of effectively supporting remote working were hit hardest.

So how do we change the attitude?

  1. Formalise your approach to ‘change’ in your strategy, but perhaps call it something else – people may feel intimidated by the word ‘change’ but would they if it were called a ‘continuous improvement plan’?
  2. Alongside your budgeting process, develop a rolling plan for the short (1 year), medium (2 year) and long term (3 year) projects, including the list of dependencies needed to achieve each change. Not only does this help with budgeting but this plan becomes the backbone of how you deliver on your strategy.
  3. Publicise the ‘continuous improvement plan’ to the whole business along with information about the benefits of each objective.
  4. Make your approach to IT improvement clear – for each firm this may be different. Your strategy may be to be innovators taking calculated risks on new products or you may be cautious and aim for tried and tested products that have proven performance (or anywhere in between!).  Either way it should be clear that your approach is not to wait for products or systems to become legacy before you act but to be always a step ahead or the requirement. Whatever your approach is the focus must be on delivery to the business.
  5. Have a plan for the impact on people. Explicitly commit to certain principles that apply to all IT projects – to keep all staff informed, to engage wider groups in decision making, comprehensive training, devolution of activities and skills into teams (where applicable), provide support for those that might be struggling, etc. It is critical that all change projects have a business sponsor who can ‘sell’, support and articulate the wider business change.

Make sure you have the right team and support in place

Based on your plan you will know what resources you will need and when. It should be clear what permanent internal resources are needed to achieve the objectives but also what additional non-permanent support you will need.

It is well known that not having the right people for a project is a significant cause of project failure. If you are to budget for a project this MUST form part of the discussion and consideration should be given to the idea of having your core internal team plus external experts (whether these be a resource provided by a new supplier or selected from known expertise pools). New projects are by definition ‘new’, your internal team may not have the knowledge and be the right people to deliver the implementation, but once they have learned the product they will be the right people to support it in the future.

Invest in the help you need when you need it and deliver a confident message to the firm – that they will be fully supported by experts. The same message that you, as law firms, would give your clients.

One element of support that you will need to carefully nurture are your internal stakeholders. All members of staff are stakeholders but there are some that you will need to involve more regularly, more deeply and to whom you will give levels of responsibility. As well as the stakeholders a supportive and committed project sponsor(s) is crucial with any law firm project. This role is essential for keeping the Partnership group onboard, keep focus on the strategic needs and desired outcomes and ensure stakeholder cohesion.

My advice here is not to leave this element to chance but to have a stakeholder plan. Know who the key stakeholders are and link it to a ‘RACI’ chart and your communication plan. A RACI chart lists your stakeholders and allows you to state whether they are Responsible for, Accountable for, Consulted about or Informed about aspects of a project. In your communications plan you can then plan to contact the relevant stakeholders at the right times.

For example, your Financial Director will be a key stakeholder ‘Accountable’ for signing off on the budget proposal. He will therefore be listed as a stakeholder, shown in the RACI chart with an ‘A’ and noted in the communication plan at the point of budget sign off.

As a busy IT Director, in the depths of a project, it is very difficult to track who you need to involve and when but keeping your various stakeholders happy can make or break a project. Putting some effort into your stakeholder plan at the beginning is essential.

Create a narrative

I could have entitled this section ‘communicate’ but that would be missing a trick. Discussing technology engenders different responses from people. Some are mystified, some afraid and some simply bored by it! Using an appropriate narrative is a way to try to engage with as many people as you can.

A narrative is more than simple communication, it means that we need to create an atmosphere, build a story and create a platform to openly discuss projects and outcomes in a way that encourages everyone to be a participant. This narrative will be mainly aimed at the workforce but could also be used to involve clients, referrers, suppliers, etc.

The nature of the narrative may be different for every firm depending on its culture, but fundamentally the key advice is that you should communicate much more regularly than you might think. Even achieving the minor objectives on a plan moves you forward towards the larger or longer-term goals. Each objective achieved or issue resolved is a successful chapter in your narrative and should be celebrated with the whole business.

Certain objectives will generate the most emotional responses. Using the narrative, you can build the anticipation and guide the responses so that they move away from nervousness to acceptance and, you never know, perhaps excitement!

Measure yourself against the continuous improvement plan

The plan should make it clear that many of those projects which, previously, may have been considered ‘give or take’ by the end of a budget year will be a link in a chain of dependencies. Part of your narrative can now demonstrate the importance of each link. For example, if you don’t move to the latest version of software x, when you come to project y then you will need to roll those two projects together or, even worse, you may need to push the whole timeline back.

Using this approach, you can aim to stay true to the plan as far as possible, ensuring that timelines and budget estimates remain broadly as predicted (accepting that you will have built in some contingency planning for unpredictable events).

Regularly measure the feedback from across the business. How is the plan working? How do people ‘feel’? This doesn’t need to be an onerous task with long-winded surveys. There are a number of good products on the market that allow you to get an instant snapshot of how people are feeling about a particular subject, encouraging them to respond with a smiley face/sad face, thumbs up/thumbs down, etc. My son plays a game where he builds rockets and send them into space. The astronauts piloting the rockets change expression from smiling when everything is ok to frowning when something isn’t quite right, to a look of absolute horror when something is going very wrong!!! What a wonderful feedback system!

In summary

In terms of standard project management methodology, I don’t believe I am advocating anything new or off the wall. What I am encouraging, given the impact of the last year, is a fresh approach, using tried and tested processes but with a new emphasis and increased interaction with the business – and most importantly linking IT projects to mid to long-term business change and enhancement programs.

Whilst the recent changes have been difficult, we now have a workforce, clients and suppliers that have endured and accepted the ‘new normal’ (sorry for the over-used phrase). We must have sympathy for the personal and professional changes that they (we) have endured but we can also congratulate them on their success in this transition and embed a culture of confident continuous improvement in which we are all fully invested.