KM’s Role in Leading Innovation & Managing Change in Law Firms #ArkKM

Session Title and Description: KM’s Role in Leading Innovation & Managing Change in Law Firms

Innovation and change management are processes, not projects. And in today’s law firm setting, there is demand for both but great sensitivity around how much change the organization can endure at one time. This next case study will explore the theory and process behind successful innovation as well as how to make change stick—transforming best intentions into best practices—sharing examples concerning the role of KM in innovation and change projects at White & Case.


Alicia Hardy, Director of Professional Support, White & Case (UK) Oz Benamram, Chief Knowledge Officer, White & Case

[These are my notes from the 2015 Ark Group Conference: Knowledge Management in the Legal Profession.  Since I’m publishing them as soon as possible after the end of a session, they may contain the occasional typographical or grammatical error.  Please excuse those. To the extent I’ve made any editorial comments, I’ve shown those in brackets.]


  • How they innovate.
    • Innovation is about accelerating the cycle at which small experiments fail.
    • Turning successes into processes by normalizing them and then scaling them up for wider adoption across the firm.
  • Innovation in law firms is hard.
    • Innovation is often the result of a big crisis. However Big Law does not feel that it is in crisis. So the drive to innovate diminishes.
    • Lawyers and law firms are risk averse.
    • Lawyers and law firms are not tolerant of failure.
  • KM should become the R&D function inside law firms.
  • Managing Change.
    • Focus on the emotional and psychological reactions. A tone-deaf approach to change management will amplify natural human emotions of fear and anxiety.
    • Be aware of dangerous assumptions such as one way is better than another.
    • The stages of acceptance of change are not dissimilar to those in Elisabeth Kubler Ross’ study of the five stages of death and grieving. So be aware of this inevitable journey for every one of your internal clients when you propose a change in the way they work.
  • Kotter’s 8 steps to change
    • (See the wikipedia summary)
    • the burning platform = a sense of urgency
    • pull together the guiding team
    • develop a shared vision and strategy for the proposed change
    • plan at the very beginning for good communication to enable understanding and buy in
    • empower others to act
    • produce short-term wins
    • don’t let up — persistence pays
    • create a new culture — this is about anchoring the new way of being/behaving so people cannot backside
  • Lessons from case studies.
    • Communication is key. People will resist that which they do not understand.
    • Be flexible. Your original plan will  inevitably have to be adapted to special or local conditions. Be open to this — within reason.
    • There is no change without casualties. So be strategic when you pick your casualties (i.e., when you decide who will pay the price for change).
    • When there is real risk attached to project, create a cushion. For example, when you are making dramatic change to the work environment (e.g.,  the DMS), allow people to work in either the new version of the DMS or the old version for a transition period.
    • Because people do not read email, they tried alternative forms of communication. Their most successful method of communication turned out to be sending everyone a postcard.
  • Conclusions:
    • Understand the problem.
    • Adapt the solution to fit your firm.
    • Have a plan, but be prepared to change if..
    • Communication is key. Communicate and promote at every opportunity.
    • Prepare to play the long game. Then everything is possible!

Pope Francis on Law Firm Management

Pope FrancisPlease excuse the poor quality of the photograph in this post. I snapped it quickly as Pope Francis’ Fiat turned the corner onto Fifth Avenue, enroute to St. Patrick’s Cathedral earlier this evening. Despite the blurry photo, you can see the Pope in his distinctive garb and you can see his Fiat. And that’s good enough for the purposes of this post.

So what does the world’s most popular Catholic have to do with law firm management? It’s not that he has made any particular pronouncements on the subject. However, he does model behavior that would be very beneficial in law firm management:

1. He is unpretentious.

Pope Francis makes a very loud statement every time he steps into his Fiat. Aside from showing loyalty to an Italian product, he is shunning the trappings of world-class achievement. It is as if he is saying he has not forgotten where he came from. It is as if he understands the realities of life for the people he leads. This demonstration of empathy and solidarity makes it easier for devoted Catholics to accept his leadership. And it makes his leadership attractive to even disaffected Catholics and non-Catholics. In short, his lack of pretension makes his leadership extraordinarily effective and downright powerful.

Now, think about your firm’s leadership. Are they unpretentious? Have they stayed in touch with their roots? Can they still connect with the rank-and-file? Can they win over the disaffected?

