Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Monday, June 25, 2007

A Passion for Management - Introduction

Many professionals see management as incidental to their real work, something that they must do, really a distraction.

I do not share this view. While much of my recent professional life has seen me work alone, I actually love management and see it as central to my professional life.

All this got me musing. Why is management so neglected? Yes, we have an increasing range of management courses, but these mainly teach business techniques. Why is the act of managing itself not focused on?

We can see this in the current obsession with leadership. Yes, leadership is important. But of itself it does not deliver sustainable results. Adolf Hitler was a great leader. So was Stalin. But this did not mean that their countries were well managed.

We can see this, too, in the current obsession with performance management. At best, a series of cascading performance agreements can be a useful tool. At worst, it becomes a substitute for management. The agreements are in place, let everybody get on with doing.

Yet experience shows that performance agreements as such are a poor tool for achieving sustained performance improvement. At best, and this is actually unusual, they deliver the results specified in the agreement. Even then, they capture only a small part of the realities of good performance.

Why, then, is management neglected?

In simplest terms, I think that it is because management involves managing people and uncertainties, and many are simply uncomfortable with this. So instead of dealing with people issues and uncertainty, we try to remove the problem, substituting systems instead. And this does not work.

Given all this, in the next few posts I want to share with you my own passion for management, explaining why I think that this is a central human activity. In so doing, I hope to give you a few hints and guides based on my own experience that will help you become better managers.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Power of Passion - Skunk Works Case Study

In my last post I spoke of the evolution of the term skunk works. This post looks at a current example of a skunk works in action.

Two key things to remember in considering this example. For a skunk works to work, you must have a champion. You also need to get it outside the normal system.

Statement of the Problem

The organisation in question is a business unit within a larger organisation. It has its own web site, but this has become very out of date.

A key problem here is that the organisation, like many modern organisations, is very thin on administrative resources. While there are 69 staff in all, there are only six support staff who between them have many different responsibilities. No one is directly responsible for the web site.

All staff know that the web site is outdated. When the issue was raised earlier this year, it was referred to a newly established communications committee. This committee, responsible for all communications matters across the business unit and without any administrative support, struggled to address its broad responsibilities in any meaningful way. The web site problem remained.

Finally, the champion pushing for web reform persuaded the unit's business manager to put up a recommendation to the unit's executive committee that a working group chaired by the champion should be formed under the communications committee. This was done.

The Process

The new working group was consciously kept outside existing structures. Nominations were called for from all staff. More than one in ten volunteered, creating a representative group covering different levels and areas. Membership included key support people including the unit's business manager.

The first meeting was a little chaotic while the group found its feet. While longer term objectives were set, the group decided to focus on immediate short term changes using an action planning approach. The aim here was to show staff that change was happening. Various individuals volunteered to undertake review tasks.

At the second meeting a week later - this ran for just thirty minutes with a time keeper in control, reflecting an earlier decision to meet often, but for very short times - two sets of changes were agreed.

The first were essentially machinery changes, corrections and updates that did not affect core content or raise any policy issues. The second were content changes requiring new content to be written. The day following the meeting, the business manager took the outcomes to his regular meeting with the unit's executive director, gaining the required sign-offs.

So after just two week's operation the group had approval for immediate alterations, along with sign-off to continue with content preparation for broader changes.

Note in all this that the really big questions, things such as added functionality to allow better use of the site for business purposes, were put aside. This was done quite deliberately to allow time to build experience and to avoid the type of blockages that had occurred in the past. The group wanted results and wanted them now.


I have given an example that very much represents work in progress.

In just a few weeks, this group achieved more than had been done in the previous twelve months. In doing so, it unleashed ideas and suggestions that had previously been blocked. The problem here will be to find the best way of managing these without overloading the whole process.

I will report back on progress and the lessons learned in a month or so.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Power of Passion Continued - Making Use of Skunk Works

The term skunk works originated in Lockheed Martin and is used in engineering and technical fields to describe a group within an organization given a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy, tasked with working on advanced or secret projects.

The term became popular in management discussions to describe innovative groups in general within organisations, groups that somehow achieved remarkable results. IBM and the development of the PC is an example. Then, as so often happens, fashions changed and the term dropped from favour. I think that's a pity.

Two things - tracking and control - mark modern organisations. Our computer systems allow us to track things in ways not possible before. In turn, management uses this power to try to channel, control and measure activity. The problem with this focus on tracking and control is that there is a fair bit of anecdotal evidence to suggest that many of the biggest break-throughs, things that shape the firm, come from individuals and groups working outside formal structures and systems.

The reasons for this are simple.

By their nature, modern management systems tend to deal with the known, whereas significant change often involves the unknown. This can make it hard to get required formal approvals to do new things that, by their nature, are unproven. Further, the administrative and process loads in our system rich organisations can actually suck the heart out of smaller initiatives. Too much time is spent in reporting and planning, not enough in experimenting and doing.

In these circumstances, people who want to achieve change or who are simply interested in looking at new things have to work around the organisation. They succeed in spite of, not because of, the organisation.

In saying this, I am not saying that we should give away reporting and control to let a thousand flowers bloom, although there is a strong case for simplification. Rather, firms need to find a way to facilitate change and experimentation.

The skunk works concept is one way of doing this because it frees people to get on with a task.

Skunk works can be formal or informal, they can be created by the organisation or by an individual or a group of individuals. In all cases, the distinctive feature is that they stand to some degree outside normal systems.

