Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Monday, October 29, 2007

Professional services - the importance of the diagnostic

Back in October 2006 in Role of the Diagnostic in Professional Services - medicine vs law I compared the diagnostic approach adopted in both areas. I was reminded of this by a recent case that I saw.

The facts are simple enough. The client decided that it wanted certain things done. The consultant responded to the need as defined by the client. Unfortunately, the client's real need proved to be quite different. The client felt that it had wasted its money and was unhappy with the consultant. The assignment ended in acrimony.

I suppose that I have now completed on my own or managed something over 300 consulting assignments. Inevitably a proportion, perhaps as much as 5 per cent, have gone wrong in some way. When I look at the reasons for this, the most common cause is failure at the diagnostic stage.

I have no magic bullet here. However, there are a couple of things that you can do to minimise the risks.

In scoping jobs, we all talk about what the client wants done. Less often, we talk about why the client wants the job done. Yet this is critical, especially in consulting assignments. If you do not understand how the client intends to use your advice or analysis, then your chances of picking up mistakes in the way scope is defined will be much reduced.

The second thing that you can do is to seek to suss out internal stakeholders and decision points.

One of my worst ever failures on a job - in this case for a Government agency - occurred because I did not identify a key decision maker whose views on the job were different from my immediate client.

It was a strategy assignment. I defined a process to create that strategy. There was also a research or industry analysis component. I focused on this as an input to the strategy process. It turned out that the decision maker in question regarded this as the key component. To his mind, the development of the strategy itself was really a matter for the agency.

This difference in approach did not become clear until half way through the assignment. Then, suddenly, we had to change direction. The results satisfied no-one.

The third thing is to document and clear as you go along. This increases your chances of discovering mis-definition of scope early. It also protects your legal position.

None of this is rocket science. But it may help.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Welcome Visitor 11,000

Welcome visitor 11,000 who arrived today. It seems a very long time since I started this blog, but it was only July 2006.

Unfortunately I missed your arrival, so cannot identify where you came from or how you got here. Still, my thanks for coming.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Common Management Problems - issues of communication and trust

In an earlier post, I spoke of the role that communications and trust played in providing a framework that would encourage passion.

Communications, because without this errors occur, fears build up. Trust, because this encourages people to go that extra mile. The two are linked in that poor communication is nearly always associated with reduced trust.

I was reminded of this recently because I saw a simple case where the two factors came into play.

The facts are simple enough. A staff member applied for an internal promotion. The committee decided not to interview her. No one let her know. She found out because she asked another candidate had he heard anything about interviews, only to find out that interviews were being held that afternoon.

The candidate in question was mortified because she had not been told, more so because her colleague immediately realised that she had not been selected for interview.

This type of simple example occurs fairly often. In this case there was no ill intent. The person who should have told her simply got swamped. Yet the damage that was done will be permanent.

My point in all this is that in managing your people you must be straight with them, sensitive to their feelings. This includes passing on bad news. If you are straight and communicate properly, then you will find that your people will not only do better, but will also cut you some slack, forgiving you for mistakes that you are bound to make.

Previous posts in this series are:

November 20 2006: Common Management Problems - the isolation of being boss

November 23 2006: Common Management Problems - the overenthusiastic boss

March 12 2007: Common Management Problems - managing up

March 18, 2007: Common Management Problems - dealing with poor performers

March 27, 2007: Praise from Martin Hoffman for the Common Management Problems SeriesA

April 6, 2007: April 6, 2007: Common Management Problems - dealing with poor performers 2

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Legal blogs in Australia

My thanks to Legal Eagle's Fifteen Minutes of Fame for drawing my attention to an interesting article by Liz Porter in Melbourne's Sunday Age, 14 October 2007.

In a previous story (28 September) I reported on the growth of blogging in the US. I have been watching the same process here.

According to Liz Porter, Australian firm Freehills has embraced the US practice of using blogs to raise its corporate profile, launching two blogs by Australian lawyers in its Singapore office. I have no reason to doubt this, but I think that Freehills may have something to learn since I have been unable to find the blogs.

In addition to professional blogs, Liz notes that some younger lawyers are using blogs as therapy, writing anonymous "secret life of a law firm" web diaries about luxuriously appointed "billable hour" hellholes, where workaholic senior partners drive junior associates through 18-hour working days.

According to Liz, Melbourne's own "Anonymous Lawyer" is Trixie Allan, author of "Lawyertrix — adventures of a (disenchanted) lawyer". Also 28, she is a junior solicitor in a "BCF" — big city firm — who began her blawg as "therapy" during a rough patch at work. She now posts instalments in her work/life story up to three times a week.