2. He is accessible.

Aside from the considered ordinariness of the Fiat, its size puts him within reach of everyday people. He is not cloistered within a limousine. And then he stops the car to give a blessing to someone others might easily overlook.

Apart from his choice of vehicle, Pope Francis pursues accessibility to a degree that concerns his security staff. He is known to interact directly with visitors to St. Peter’s Square, “embracing and chatting with pilgrims, and kissing babies and children.”

This type of accessibility means that he is more likely to connect with people who have different perspectives than those of his inner circle. And it is more likely that he will meet people who are prepared to speak truth to power.

Is accessibility of this sort the norm in your firm? Does your managing partner find ways to be available to the people of the firm? What about your executive director or CXO? Can anyone speak truth to their power?

3. He does not cling blindly to past practices.

Over the millennia of its existence, the Catholic Church has had ample opportunity to develop and maintain traditional practices. Pope Francis, however, has shown a willingness to question some of those practices in light of modern realities. One cannot imagine him holding back change by using the favorite incantation of administrators the world over: “But we have always done it this before.” (Or its close cousin: “But we have never done it this way before.”) Given his mindset, it is easy to imagine the opportunity for thoughtful innovation within the Catholic Church.

Does a similar opportunity for thoughtful innovation exist within your firm? Or is innovation stillborn because of an unwillingness to examine and possibly put aside past practices that are no longer effective?

4. He is willing to adjust policy to respond to changing times.

In the short time since he took the helm, Pope Francis has indicated repeatedly that even some sacred cows may need to be sacrificed in order to keep the church relevant in the 21st century. To the consternation of purists, this has meant that he is willing to take another look at established church policy and, perhaps, amend it to reflect modern times.

How adaptable is your firm administration? Are they responding appropriately to recent changes in the business environment and the needs of clients? Does firm policy reflect a sense of confidence in the maturity, professionalism and commitment of staff?

What if Pope Francis ran your firm?

Can you even begin to imagine the difference it would make if Pope Francis ran your firm? Consider whether you can achieve some of those differences without papal intervention. It could result in a much-needed miracle for your firm.



G100 CIO Recap – #ILTACON #ILTA061

ILTACON 2015 LogoSession Summary: Members of ILTA’s G100 CIO Advisory Board provide a recap of the G100 CIO event held on Monday, August 31st.


  • Don Jaycox, CIO for the Americas, DLA Piper
  • Andy Jurczyk, CIO of Seyfarth Shaw
  • Robert Marburger, CIO of Alston & Bird
  • Dean Leung, CIO of Holland & Knight

[These are my notes from the International Legal Technology Association’s 2015 Conference. Since I’m publishing them as soon as possible after the end of a session, they may contain the occasional typographical or grammatical error. Please excuse those. To the extent I’ve made any editorial comments, I’ve shown those in brackets.]


