Make KM Count in 2012

Changed priorities ahead Your New Year’s Eve celebration is a now a dim memory and, hopefully, you’ve fully recovered from the revelry. Now comes the hard part — putting plans in place to make 2012 a year in which knowledge management really counts in your organization. This is not just about creating a list of interesting projects and then tracking your progress on those projects. This is about ensuring you and your team are working on KM projects that really matter. Your challenge for 2012 is to make KM a real force multiplier in your law firm.

To recap, a force multiplier is something that helps the troops perform significantly better than they would without it. The key is that the improvement in performance should be substantial. And therein lies the rub. While lots of law firm knowledge management projects are worthy, too many result in incremental improvements in performance at best. In fact, a recent survey of senior large law firm KM personnel revealed that they were devoting far too much of their time and resources to projects that did not constitute true force multipliers. Based on their considerable experience, here is a list of the high-impact projects that in their estimation had a good chance of resulting in force multiplication:

  • Creating smarter systems, processes and workflows throughout the firm
  • Enterprise Search — ensuring that personnel can find what they need efficiently
  • Matter Profiling/Tracking
  • Providing a portal
  • Investing in design — to ensure your KM systems fit with how people work and do not cause unnecessary barriers to adoption
  • Promoting KM adoption practices / Training

And, here’s the list of the activities to which they currently devote considerable time and resources, but which they admitted were low-impact activities that had little chance of achieving force multiplication within their firms:

  • Arguing with IT over priorities and resources
  • Creating and maintaining content — legal models, practice guides, templates, etc.
  • Data transfer
  • Firm politics
  • Getting buy-in from lawyers and management
  • Intranet Management — this involves the daily tasks of editing pages (or chasing editors), ensuring content is maintained, etc.
  • Manually categorizing or profiling documents
  • Research/Search Requests (KM Concierge) — limited impact since you are helping only one person at a time
  • Responding to individual requests for assistance — limited impact since you are helping only one person at a time
  • Vendor demos

This suggests that if you want to make a real difference in 2012, you need to shift the bulk of your resources to projects that will deliver force multiplication.  But how do you actually move from aspiration to reality? Peter Bregman has a suggestion that can help you find your focus and then keep it throughout the year:

  1. Identify your primary areas of focus for this year.  Bregman suggests identifying five areas of focus, but allows that anything in the 3-7 range would be reasonable. But no more.
    • What’s an area of focus? It is not a specific project or strategy.  Rather, it is an area in which you wish to make a difference this year.  For example, improving the speed and efficacy of information searches within your organization. For our purposes, it should be an area in connection with which you want to achieve force multiplication.
  2. Then, using Bregman’s six box to do list (adapted as necessary to reflect your number of foci), label each box with the name of one of your areas of focus.  Label the remaining box “the other 5%.”  Next make multiple copies of this labeled to do list.
    • To create your annual focus tracker,  start with your list of current and projected projects for 2012. Transfer those projects to a copy of your labeled to do list, placing within each box the projects that will help you achieve force multiplication in that area of focus.  And what about “the other 5%” box?  Put here everything that has not been assigned to one of your areas of focus. The key to this system is that 95% of your time and effort should be spent on the areas of focus listed on this sheet, leaving “the other 5%” for the incidental projects that inevitable arise midstream.
    • To create your daily tracker, each work day take a look at the list of things you intended to undertake that day and then list within each box the tasks that relate to that area of focus.  Any task that does not relate to one of your areas of focus should be put in “the other 5%” box. Finally, schedule an appropriate amount of time that day to complete your priority items.
  3. At the end of each week and each month, use these sheets as a check on your progress:
    • How are you distributing your resources across the areas of focus?  Is any area under-served? Are you spending more than the allotted 5% of your time on projects that fall outside your areas of focus?
    • Are the actions you’ve taken clearly moving you towards your goal of achieving force multiplication?  If not, what needs to change?
    • Are you accomplishing the tasks you set out to do? If not, should you minimize your distractions or minimize your areas of focus?

