Program Recap: Think Tank Live! Implementing Organizational Strategy While Putting Out Fires

Readers of this article likely recognize that the best way to lose weight is to reduce calorie intake and ramp up the level of exercise. However, there is a huge gap between knowing what to do and taking the initiative to put that knowledge into practice.

This challenge was the focus of a discussion facilitated by Deb Knupp, Managing Director of Akina, a GrowthPlay Company, at the recent LMA Midwest at Chicago City Group event on February 19, 2015 graciously hosted by Amber Bollman at the Offices of Bryan Cave. The thrust of the conversation was not the health of its members, but rather their ability to help firms execute their respective strategies.

Deb’s presentation, and the subsequent group conversation, was based on the book Strategy and the Fat Smoker, by David Maister, a “guru” of professional services administration.  His thesis is that for law firms to put strategy into action, management needs to understand what stands in the way, and what conditions are necessary to move in the right direction.  His observations are based on the personal journey he undertook when challenged with both losing weight and quitting smoking.

Deb asked the approximately 50 people present to break into four groups, and to ponder a basic question: “What are the biggest things that get in the way of executing strategy successfully at your firms?” The nature of the responses was remarkably consistent. The top roadblocks identified were:

  • Fear. Fear took many different forms: it could be fear of change – since so many lawyers are “precedent-driven”; or it could be fear of making mistakes or putting oneself in a vulnerable position.  As leaders within our firms, we need to find ways of helping attorneys navigate their fears, addressing them head-on, and helping attorneys feel more comfortable in the face of change.

  • Lack of urgency. Even when marketers and other firm administrators lay out a clear sequence for attaining a goal, attorneys too often wait until the eleventh hour to complete required tasks.   For David Maister, it was a very significant health scare that drove him to address poor habits; for us, we may have to create and enforce deadlines, even “artificial” ones, in order to drive action.

  • Lack of buy-in and a deficit associated with a share vision. There was a sense that, even though a strategy had often been expressed by senior managers at a firm, it was often not understood, and sometimes not even known, by many others.  Plainly, this is a very substantial impediment to making things happen.

As legal marketers, we must help our firms better understand why change is necessary, why the status quo is not acceptable, how our preparations will limit the potential downside. We also need to get the message about our strategy out into the organization from the beginning.Fig 1_Whiteboard_Think Tank_2015.jpg

Figure 1 - A whiteboard showing typical challenges to successful implementation of strategy, from one of the discussion groups

It’s not enough to simply raise problems: one must also have solutions to the typical challenges that arise when trying to implement strategy.  Deb posed another question to the group: “When you successfully put new plans into action, what was the one thing that made the biggest difference in realizing your goals?”Fig 2_Keith_Whiteboard_Think Tank_2015.jpg

Figure 2 - Keith Ecker serves as scribe for his group's reflection on the execution of strategy

As much as there was commonality in challenges, there was a great deal of variety in key elements of successful implementation.  Three particular approaches came to the fore:

  • Building and expressing a compelling vision that explains “Why?” a project should take place, and ensuring that emphasis is placed on how its successful completion will generate rewards for all involved. That is, address the “WIIFM” (What’s In It For Me?).

  • Build a plan that allows for the “softer side” of a project, such as sessions to explain the strategy and plan to attorneys and staff, provide training for those affected by changes in the organization (particularly around new technologies), and allow time for people to adopt new behaviors.

  • Find senior-level champions who are willing to commit to the success of the project and are ready to speak out against dissent. Give them the tools to celebrate any small step made in the right direction in public ways.

Deb used the innovative Think Tank Live! format to its fullest in gathering the “wisdom of teams.” She concluded the session by sharing some effective approaches that she and her Akina colleagues use when collaborating with client firms:

  • First, the strategies that have the greatest likelihood of success are those that begin with a clear sense of “Why?” You must able to state a compelling reason for change.

  • Second, you must also be able to explain “How?”  When you can explain the mechanics of making things happen, particularly in “bite-size” pieces, you are far more likely to prosper.

  • Third, make sure your plan includes a system for creating urgency. Clear deadlines, even “artificial” ones, will generate results, particularly when backed up with a visible system of accountability.

  • Fourth, strategy and execution cannot succeed without a “human element.”  Make sure you invest in relationships with the key people required to make things happen.

  • Fifth, our expectations of success must be well-defined, realistic and attainable.  While “shooting for the moon” may be inspirational, moving forward in more measured steps may yield a better outcome.  After all, the five elements of “SMART” goals are: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound! 

  • Finally, no project will succeed without the right resources. Make sure you have budgeted people’s time and allocated the right cash to realize your goals.

This Think Tank Live! session was one of a quarter-long series of presentations and events for members of the LMA Midwest Chicago City Group relating to the development and execution of law firm strategy, under the direction of Programming co-chairs Jonathan Becks and Robin Iori.

For more details on David Maister’s book Strategy and the Fat Smoker, please visit:

Ian Turvill is chief marketing officer of Freeborn & Peters LLP and co-chair of LMA Think Tank. He held marketing roles with several professional services and technology companies for 18 years before coming to Freeborn in 2011. Ian holds a B.A. as well as an M.A. in engineering, economics and management from the University of Oxford and an M.B.A. in finance, marketing and corporate accounting from the University of Rochester. He was elected National Marketing Scholar of the Year by the American Marketing Association in 1997.

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