  • Most of the attendees in the room are the senior leader for IT within their firms.
  • Challenges of working with a multi-generational workforce. Chris deSantis was the speaker at the G100 session.
    • There are 3 generations at work now: Boomers, Gen X and Millenials
    • We have to think about them, not only as employees in the IT team, but also as internal clients (both as lawyers and in other administrative departments.)
    • Why should we care about this? We are responsible for ensuring continuity and developing the leaders of tomorrow. This is more challenging when each generation has a different point of reference and different values.
    • Different aspirations:
      • In 1960, adulthood (the age of 30) meant completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child. (This was true of 77% of women and 65% of men.)
      • In 2010, only 13% of women and 10% of men have achieved these “indicia of adulthood.”
    • Generational Split: about 2/3 of the G100 CIOs are boomers. Their senior staff also tend to be boomers as well.
      • Some of this is location-specific. There seemed to be more Gen Xers in senior roles in law firms outside the northeast.
      • See the Tattoo Index. For traditionalists and boomers, tattoos are a sign of rebelliousness. However, now tattoos are more about conformity than rebellion. (Millennials get at least six tattoos. For them, it is a matter of personal expression.)
      • See the Cellphone Index:  How many people sleep with their cellphones? Millennials and Gen X are much more likely to do so because it keeps them connected to their community.
    • Each generational group shares a common lens.  It has to do with the context when they were children, plus what their families talked about and were concerned about.  Gen Xers grew up with the oil crisis and war, so they tended to be more insecure and secretive. By comparison, Millenials grew up during one of the longest stretches of prosperity, so they tend more to optimism.
    • Each generation values different things:
      • Boomers: value training, picking a side or team (often led by a boomer), optimism, competition, conspicuous display, working, work ethic, upward mobility, the covenant of lifetime employment, permissive parenting, etc.
      • Gen X: self-reliant and independent, skeptical, informal, tech-savvy, etc. They seek work/life accommodation.
      • Millenials: digital natives and optimistic people who value diversity, social responsibility, collaboration and cohesion, constant contact (they look for praise frequently), transparency, the environment, being scheduled, being discerning consumers, etc.
        • They are the products of Gen X parents. Yet their Gen X don’t provide the same support that their Gen X parents do.  As Leung noted, “We inspire our kids, yet we admonish other people’s kids.”
    • Each generation needs different things from their managers.
    • A key difference among generations is how they handle telecommuting
      • Boomers grew up with face-to-face classrooms and socializing, so they assume that a work team needs to operate face-to-face as well.
      • Millennials much prefer to telecommute.
      • Seyfarth’s experience with telecommuting:
        • The Seyfarth Shaw team works remotely four days each week, but they do have one day when they gather to reinforce their sense of team and community. In addition, they have social events periodically to strengthen their ties.
        • Seyfarth will extend this model to other groups (including other departments and lawyers) in order to improve quality of life and reduce costs.
        • In Seyfarth’s experience, it has not been a technology challenge.  It requires leadership to do this successfully.
      • In most firms, the issue of telecommuting depends on the personality and experience of the head of a particular department.
    • There are two typical reactions to the generational differences:
      • Quit your whining and get back to work!
      • It is the obligation of the leader to help each person deliver their best work.
    • The generations tend to pivot. The Boomers were very rebellious (in the 1960s) and then pivoted to be incredibly hardworking. The same may happen to the Millenials.
  • Cybersecurity. Speakers were from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — Dr. Andy Ozment, Assistant Secretary, Office of Cybersecurity & Communications, and Daniel Sutherland, Associate General Counsel. Their presentation was What the DHS Can Do For You.
    • Cyber Risk Management:
      • 80% of time on best practices
      • 15% of time on sharing information
      • 5% of time on incident response
    • Most of the firms attending the G100 Summit were very focused on cybersecurity and implementing best practices.
    • Because of the frequent client-initiated security audits, the legal industry is no longer the “soft underbelly” and may in fact be ahead of most other industries in terms of cybersecurity.
    • The more we share information on security best practices (and events), the stronger the entire industry becomes.
    • The financial services industry struggled with the tension between data privacy and security. They were able to reach industry-wide guidelines on sharing security information within the industry to alert firms to security threats and enable all to achieve greater security. Ozment encouraged the legal industry to adopt guidelines that achieve a similar goal.
      • Once an industry knows more about security threats than the people doing the incursions, then the industry has the upper hand.
      • DHS is working to gather data regarding cybersecurity threats and incidents, and then distribute anonymized information to firms.
    • There are three types of security threats (vandals, spies and muggers). Each require a different response.
    • The DHS offer the legal industry 3 services (each service has its own website):
      • cybersecurity framework
      • critical infrastructure cyber community (C3) voluntary program
      • risk assessments
    • Take key (standard) measures and then do the risk assessment.  E.g., two-factor authentication, updated security patches, etc.
    • Jaycox: “We all had full-time jobs before cybersecurity became a major challenge.”
    • How to avoid incursions:
      • Implement all the recommended technical controls such as two-factor authentication, up-to-date security patches, upgrade your log aggregation services/methods so that you can understand what is happening on your network.
      • Understand that the vast majority of incursions (60-70%) occur via phishing.
      • Also be aware of DNS-related attacks. (This can be addressed by two-factor authentication.)
      • Make it a priority to educate users so they understand the risks of phishing.
    • Once there has been an incursion:
      • your first instinct is to shut them down and get them out as far as you can (unless they are in a super-critical area).
      • Instead, watch them for a short period of time to understand their pattern of operation so you can prevent the next incursion.
    • Lessons Learned for best security:
      • Two-factor authentication.
      • Least privilege.
      • Application whitelisting
      • Network segmentation.
      • Education.
  • Four Asks from the Department of Homeland Security. Each law firm should do the following:

How to Handle HiPPOs

hippopotamus-40150_1280Never underestimate a hippopotamus. According to Wikipedia, hippos are the third-largest land mammal and close relatives of whales and porpoises. Adult hippos average 3100 pounds and are capable of running at 19 mph. In short, the hippopotamus “is a highly aggressive and unpredictable animal and is ranked among the most dangerous animals in Africa.”

