Lessons learned from our Sweden project
Last year, in 2021, we bought a century-old (1913) country school in one of the most beautiful parts of Sweden. The idea is to turn it into our corporate off-site retreat. A place away from the hustle and bustle of the economic centers of the world, where we together with our clients can focus on strategy or group dynamics for a couple of days without distraction or interruption.
The new property ticks all the boxes: it is an iconic emblematic Swedish building that oozes character and atmosphere. It has 7 airports within 1 – 4 hours by car. It is beautifully situated, one can regularly spot moose from our back yard. There is glass-fiber broadband internet and all the other amenities that one would typically expect in the ‘civilized world’.
As said, what we bought was a school, and we have to first convert it into an off-site retreat before we can actually use it for our purpose. By December 2021 we had all the paperwork done and had received the necessary permits. In January construction works commenced.
While we will keep large parts of the 600 m2 school untouched in order not to lose the character and authenticity, a number of serious changes also need to be made. The school has 9 toilets (for children), but not a single shower. Being a school, the building also does not have a kitchen. We also need to create a possibility for up to 12 guests to spend the night. It will be clear that we have a sizable project at hand.
Managing such a project while running a successful consulting practice at the same time is no mean feat. It requires a lot of energy. Because the building is over 100 years old, it is impossible to predict what the builders will come across when opening or removing a wall. Many design decisions can only be made after deconstruction has started. Many plans need to be changed or adapted based on what is found. On top of that there are currently huge supply chain issues. Despite all this it is an incredibly fun project to do. We feel very fortunate being able to do this. It is likely the most motivating and inspiring project we will ever do. The result is going to be absolutely stunning!
Working on this project, it became clear that there are evident parallels to be drawn with the execution an implementation of a strategy by a law firm. Therefor we would like to share with you some of our insights, as they might prove helpful.
1. The goal is clear, but the path is flexible
For our project we have a clear vision of what the goal is. We will create a corporate off-site retreat to use with our clients for discussing strategy or group dynamics, and for workshops and training. It needs to accommodate 14 for meetings, break-out, breakfast, lunch and dinner. Our clients must be able to stay over for 1 to 3 nights. We keep the original character and atmosphere of the school intact, but will infuse it with some high-end design additions.
While the goal and the vision are fixed and will not change throughout the project, we need to be flexible in the execution and interpretation. Based on real world facts, the project requires us to be creative and flexible. Due to construction limitations or availability (or price) of certain selected materials, we have to constantly adapt and make new choices.
For a law firm’s strategy it is no different: the strategy itself is engraved in stone and will not change. For the execution however, one need to be flexible, pragmatic and responsive to what happens along the way. This is exactly why having a clear strategy is so important: it is easy and tempting to wander off course, and to lose sight of the end goal.
To our clients we often illustrate this by putting an object firmly on the table: "this is your goal and beacon. It does not really matter how you get there, as long as you get there". There are always more options on how to reach the goal. Give your partners some flexibility in what path they take, as long as the keep moving towards the goal.
2. Rigorously track progress
Managing the refurbishing process, we quickly noticed that builders are not verry skilled in thinking ahead. In general the carpenters, electricians, plumbers, painters and other craftsmen do not take into account that the materials they need to complete the job need to be ordered well in advance. This problem is enlarged with the current supply chain issues due to post Covid backlogs and the war in Ukraine.
We solved this by ordering all materials that are crucial to the design ourselves. We have been sourcing literally all over Europe and are monitoring delivery status on a daily basis. This approach has been successful. Not only have there been few (minor) disruptions for the builders, we also did not have to compromise on the design or the quality of the materials used.
The lesson for law firms is that when it comes to executing and implementing a strategy, it is essential to set milestones and to track progress over time. Too many Managing Partners see their term go by without achieving material tangible results. Despite all good intentions. As a manger you need to be on top of execution all the time, if not, no goals will be achieved on time, if ever.
3. You have to trust people
While it is definitively our investment, our school and our project, we must respect the input and expertise of other people. We are not builders, so it seems obvious that we listen to their professional opinions. In reality this requires a delicate balance as the builders are not necessarily always right. On several occasions the builders claimed a certain solution was not possible, only to admit after a bit of sparring and conversation, that indeed there was another way to solve the problem without compromising quality or aesthetics. The balance is knowing when to push back and when to just accept their expertise.
It is also important that the crafts people keep feeling personally committed and responsible and don’t start relying on us to correct them if they come across a problem or make a mistake.
Our law firm clients will recognize this. It is not uncommon that managing partners or the executive committee take the lead when it comes to implementation of the strategy. Sometimes it happens that management allows for little room for personal interpretation by the partners. Everything needs to be done a planned. Invariably this leads to mutual frustration.
Management must trust the partners. What also must be avoided is that the partners sit back and wait for management to instruct them what to do. Also partnerships cannot do without personal commitment and buy-in from the individual partners. Don’t deprive them of that responsibility.
4. Doing the fun stuff first
Converting an old school into a high-end corporate off-site retreat takes time. Realistically there will at least be a year between making an offer on the building and hosting our first off-site with clients. That is without taking the current supply chain issues into account.
Objectively one year from school to corporate off-site retreat is fast, but that is not the way the human mind works. To us it feels almost infinite. While our vision and concept were already clear from the very beginning, it seems to take forever to convert into a tangible result. This at times can be frustrating. There is a tendency to compensate for that frustration by trying to realize quick wins.
At one point I put effort in having a TGO sign produced and placed on the building. Objectively this made no sense, but it gave me at least a feeling that visible progress was being made. The TGO sign was harmless, but I recognize the necessity to remain vigilant and consciously fight and resist the temptation to spend time and effort on things that are not essential right now, but that compensate for an emotional craving for visible progress.
In organizations like law firms this is no different. Like our project it will take at least a year for any strategy implementation to become visible and produce tangible results. Like us, partners are inpatient and are looking for quick results. A new website is a typical example.
While it is hard to argue that, just like our TGO sign, a new website is essential for the strategy to succeed, it is often impossible to resist revamping the website early on.
Just like for our off-site project, a fair warning is in place. Don’t give in to the temptation to spend resources on things that are not essential right now. Keep a rigorous focus on what you need to achieve and act to match that goal. Our TGO sign did not materially draw our resources, a new website or a CRM system will draw yours...
All photos are taken by the author at the location of the TGO Off-Site Retreat