Be a Cheerleader for Downsizing

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By Gerry Riskin | Mar 10, 2014

by David H. Maister

To reach their potential in productivity and profitability, greater numbers of firms than ever before have been focusing very seriously on the development of effective practice groups. However, many firms succumb to the temptation of choosing the wrong professionals to head up their practice groups.

Historically, firms have tended to make practice leader that individual who is the most senior in the practice area, or who is most competent in attracting clients, or who bills the most hours; but not that professional who is accomplished at bringing out the best in people, who has demonstrated coaching skills, or even articulates an interest in taking the responsibility.

Then, for what is all too often only a political consideration, they allow these leaders to build large practice groups, on the mistaken notion by these leaders that if they have a big group with a big budget, then their role as group leader must be important.

Bigger does not always mean better, and nowhere is that more evident then when it comes to measuring practice group effectiveness. Observations drawn from our focus group research with managing partners, our client assignments, and our practice group leadership workshops demonstrates that the best practices focus of those firms effectively employing the practice group structure is that one of the best ways to ensure failure is to allow membership to grow beyond a small, solid working group.

When it comes to the practice group structure, many firms seem to want to demonstrate their seriousness by attaching every single professional to a number of different practice groups within the firm. They seek to make as a member of their groups every possible individual who has some remote connection with the particular practice area. The result is that practice groups have grown in size but decreased in effectiveness, with group members feeling no real sense of attachment or personal commitment beyond having their names included in practice group brochures and finding that they are spending an increasing amount of non-billable time in meetings. We have seen practice groups in some larger firms with thirty, forty, and even in excess of fifty professionals, even though everyone should have recognized instinctively that practice groups that large can not be productive. And, in an effort to avoid offending anyone, practice group leaders continue to add people to their groups. At the end of the day it becomes a high price to pay for trying to make sure that no one is feeling left out.

While the larger practice group may be viewed as the means to bring more minds to bear on the growth and development of a practice, it soon becomes evident that not all of those minds actually make any significant contribution. Research studies on group size in industry, shows that as the size of any group increases, so too individual productivity decreases. And, life in a professional firm is no different. As a practice group increases in size, an individual partner or professional’s opportunity and ability to effectively participate decreases dramatically.

In fact, our own observations and research shows that as the number of practice group members increases, participation, trust, and accountability decreases. Free floating is a term we have come to use to describe the reduction in individual effort as the group grows. This so called free floating occurs because the more people that become involved in any practice group, the less responsible any of them feels for the groups performance, the less commitment any shows to following through on individual projects, and the less buy-in any individual has for the group’s success or failure, since they sense that there are other professionals around to pick up the slack. However, when any partner believes that their individual performance is important to the group’s cumulative efforts, and that their progress is visible to their peers, it becomes clear that they are more likely to be concerned for how their peers view them. As a result professionals are more likely to produce when active in smaller practice groups, than they are on a larger team, where they can easily get lost in the crowd.

Also, we have observed that the larger the practice group the more likely it is that a few power partners or strong personalities may dominate the group’s agenda, meeting discussions, and the decision making process. In larger groups many professionals may choose to remain passive, hesitant to voice their ideas and opinions for fear of criticism, unwilling to disagree with the leader or give each other honest feedback, and not fully confident that they can depend on each other. Therefore, the level of interpersonal trust, always an important issue within the firm can be damaged as the group size increases. Conversely, smaller groups tend to enhance trust as more members feel free to participate and the net result is usually a larger number of good ideas being generated in smaller groups.

Although the optimal size of practice groups may depend upon the specific practice area in question and the culture of the firm, empirical research now strongly suggests that ten to fifteen professionals is the maximum size for effectiveness. There is simply no getting around the fact that small practice groups work best. What to do? Here are some options for you to consider that we have observed other firms using successfully:

  • Downsize your practice groups. Do the right thing. When new practice groups are formed, insist that they include less than a dozen professionals. Reorganize existing groups into smaller units. It may not be easy to remove some individuals from some groups, but the long term impacts on productivity makes this effort critical.
  • Use a resource member approach. A core group should consist of only those partners whose full time practice efforts are involved in the specialized area. The core group meets regularly and makes decisions on the direction for the practice and with respect to the practice group’s business development efforts. Concurrently, practice group leaders remain free to invite others to assist and participate as substantiative experts on specific client projects or to help get stuff done as the need may arise – but like the darting seagull, the resource member drops their load and departs.
  • Create splinter groups. One tactic may be to break up your larger teams into smaller practice-specific splinter groups. In this model, the high technology industry group might become the computer technology group, the telecommunications group, and the biotechnology group. Or, the litigation group could be sub-divided into the securities litigation group, the product liability group, the professional malpractice group, and so forth. These smaller practice groups then provide a real opportunity for members to utilize their expertise and have an impact on the outcome.

A firm’s practice groups seem to be particularly prone to the temptation of getting large in an effort to be effective. They do this despite the fact that common sense suggests that smaller is better.But then common sense is not always common practice.