What about the hippos in your law firm? Are they aggressive, unpredictable and dangerous? Obviously, we’re not concerned that there may be hoofed animals practicing law down the hall from you. We are concerned about the corrosive effect the “highest paid person’s opinion” (HiPPO) can have on your KM project, intranet design, proposal for a new product or service, etc.

What’s so dangerous about the highest paid person?

  • They are senior in rank and often do not have (or will not tolerate) subordinates who question or otherwise push back on them.
  • They are busy and may not have the time to think through all the details before making a decision.
  • They believe that their judgment and seniority equip them to make quick decisions that are sound.
  • They may rely on gut feeling, instinct or personal experience, without checking to see if their experience is the norm or an outlier.

If you find yourself facing HiPPOs in your law firm, here are some strategies that can help you move beyond HiPPOs to better decisions:

  • Data, data, data.  To paraphrase Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, you may be entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts. So if you want to redirect an ill-advised HiPPO, arm yourself with verifiable data. Better yet, use top-notch data visualization to ensure that their Seeing is Understanding.
  • Clients, clients, clients.  When you are facing a HiPPO, do not rely simply on your own opposing opinion — even if it is well-considered.  Buttress it with information direct from your clients.  No matter how fond a HiPPO may be fond of his own opinion, he will have to face reality if his opinion runs counter to that of one or, preferably, more clients.
  • Educate. Keep your HiPPO informed.  When you leave to the last minute your interaction with your HiPPO, you increase the likelihood that your HiPPO will feel compelled to make a quick decision based on incomplete information.  By contrast, when you educate your HiPPO through-out your process, you help your HiPPO reach a better-informed decision.
  • KYH. Just like each law firm implements “know your client” (KYC) procedures, you need to implement procedures to ensure you know your HiPPO (KYH). Learn your HiPPO’s biases and blindspots. Find ways to augment your HiPPOs understanding of the facts and issues.  Develop the ability to steer your HiPPO towards better decisions.  It all starts with knowing your HiPPO.

Now that you know how to handle HiPPOs, here are some final questions to consider. Are you a HiPPO or are you in danger of becoming one? If so, make sure the rest of your team reads this post! 


Making Better Choices

scales-36417_1280What do Leonardo da Vinci, Ludwig van Beethoven and you have in common besides talent and intellect? The 24-hour day. Each day we make choices about how we will spend our time. And those choices determine our output and impact.

Here is the underlying truth. We all operate within constraints — whether it is the 24-hour day or the limitations of a budget. So the challenge is how to make better choices that yield better results.

This issue of making better choices is critical in law firm knowledge management (“KM”). I have yet to meet a KM professional in any industry who says that they have all the resources necessary to cope with the demand for their work and attention. So if we all are struggling with demand that outstrips resources, what is the sanest way of responding? Make sure you are allocating your time and resources to the projects that deliver the greatest good for the firm.

To be clear, this is not merely philosophical advice. It highly pragmatic and admittedly tough. We don’t always understand what will yield the greatest good for the firm. Because of this, we sometimes let our work priorities get skewed by the person who is most senior, most influential or, sometimes, most annoyingly persistent.

It was to address this challenge that I earlier asked law firm KM professionals whether they themselves were force multipliers and whether the work of their teams had a force multiplier effect on their firms. In the same vein, I am now asking law firm KM professionals if they are allocating their resources to the most impactful projects. The definition of what constitutes an impactful project varies with each firm and its strategy. Nonetheless, regardless of the strategy, each KM department must align its resource allocation and effort to that strategy.

You have to tackle the task of prioritizing and then re-prioritizing regularly. Situations change, expectations change, and then suddenly you have new pressing priorities. It is for this reason that I use the concept of a portfolio of KM projects that, like an investment portfolio, should be rebalanced from time to time to reflect changes in priorities and circumstances.