I will take a case study in my next post to illustrate the point.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Encouraging Passion

In my last post I spoke of the power of passion. Can a firm create passion? I do not think so, because passion is an individual thing. Most people simply want to do a good job, balancing work with other commitments. However, firms can certainly create an environment that will encourage passion to flower.

Yesterday a colleague and I were going through the results of a number of staff workshops. Like many such workshops, there were sheets of short staff responses. As we looked at them, I was struck by a number of common threads.

The first was the need for improved communication.

Staff felt that they were not given the information they needed to do their jobs properly. They also wanted more information about the organisation itself.

The second linked theme was the need for management improvement.

Whereas management focused on the need for staff to do things to improve staff performance, staff focused on the things that management needed to do to allow them to improve performance. These included clearer instructions, again better information, the need to give staff more authority.

The third theme was trust. Staff felt that management should place greater trust in staff to do things right. Staff also wanted to be able to trust management to protect them, to treat them fairly.

Today we live in a system intense world. We have a tendency to believe that if there is an actual or perceived problem then we need a new system to deal with it. Yet if you look at the three themes above, they are really matters of attitude and skills. Simply changing systems will have little effect.

I should note that this is not a badly managed office. But even in this case there is substantial scope for improvement.

All three themes are central, too, to the creation of passion. If you want to encourage passion, then action to improve management, communication and trust is not a bad place to start.

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Power of Passion

Note to readers: I have had a number of posts at various stages of preparation, but kept getting distracted. I do not want to post them at once, but will do so in batches over the next day or so.

Never underestimate the importance of passion in a working environment.

In recent weeks I have been working with a younger college who demonstrates the power of passion. In rank terms, she has no formal power. In size, she is diminutive, tiny compared to her colleagues. Yet she exercises a powerful influence across the whole office.

Christine is passionate about statistics. She loves collecting them, analysing them, presenting them.

She believes that statistics are there to be used. She looks for new ways of using them.

Recently she prepared as an independent exercise in her own time a compilation of statistics that she thought would be of benefit to the the office. In doing so, she talked about "her baby". Upon completion, she made sure that all sixty nine staff in this office had a copy.

Not content, she ran round the office saying have you looked at my baby yet? People had, because it was Christine and the compilation was also useful.

This passion carries over into other aspects of her working life, including her concern for other staff members and her involvement in staff activities. She is and is seen to be one of the office's most valuable staff members.

People such as Christine need to be valued, encouraged and protected. The word protected may seem an odd one to use, but too many firms actually abuse their enthusiasts through overwork to the longer term detriment of both.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Return to Duty

Short post just to say that I will be resuming posting after my short break.

I did not get as many things done as I had hoped during the break, but I did at least get to do some catching up.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

A Short Break

I have decided to take a short break, probably only a few days, from posts to allow me to recharge and to read and comment on other people's blogs that I am interested in.

While the great majority of visitors come to this blog via search engines with some staying to read a little more (the average is 1.8 pages for every visitor), I greatly value the much smaller number of regular readers, many of them fellow bloggers. This creates a problem in that if I spend all my time writing, I cannot participate properly in civilised conversation and exchange of views.

So I want to get out there to again capture the interest and stimulation that comes from broader debate.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Praise from Legal Eagle

My thanks to Legal Eagle for her praise for my post on Slater & Gordon. I thought that she captured my arguments very well.

Legal Eagle's blog, The Legal Soapbox, is a remarkably good blog mixing the personal and professional. International readers interested in Australian law and life will find her material interesting, while her links provide a valuable entry point into the growing world of Australian legal blogs.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

End Month Post Continued - Visitor Interests

Every so often as part of my end month stocktakes I look back at recent search pattern to see what brought people to this blog. I find it interesting, and it also helps generate new ideas.

The first search I looked at, generational culture in management came in from Google where the visitor found at number five a post I wrote in March on Gender Differences, Generational Differences and Personal Management Styles. This post linked back to some previous writing I had done on the topic.

The next search, economics "professional services firm" also on Google brought up two references to this blog in the top ten. The first reference proved to be the archive for all Deecmber 06 posts. The second brought up all the posts with a training label.

I have in fact written a fair bit in this area over time, but the visitor would not have found most of this material through this search. So that's one area where I can usefully say something more by way of consolidation.

The seach after that on Google Australia was on professional services firm: partner remuneration. This also brought up two references in the first ten, one posts with the strategy label, the second the practice management label. Hopefully this brought the visitor to the arguments I have been mounting about the clear separation of partner roles as one of the foundation blocks for an effective partner remuneration system.

The next search was a Google blog search on professional ethics. This bought up my post on Corporatisation and Professional Ethics triggered by the Slater & Gordon matter. I think that I could usefully say a fair bit more in this area.

Then came a search on Google Australia on how manage bad and good performance. This brought up in the top ten a post of mine from last October, Designing a Good Performance Appraisal System. In fact I have more relevant posts on the topic, so another consolidation post may be worthwhile.

The next search on Google Australia was IT Services Firms - Australia. Another two posts in the top ten, although I think that in this case the searcher would have been disatisfied since I think he had a very specific need in mind.

Then came a search from Google New Zealand, performance appraisals with remuneration, that brought the performance appraisal post already mentioned up as number one.

Another Google seach, wip accounting australia, brought up one of my corporatisation posts as number eleven. Now this would have been a disappointed visitor since that post was not about WIP treatment as such.

The last seach on MSN, managing professional services, brought up this blog on the front page.

In all, the blog scored well in visibility terms in this last set of searches. More importantly, the searches do give me some ideas as to how I might improve the visitor experience in particular content areas.