A Clean Sheet of Paper

The Harvard Business School recently held an executive education session on the global economic crisis.  Amid all the depressing news and analysis came the advice of Professor Robert Steven Kaplan regarding three practical steps business leaders can take now to move things forward in a positive direction:

Overcommunicate – Be visible, be vocal.  Remind all your colleagues what’s great about your organization and help them understand how they can help the organization.

Do the “Clean Sheet of Paper” Exercise – Starting with a blank piece of paper, ask yourself:  “How you would redesign the business if you were starting from scratch?”

Stay Calm – the leader sets the tone at the top and must model constructive behavior.  A leader who is freaked out or entirely focused on finger-pointing cannot effectively lead an organization through this crisis.  You can do better, and your organization deserves better.

While all of this is great advice at any time in the life of an organization, the “Clean Sheet of Paper” exercise seems particularly compelling given the carnage around us.  When things are going well, it’s hard to step off the hamster wheel long enough to imagine a different approach.  And, you hate to mess with anything that seems to be working.  Under current circumstances, however, nearly every organization has to think hard about what it could do to improve its situation.

If you’re going to tackle the “Clean Sheet of Paper” exercise, I’d highly recommend that you adopt some of the principles of Appreciative Inquiry.  Rather than focusing on what doesn’t seem to be working, focus on your organization’s strengths.  Ask yourself, what are we doing right?  How can we do more of that?  How can we do it better?  Then, look at your mission.  Is it the right mission for your organization?  Does it line up with your organization’s core strengths?  Are your colleagues and their activities aligned with that mission?  Is all of this supported by your organizational culture?

In the midst of all this upheaval is a golden opportunity to reinvent ourselves, to create something new.  The “Clean Sheet of Paper” exercise is just a tool to help you get started.  Don’t let this opportunity pass you by.

[Photo credit:  liquidx]

14 thoughts on “A Clean Sheet of Paper

  1. Mary,The questions you suggest as part of the “Clean Sheet…” exercise leave out an important part of the equation. What do our clients want? What are people buying?At the end of his recent long article (“The Great De-Leveraging“) Bruce MacEwen reminds us of Andy Grove of Intel's reaction to a similar crisis:

    Better yet, or more realistically yet, perform Andy Grove's famous thought (and reality) experiment when Intel was a low-end maker of commodity DRAM chips, having their lunch eaten in the late 1970's by the voracious and talented Japanese, threatening Intel's very existence. I paraphrase: Grove said to his top management team, “If we don't turn things around in a very serious way, the Board will fire us. So why don't we 'fire' ourselves. Let's march out of this conference room and march back in assuming we're the new team the Board has hired. What would we do then?”They performed the exercise, decided to abandon DRAM's and invest in microprocessors. The rest is history, and it's history residing under your desk or in your lap.

    I think the Andy Grove approach is an essential part of the clean sheet exercise.

    1. That's a fair point, Mark. Operating as we do in a service business, what our clients want is critically important to our success. The challenge, however, is that the ground is shifting under our feet as the economy restructures. As a result, it's not clear that clients know what they want right now from us. Some aren't even sure if they'll be in business two years from now. Granted, a law firm that can provide excellent legal services efficiently and economically will always be popular with its clients, but it doesn't take a new management team to figure that out. It would be an interesting exercise to think about re-imagining law firm life along completely new lines. If we were to start again, what stupidities would we eliminate? Which processes would we keep? But toward what goal? The old standby: a more efficient and effective firm?One more thought on client-directed planning: in the Innovator's Dilemma, Clayton Christensen discusses how established firms focused on stated client needs and ignored innovations that were disruptive. As a result, they delivered more of the same (but better), rather than delivering something different. Unfortunately, they soon discovered that their clients could be wooed away quite easily by the disruptive technologies. Given the current chaos, this would be a good time to search for a disruptive innovation. The question is, have our clients figured out what that is and can they guide us to it?- Mary