The key to any successful portfolio is to make sure that you have the right mix of investments and that you are not over-invested in a category that does not yield the desired results. To achieve this, you must understand your strategic goals, the range of available investments, and how particular investments serve those strategic goals. You also need to be disciplined to cut back on investments that demand too much of your resources or do not deliver as planned. This is how we rebalance our personal investment portfolios and it is the same principle that applies to your KM investment portfolio.

The white paper, Rebalancing your knowledge management portfolio,  takes a closer look at what a properly balanced KM portfolio might look like. It also discusses the real challenge of managing a big project, like an intranet project, which can demand a disproportionate amount of your resources if you lose sight of your strategic goals and fail to put the project in its proper place. No matter what your intranet choices are, the key is to make sure that those choices support your efforts to reach your strategic goals with the resources at hand.

Whether you are working within the constraints of a 24-hour day or over-stretched resources, the key is to keep making better choices.

[Photo Credit: Nemo]


Middle-Earth Communications, Part 2

The Hobbit SecondEdIn my previous post on Middle-Earth Communication Methods, I wrote about the importance of varying the way we communicate. And, I gave some examples from Delta Airlines and Air New Zealand (official airlines of middle-earth) that illustrate how a little imagination and humor allowed them to communicate their crucial safety messages more effectively.

Michael Foster, writing on, takes the importance of variety in communications even further. In his view, when communications are predictable, their intended audience simply tunes them out:

Safe equals predictable

Human beings process information every second of every day. What we do with this data varies, but in many cases we use it to make tiny, subconscious predictions about what will happen next. At its simplest, this can be illustrated by watching the flight of a thrown ball. Our brain automatically estimates the ball’s future trajectory based on its path up to that point, thus allowing us to catch it (or try to).

This process works in exactly the same way when we listen to someone speaking, with our brain constantly making and revising predictions on where the sentence, point or speech is leading. An engaging presentation tells us something we don’t know in a way in which the outcome becomes unpredictable. The result is that this forces us to pay attention. However when we hear a familiar presenter, speaking in a way we recognize about a message we have heard before, our brain quickly tells us we already know the outcome and maintaining focus becomes much harder. Most of the time this happens subconsciously, but it is a vital process for … communicators to be aware of. [emphasis added]

Predictable equals shortchanged KM

In her comment to my previous post, Vishal Agnihotri (CKO of Akerman LLP) reminded me that effective communications are a critical part of effective change management. Further, effective change management is a requirement of effective knowledge management. So if you stick to predictable messages, you will have a hard time engaging your audience sufficiently to convince them to embrace the changes embodied by your KM initiatives. At that point, it’s game over.

There is, however, an alternative path if you are willing to employ some middle-earth methods. Introduce a little humor and imagination into your communications. Feed the curiosity of your audience so that they stayed tuned to your messages.

When you find yourself stuck in a communications rut, befriend your colleagues in the marketing department of your firm. Ask them to provide some strategic and tactical advice on your own department’s communications. By this I mean more than simply asking them to design a pretty logo or slick internal newsletter. Rather, give them free rein over your text and images too. Ask them what they would recommend you do to incorporate into your communications those vital elements of surprise and delight that capture the attention of your audience. In fact, if you’re serious about sharpening up your department’s communications, see if you can bring a marketing/communications person onto each KM project team from the beginning. By involving them early, you can bake an effective communications strategy into your project plan. In this way, you give yourself a fighting chance of actually getting your message across.

And in those moments when the appeal of dull but safe corporate communications seems most enticing, gather up your courage and then  summon your inner hobbit. As Gandalf the Grey observed:

“Hobbits really are amazing creatures. You can learn all that there is to know about their ways in a month and yet, after a hundred years, they can still surprise you.”

May you always find good ways to surprise your colleagues.


[Photo credit: Wikipedia]



Middle-Earth Communication Methods

Hobbit booksWhen you are sharing your knowledge management or technology insights, do your colleagues listen attentively and then do exactly as instructed? No, I didn’t think so. Why is this? They may be suffering from information overload and you are just one more unwanted input. Or, they may be multitasking and simply can’t focus on you. Or they may be absorbed in something and cannot spare the bandwidth necessary to process what you’re saying. In fairness, our bodies are complicit in this. Our brains sort through all the incoming stimuli to identify those that are most critical to survival in the moment. Chances are your message about law firm knowledge management or technology just doesn’t make the cut when it comes to survival.