I had actually missed this blog, and read it with a degree of amusement. I can understand why some of her readers might find entertainment in try to guess the firm!

Now Liz notes that Trixie's bosses know nothing of her blogging activities. Mm. She also suggests that Trixie's partners may well share the views of law firm Baker & Mackenzie, whose management warned in a 2006 newsletter that "the democratic nature of the blog is a big risk factor for corporate users" and suggested a policy requiring firms to come up with an outline of "who is entitled to blog".

Liz's story also explained to me why the only other local "anonymous lawyer" blawg, Junior Lawyers Union, had stopped posting. Apparently the lawyer in questions had quit his law firm.

I will miss JLU. Like Lawyertrix, it also looked at the quality of working life for young lawyers. Its stories, including its focus on depression, provided the case study material that I used in my depression series.

Liz also quotes "Legal Eagle", the author of the post I mentioned at the start of this story. A Melbourne lawyer and academic, LE's Legal Soapbox is one of my personal favourites.

LE is reported as saying that "Anonymous Lawyer"-style expose blogs will always be rare because blogging is so dangerous for junior associates. Liz also records LE as saying:

"Most of the blawgs I know are written by academics, law students, judges associates or barristers," she says. "If you work in a large law firm, there's not enough time to indulge in blogging. Billable hours mean that you have to account for every six minutes and billing targets mean you spend all your time working. And young solicitors would be too afraid of being found out and sacked. The Melbourne legal community is so small, and everyone knows one another."

In all, Liz has written an interesting and entertaining article well worth reading.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Hidden Thorns - something all professionals know

This photo from Gordon Smith's LookANDSee photo blog is a close up of a rain-forest leaf from Dorrigo, a very beautiful area to the east of Armidale on Australia's New England Tablelands. As Gordon said in his post, you would not want to grab it!

I am sure that you can think of people who bear a passing resemblance to it.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Designing a simple performance appraisal system - implementation issues

This, my last post in this short series, briefly discusses the practical issues that can arise in implementing the system I have described.

From experience, three main problems are likely to arise.

First, people have to be given the skills to make them comfortable with the new approach. This is best done by means of an initial workshop in which the system is explained, with staff given the opportunity to experiment through role pays.

As new staff are appointed, they too need to be given access to information about the system. In the case of people who will be required to do appraisals, one way to help them is to get them to sit in on one or two appraisal systems.

Secondly, any new system requires time before it is properly internalised. Too often, management focus shifts to other issues, resulting in lagging effort.

Third, the approach must be kept both focused and as simple as possible. Too many firms start adding things in, complicating the overall process.

Remember, the whole point of this system is performance improvement, but in a way that should aid both manager and staff.

Introductory post.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Ndarala Group Series on the Economics of Professional Services

Over on the Ndarala Group blog we have begun a series on the economics of professional services. The material is drawn from internal Group material that I prepared. We are publishing it in this form to make it more broadly accessible.

So far we have put up seven posts, with a lot more to go. In some ways the blog form is not really suited to something like this, but it does at least get it out into the public domain. Later will consolidate it and post it to our web site.

If you are interested in the series, you will find the introductory post here.

Monday, October 01, 2007

End Month Review - September 2007

It seems hard to believe that the first post on this blog was on 3 July last year (2006).

In the fourteen months since since I have written 172 posts, an average of just over twelve a month. As I noted in my August review, keeping posts up has been a bit of a struggle recently, but I am slowly getting back into rythym.

Looking at what people searched on over September to bring, them to this blog I found quite a variety. Just a few examples.

A search on Google Australia, web, on corporatisation brought Corporatisation, Corporate Structures and the Law - The Case For in at number 30.

A search on Google Swizterland, "das top management von professional service firms",found the front page of the blog up twice at number 31 and 32.

A search on Google, salaries australia graduate lawyer brought Law, Life Style and Legal Salaries in Australia in at number 2.

A search on Google Israel, managing professionals, brought the front page in at 6.

A search on Google UK, web, professional service firms, brought the front page in at 8.

A search on Google, maslow's hierarchy pyramid, graphics, brought Problems with Performance Pay in at 6. This does in fact include a graphic. I get a steady stream of hits on maslow.

Finally a search on Google, What contributions to the management of professional service firms can a business school graduate provide?, brought the front page in at 1.

Just a small sample, but I always find patterns interesting.