  2. Hi Mary, Love the suggestions which are both useful and pragmatic. I admit that the cynic in me suggests that law firms would struggle to utilise them effectively. One key issue to highlight is whether the appetite for change is there. For me, the most challenging aspect of being a KM professional (or indeed anyone) within a law firm is the tortoise-like pace of change that law firms tend to adopt. As Maister says of lawyers: Presented with a new business idea, the first thing they ask is, “Which other law firms are doing this?” Unless it can be shown that the idea has been implemented by other law firms, lawyers are skeptical about whether the idea applies to their world. If everyone has these problems, they can’t be so bad, the thinking goes. As long as we are no worse than anyone else, we don’t need to change! It’s hardly a recipe for a strategic advantage.Maister's goes on to suggest that firms will only change as a response to client demand. I think the problem is even more entrenched as “the client” is usually a GC (also a lawyer). Ultimately CEOs and CFOs will need to enter the mix and in the meantime these exercises will struggle to gain traction regardless of the value they present.

    1. You've raised the perennial problem, Neil. Lawyers are overly bound by their devotion to stare decisis! (Or, they just are naturally conservative.) In my experience, lawyers are willing to take their business in new directions (e.g., new practice areas, new client industries, etc.), but have a much harder time thinking about doing their business differently. Once KM moves beyond mere capture and collection, we necessarily start thinking about new ways of doing things and that's when we part company with our firms.You are right that we're going to need new inputs in the conversation. In-house lawyers and outside lawyers share some fundamental background and training, which tends to set limits on the imagination if not handled properly. Adding people with completely different experiences in the mix could push our thinking in new directions. If we are lucky, the current crisis will force us to have those broader conversations.- Mary

  3. If you are going to start with a “clean sheet of paper,” I recommend being systematic about examining “strengths.” The core strength of most companies today is knowledge that is embedded in competencies of people, in contributions of external stakeholders, and in processes and other forms of “structural” capital. These are the building blocks, the intellectual capital, of almost every business today. It's worth taking at look from this perspective if you are going to start fresh and build a new business.

    1. Mary – You're right to focus on the unique knowledge within the firm. It is a core strength. However, I'd suggest that it is just as important to assess how the firm handles that knowledge. It could be sitting on a gold mine and not know what to do with it. A firm with great knowledge processes can make something of little knowledge. A firm with great stores of knowledge and poor knowledge processes will inevitably waste its superior knowledge resources,- Mary

  4. Interestingly Mary you may have answered Mark's question!What do our clients want right now? Perhaps they just need a guide and a helping hand through an environment where the “ground is shifting under our feet as the economy restructures”? Once they're out on more solid ground maybe then it'll be the guide they are more willing to work with to decide what next?

    1. You're onto something, Jason. I've often thought that in times like this, the lawyer really needs to inhabit the wise counselor role. In fact, sometimes we need to act more like therapists when it is necessary for the health of our client relationships. I do hope that through this phase we can create the kind of relationships that allow us to engage in some audacious thinking with our clients. Otherwise, I'm not sure how we'll move the legal industry into a new mode of operating.- Mary

  5. Here's something to think about from Harvard Business Publishing:”In a world turned economically upside down, there is a hitch. Deciding something implies having effective understanding (mental model) of how the world works and having enough data to get the right answer. But how things work is not understood today. How actions lead to outcomes is now unclear. New models have to be discovered to understand what to do.`High velocity organizations' offer lessons about how to get new answers to old questions: What needs do markets have, what products and services will satisfy those needs, and what systems will deliver those items effectively and efficiently?”http://blogs.harvardbusiness.org/cs/2009/03/how…– Mary

  6. I love the clean sheet of paper idea. I have a colleague who uses a similar technique: WWPD (What Would Paper Do) for evaluating implementing new web sites.

  7. I love the clean sheet of paper idea. I have a colleague who uses a similar technique: WWPD (What Would Paper Do) for evaluating implementing new web sites.

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