Don’t feel bad. Often even messages that are critical to survival get screened out. A prime example are those safety announcements that are made at the beginning of every flight. If you take a look around you, you’ll see that other passengers are involved in matters that apparently are more pressing to them in the moment: listening to music, flipping through the scintillating inflight magazine, napping. Priorities, people?

Madison Avenue’s approach to capturing attention

Madison Avenue faces its own version of being ignored. In fact, advertising experts have been working for over 100 years to increase the chances that we will hear and act on their messages. Back in 1885, Thomas Smith wrote Successful Advertising in which he provided a formula for how many times a consumer would need to hear a message before that message had the desired impact. In his view, the magic number was … 20!

The first time people look at any given ad, they don’t even see it.
The second time, they don’t notice it.
The third time, they are aware that it is there.
The fourth time, they have a fleeting sense that they’ve seen it somewhere before.
The fifth time, they actually read the ad.
The sixth time they thumb their nose at it.
The seventh time, they start to get a little irritated with it.
The eighth time, they start to think, “Here’s that confounded ad again.”
The ninth time, they start to wonder if they’re missing out on something.
The tenth time, they ask their friends and neighbors if they’ve tried it.
The eleventh time, they wonder how the company is paying for all these ads.
The twelfth time, they start to think that it must be a good product.
The thirteenth time, they start to feel the product has value.
The fourteenth time, they start to remember wanting a product exactly like this for a long time.
The fifteenth time, they start to yearn for it because they can’t afford to buy it.
The sixteenth time, they accept the fact that they will buy it sometime in the future.
The seventeenth time, they make a note to buy the product.
The eighteenth time, they curse their poverty for not allowing them to buy this terrific product.
The nineteenth time, they count their money very carefully.
The twentieth time prospects see the ad, they buy what is offering.

Smith’s formula is one response to the challenge of effective frequency: “the number of times a person must be exposed to an advertising message before a response is made and before exposure is considered wasteful.”  Others have settled on the less extreme number of seven. In other words, they believe that you have to repeat a message seven times if you want it to penetrate the noise and have the desired impact.

The airlines’ approach to capturing attention

Does this mean that every piece of KM or technology guidance you offer must be broadcast seven or (heaven forbid) 20 times? I sure hope not. In fact, I’d go so far to say that if you simply repeat the message, your audience will tune you out from sheer boredom. But don’t be dismayed. There may be a path out of the darkness. Going back to those boring airline safety announcements, have you noticed what’s been happening lately? I saw it first on a Delta Airlines flight. Their safety warnings sounded exactly as they had for years. However, their video was suddenly peppered with visual jokes designed to catch the passengers’ attention. And, to avoid boredom, those visual jokes change periodically so that there is always something new to tickle your funny bone. Smart!

Going even further (physically and metaphorically), I draw your attention to Air New Zealand.  I wrote earlier of their clever transparency campaign in which they claimed they had nothing to hide. They have now added to their collection a wonderful safety announcement presented by characters from Middle-earth. Once again, the audio is nearly conventional. However, the video is a feast for the eye. It’s filled with visual jokes and sure to please a Tolkien fan.

Middle-earth method

Taking a leaf out of the Air New Zealand book, think about how you might present your message so that it captures the imagination as much as it captures attention. Can you use color? Can you use humor? Can you use metaphor? Our standard forms of corporate communication are excessively constrained. Worse still, too many within our organizations are expert at screening out those communications. So if you want to break through, you’ll have to break out of those constraints. Using this middle-earth approach, you’ll still have to repeat your message, but you’ll do so in a manner that avoids rather than encourages boredom.

If you need some encouragement, take a look at the Delta Airlines video below. It’s almost corporate — but with a twist. And, if you’re ready for a bolder approach, look at the Air New Zealand video below. As the official airline of Middle-earth, they have a method of communicating that would enliven any law firm!





[Hat tip to Claudia Batten for pointing me to the Air New Zealand video.]

[Photo credit: Tim Sackton]


When Dysfunction Leads to Disaster

Archduke Franz Ferdinand If the consequences had not been so tragic, the situation would have been laughable.

