You know what, strategy is boring!
It is January 2020; a new year and a new decade have started. It is estimated that almost half of all adults has made New Year’s resolutions. Statistically that should also involve about half of my readership. By far, the top three new year's resolutions are: weight loss, exercise, or stop smoking. Other frequent resolutions have to do with better money management and work-life balance. According to Forbes, the statistics on how many people actually follow through and accomplish their New Year’s resolutions are rather grim. Studies have shown that less than 25% of people actually stay committed to their resolutions after just 30 days, and only 8% accomplish them. One year later this whole process starts all over again, perpetual and without result.
Why is this relevant or even remotely interesting, you might ask? Well, the fact is that there are striking similarities with lawyers and law firms. It is our day-to-day practice to advise law firms on their strategy. We know out of firsthand experience that the challenge is not to put together a strategy that is relevant and realistic, or to get the strategy through the partner meeting. No, the real challenge is execution. Moving from inspiration and identifying opportunities, to actual day-to-day implementation. Embracing a strategy is easy, putting it into practice is a different story.
We all do crave ‘deus-ex-machina’ solutions
In the Western world weight loss tops the New Year’s resolution charts. So, it seems that this is what most people want to achieve when they mentally start in January with a clean slate. Yet, a 2017 cover story in the New York Times Magazine, discussed research which found that people rarely lost more than 5 percent of body weight over six months, and much of that weight was gained back within two years. This indicates that most people fail to achieve what they want to achieve even though one year down the line they will try again. The main reason why people fail is that change is hard. It means moving away from routine patterns that you have ingrained in your day-to-day life for many years. There aren’t many things as hard and exhausting as changing a deep-rooted routine that we have developed. This is equally true for those aspiring to lose weight, as it is for a partner at a law firm trying to use better project management to better use the available resources.
Will-power and endurance are energy consuming and in limited supply. The legendary boxing champion Muhammad Ali famously said: “Champions are made from something they have deep inside them – a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have last-minute stamina, they have to be a little faster, they have to have the skill and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill”. Indeed, the will must be stronger than the skill, but partners at a law firm are under tremendous pressure to perform. Handling this pressure sucks away all energy and none is left for change. That is why we all -lawyers no exception- crave for ‘deus-ex-machina’ solutions: a quick and easy solution from the outside that as by magic will solve the problem and make it disappear. The faster the problem goes away, the sooner I can get back to my trusted routine.
No change without ownership
It goes without saying that ‘deus-ex-machina’ solutions do not exist. There is no quick magical fix that will instantly improve your practice. Many law firms we consult have rendered a strategy before. The truth is that most of these documents have remained in a drawer because after the strategy was agreed upon, all lawyers returned to their business. Lawyers are busy, remember. They do not have time to waste on internal meetings. They have clients to attend to and business results to deliver. Rationally they buy into the new strategy, practically they don’t and expect management to take care of it. That is why we have an executive committee for, right? Wrong! Just as you cannot get fit by sending your partner to the gym, you cannot delegate the improvement of your practice to the managing partner or the practice head. There will be no change without ownership.
Strategy is supposed to be boring
When we sit with our clients during the strategy process, there is invariably an atmosphere of excitement, inspiration and hope. You can feel the energy almost literally tingling in the air. When we present and discuss the proposed direction and changes with the partner group, there usually is enthusiasm. On the one hand this obviously is great, on the other hand it can be dangerous. When they come together in a partner meeting, partners usually do not want to discuss all kind of complicated problems. It is much nicer to talk about what the firm will look like in the future and why this is a better world with better clients and better business. Partners, like people in general, prefer to be entertained (hence the success of TED-talks). On occasion I have jokingly said: “Now you are all super excited, but next year you will want a new Jaap Bosman, to entertain you again”. Strategy can be like New Year’s resolutions: the same process all over again and again, year after year, without ever achieving anything significant.
The secret of a successful strategy is IMPLEMENTATION. This means that far more time and energy will need to go into lasting and consequent execution and implementation. It is impossible to achieve any material and relevant results unless you keep tirelessly pursuing the same goals for several years. Strategy has very little to do with being creative and inspired. Strategy is supposed to be boring. Once you have a relevant and realistic strategy, you stick to it. You execute it with determination, commitment and (if needed) brute force. It is about focus and execution, infinitely.