Now, let’s apply this to the world of law firm knowledge management:

  1. Once you’ve identified your primary areas of focus, compare them to the lists provided above of high-impact and low-impact activities.  If you have not included these high-impact activities, why not? If you have included a low-impact activity as an area of focus (rather than as part of “the other 5%”), why did you do that? To be clear, the lists above are not prescriptive.  However, they do reflect a lot of experience.  To the extent your areas of focus differ, you need to ask yourself what about your firm puts it outside the norm of the firms reflected in those lists?
  2. Fill out the daily tracker for yourself and for your department.  Do your daily time expenditures reflect a commitment to the areas of focus or are you and your team easily distracted by the crisis of the day?
    • In the interest of fairness, we need to admit that when you are in the client-service business, urgent client needs take precedence over nearly everything else.  Ideally, the urgent needs can be accommodated in “the other 5%,” leaving you ample time to work towards force multiplication. If that’s not the case, give some thought as to why these emergencies arise.  If it is a result of poor planning within the firm, can this be addressed by better training?  Do you have the right systems in place to address most client requests in a reliable and predictable fashion? If not, how can you improve your systems. The bottom line is that if you are in a constant state of crisis without good planning and systems in place, it’s extremely difficult to pay attention to the daily tasks that will move you towards achieving force multiplication.
  3. On a weekly and monthly basis, take a look at your daily trackers.  What patterns are emerging?  Are you seeing signs of achieving force multiplication in your areas of focus?  If not, what needs to change?

There is no magic here.  It’s about finding your focus early, planning to achieve your goals, monitoring your progress, correcting your course as necessary, and then holding yourself and your team accountable for the results.

So there you have it — a plan for turning KM into a real force multiplier in your law firm, a plan for making KM count in 2012.  May the Force be with you!

This blog post was written originally for the knowledge management peer group of the International Legal Technology Association and can also be found on the ILTA KM Blog.  Thanks to Mary Panetta and David Hobbie for giving me the opportunity to write for that KM community.  Thanks also to Jeffrey Brandt, editor of Pinhawk Law Technology Daily Digest, who was the first to say “May the Force be with you” when he read my earlier posts on force multiplication.

[Photo Credit: Pete Reed]

 

 

 

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Fixing the Weak Link

LEEDM.E.1967.0032.G.13 He thought they were going to have a quiet dinner, but she arrived apoplectic.  Some of the folks who worked with her had dropped the ball on a project that was routine and should have been foolproof.

She thought they were going to have a quiet dinner, but he arrived apoplectic.  Someone had asked his help on a project, but frequently failed to send him the necessary documents — even when those documents were mentioned in the transmittal note.

This couple is headed for high blood pressure problems or, at the very least, indigestion.  I suspect they are not the only ones.

Why do simple things get messed up? Look for the weak link.  In the first instance, the weak link was between two parts of the organization that were handling a job together.  Because it was a collective effort, nobody felt responsible because everyone was (theoretically) responsible.  In the second case, the weak link lay in the person transmitting the documents carelessly.

Fixing the weak link is tough because by the time you confront it, you’re often in a towering rage.  So, the first step is to sleep on it.  If that’s not possible, at least count to 10 before commencing. Then, take a look at the procedure surrounding the weak link.  In the first case, each part of the organization had a checklist for handling their part of the process.  However, someone failed to follow the checklist. And the organization had not created a checklist to cover the handoff.  This handoff checklist could have acted as a secondary check, another chance to catch a error before it developed into a real problem. In the second case, the problem arose in…the handoff between the person sending the documents and the recipient.  They clearly did not have a checklist that the first person could follow to ensure that all relevant materials were sent to the recipient when promised.

Peter Bregman believes that problems arise in the handoff phase because of poor communication:

Most of us think we communicate well. Which, ironically, is why we often leave out important information (we believe others already know it). Or fail to be specific about something (we think others already understand it). Or resist clarifying (we don’t want to insult other people).

To address this problem, Bregman recommends that we develop and use a handoff checklist along the following lines:

Handoff Checklist

  • What do you understand the priorities to be?
  • What concerns or ideas do you have that have not already been mentioned?
  • What are your key next steps, and by when do you plan to accomplish them?
  • What do you need from me in order to be successful?
  • Are there any key contingencies we should plan for now?
  • When will we next check-in on progress/issues?
  • Who else needs to know our plans, and how will we communicate them?

Time it takes to go through the checklist? One to five minutes. Time (and trust) saved by going through the checklist? Immeasurable.

If you’re tempted to ignore the need for a handoff checklist or a checklist of any sort, take a few minutes to read this collection of sad (and in some cases, scary) stories of what happens when people fail to create or follow checklists.  If you want to learn more about checklists, read my prior post, The Value of Checklists.

At the end of the day, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that taking the time to develop and follow a checklist that addresses the weak link can save lives, save time and possibly save you from high blood pressure and indigestion.

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