The project team had been warned that there could be massive problems if they proceeded with their plan, yet the boss insisted on going ahead with the project. Later, when some members of the team wisely decided that a change of course would be advisable and then told the other members of the team, their decision was ignored. Why? Because the people who were supposed to act on the new information spoke a different language and did not understand the newly issued instructions.

This dysfunctional behavior undoubtedly happens more frequently than we would like to admit — especially when working in a rigidly hierarchical organization or across geographies, languages and local cultures.

In the case I have in mind, the head of the team was Archduke Franz Ferdinand (heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne) and the project was a state visit to Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. Just before his visit, the rumors of an assassination plot were so prevalent that he was asked to call off the visit. He refused. Then when a bomb thrown at his motorcade exploded under a car behind his and injured his aide, he still refused to cancel the visit. When some members of his team finally agreed to take a route that differed from the previously published route, the driver of his car was oblivious. Why? Because the conversation regarding the new route occurred in German and the Czech driver did not understand German. It was one dysfunctional moment compounded by another.

If the consequences had not been so tragic, the situation would have been laughable.

Ironically, when the Archduke’s entourage finally managed to persuade the driver to turn around, the driver stopped the car right in front of a general store — just as assassin Gavrilo Princip came out of the shop with the sandwich he had bought there. Princip seized the moment, raised his gun and took two shots. Both were lethally successful.

What lessons can the wise manager learn from this pivotal moment in history?

  • Keeping a steady course is admirable. However, persistence in the face of credible threats is foolhardy at best and positively dangerous at worst. Unlike Franz Ferdinand who was bullheaded in following his outdated plan, a wise manager will pause to evaluate threats before committing more resources.
  • If you decide to proceed even in the face of credible threats, make sure you have reasonable protection. Franz Ferdinand owned a bulletproof silk vest that he apparently forgot to wear on that fateful day. According to recent tests, that silk vest might have saved his life.
  • Be aware of the extent to which a leader’s personal character and temperament has an impact on that leader’s team. Franz Ferdinand was said to have an ” impatient, suspicious, almost hysterical temperament.” This is not conducive to a calm, reasoned discussion of threats, opportunities and alternatives. Team members generally will refrain from providing their best advice if the team leader does not consistently demonstrate a willingness to listen to and follow reasonable advice.
  • Failure to communicate happens far too frequently. A team must work hard to address any gaps in understanding that might arise because of cultural or language differences.  Merely issuing a directive is insufficient.  A wise manager will ascertain early whether the message was received and understood as intended.

Exactly one month after Franz Ferdinand’s disastrous state visit, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. By August 4, 1914, the Great Powers were engaged in the First World War.

This clearly was a case in which dysfunction led to disaster. Don’t let that be the epitaph of any of your projects.

[This account is taken in part from a wonderful retelling of Franz Ferdinand’s misbegotten trip, as reported in Robert Siegel’s interview of Christopher Clark (author of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914).]

[Photo Credit:]


What ever happened to?

optimizing book cover.main_image Every so often magazines will run a feature that begins with the words, “What ever happened to…?” Sometimes, the question they ask is “Where are they now?” Often their curiosity is focused on child stars who once seemed ubiquitous but now have all but disappeared. There are even websites devoted to these critical questions.

For those of you who have been loyal readers of this blog over the years, you might be justified in wondering what ever happened to Above and Beyond KM. After all, the activity on this site has declined quite noticeably in recent months. The reason behind this is quite simple. Over the course of the last year I was immersed in two substantial projects: (1) building a business and (2) researching and writing a book. I’m delighted to report that things are going well on the business front. As for the book, it has just been published.

The book is entitled Optimizing Law Firm Support Functions and it studies all the parts of a law firm that are not populated by fee earners. In some firms there are as many (or more) folks working in support functions as there are practising lawyers. These departments ran the gamut from Accounting and Administration to IT and Knowledge Management. But what does firm management really know about how to optimize the work of support departments? In fact, what does an optimized support function look like?

To answer these questions, I conducted over 50 interviews with senior law firm managers, as well as some managing partners, executive directors, consultants and clients. Through these conversations, I was given a behind-the-scenes look at 33 firms in Australia, Canada, England and the United States. While there are admittedly many support departments that are struggling to meet basic requirements in the face of reduced staff and budgets, my research turned up several departments that were able to achieve much more than merely getting by. In fact, their performance was so good that they were well on the way to optimization, if they had not already achieved it.

What is optimization? To optimize is to make something as good or as effective as possible. Optimization means operating at peak performance. For the purposes of the book, I looked for the outliers: the support departments that seemed to be achieving more than their cohort on a consistent basis. They are not flash-in-the-pan successes, but have developed a way of working that yields steady and growing progress.  Through careful hiring and training, as well as wise management and thoughtful internal processes, these support departments routinely produce results that impress. In short, they have transformed themselves from mere cost centers into strategic partners for their respective firms.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing more here about what I learned while researching this book. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this link to the book’s executive summary. For those of you who are interested in reading more, please contact the Ark Group for purchase details.


Teamwork is Hard Work

french-riviera-133592Most blog posts I publish here are written from my home office in New York City.  This one is an outlier — I’m writing from the balcony of my hotel room, which overlooks the Mediterranean. What brings me to the French Riviera? Believe it or not, work. (It’s hard work, but someone’s got to do it!) I’m here as a consultant to a wonderful company that is undertaking some impressive and daring projects to keep it at the leading edge of its industry.  We’ll be covering a number of topics this week, but the key topic for today is teamwork.

The company has grown rapidly through acquisition, snapping up smaller companies around the world that are outstanding in their areas of expertise. They each bring their own approach to excellence. In a manner that is not dissimilar to that of law firm partners, they are willing to work together, but are just as happy to be left alone to do the excellent work they do. This leads to a very interesting question: if you want to realize the promised synergies of a global organization, how do you set up and operate teams that work effectively across geographies, languages, cultures and business unit silos?

There are bodies of research and literature on this topic, but I’d like to draw your attention today to the work of Sandy Pentland and his colleagues at MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory. By monitoring how people work in teams, they have generated fascinating insights into what makes a group of people become a high-performing team. It turns out that there are two key factors that separate high-performing teams from low-performing teams: the communication patterns within the team (e.g., body language and the flow of ideas, who you talk to and where you talk to them) and the team’s energy and engagement outside formal meetings. In The New Science of Building Great Teams (subscription required), Pentland reports that the patterns of communication within the team account more for team success than the substance of their discussions and the combined impact of team members’ intelligence, personality and talent. A team’s energy and engagement outside formal meetings “explained one-third of the variations in dollar productivity” among similar teams.

Applying these insights to call center productivity (which is measured by the average handling time (AHT) of customer calls), Pentland and his colleagues suggested some changes at one call center that would enhance the energy and engagement of teams. The results were impressive:

[W]e advised the center’s manager to revise the employees’ coffee break schedule so that everyone on a team took a break at the same time. That would allow people more time to socialize with their teammates, away from their workstations. Though the suggestion flew in the face of standard efficiency practices, the manager was baffled and desperate, so he tried it. And it worked: AHT fell by more than 20% among lower-performing teams and decreased by 8% overall at the call center. Now the manager is changing the break schedule at all 10 of the bank’s call centers (which employ a total of 25,000 people) and is forecasting $15 million a year in productivity increases. He has also seen employee satisfaction at call centers rise, sometimes by more than 10%.

Before you say that while this may be useful in a call center environment, it does not apply to a global company or a law firm, consider the following: Pentland asserts that the complex data of an organization is more likely to be handled in face-to-face meetings or conference calls, rather than via emails or written documents.  In Pentland’s view, these meetings and conference calls require a certain level of teamwork in order to ensure that the complex data is handled correctly. And success depends heavily on the patterns of communication, as well as the energy and engagement of the team members involved.

The next time you’re in a meeting or working as part of a team, take a few minutes to assess the patterns of communication, the flow of ideas, the level of engagement and energy. Are you seeing good things? Is your team operating optimally? If not, be warned that these are early indicators of a low-performing team. The good news is that none of this is fatal, provided you and your colleagues take corrective action.

Later today, I’ll be doing exactly this type of observation with respect to the teams we’ve set up for the company’s project. And, we’ll be intervening as often as necessary to ensure that every one of these teams is a high-performing team. Admittedly, we’ll be doing this from the comfort of a beautiful hotel on a gorgeous coastline. It’s hard work, but someone’s got to do it!

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