Edge International

Remodelling Change Projects

Nick Jarrett-Kerr

A couple of years ago, I proposed a three-stage programme designed to revive stalled strategic projects  – repainting the vision, remodelling the project and changing the project team or team leader.

The remodelling (second) stage of that programme suggested that if a project has stalled or remained uncompleted, it sometimes helps to modify the initiative or make substantial changes to it – though just a change of name is not usually enough. By way of further detail and as a subset of the remodelling stage, I now suggest a four-stage process to help firm leaders to recast stalled projects in terms and with solutions that partners will find acceptable.

1. Analyse what went wrong

The first step is to work out what went wrong or why the project stalled. Typical reasons include ineffective implementation (insufficient time devoted), lack of resources (budgeting issues) or – perhaps more worryingly – obstruction or undermining by partners or groups of partners. Clearly, duplication of effort should be avoided by utilising the good work that has been done before. But fresh research, updated financial analysis and further insights into possible downsides can all help to give the project a make-over.

2. Define goals

The second step is to define or redefine the project’s measurable and reasonable goals aimed particularly at trying to cure or circumnavigate previous failures. This might mean cutting or amending the scope or cost of the project, revising the timetable and milestones, or finding extra financial or manpower resources. Large or possibly indigestible projects can sometimes be cut down into a number of smaller projects, provided both that the overall objectives are kept in mind, and that the smaller projects are not just seen as nibbling at the edges of the overall plan.

3. Change the paradigm

Partners can be resistant to repetitive attempts simply to reintroduce an uncompleted project. Objectors will feel that they will again be successful in resisting if they have previously successfully seen off the proposed change, whilst other partners may experience project fatigue. Superficial changes sometimes work but it is better to recast the project so that fresh solutions are created and the initiative appears entirely new or radically different. An alternative is to move the stalled project to another part of the firm. Legal Process Improvement (LPI) initiatives unsuccessfully attempted in one practice group could, for example, be trialled in another group.

4. Formulate and Implement

Implementation failures often form the biggest culprit at the heart of stalled projects and ineffective change initiatives. A coherent and well formulated process is clearly vital to avoid the temptation to embark on overly ambitious or wildly aspirational programmes, but even the best laid plans fail unless properly managed by leaders with the necessary skills, attitudes and determination to see the change through to a successful conclusion

The pace of change is increasing and in some cases seems overwhelming. Client pressures, technological change and the advent of new competitors threaten most law firms. The inevitability of difficult times places a premium on both coherent planning and competent leadership, qualities which law firms across the world have hitherto deployed very patchily.

Three ways to revive difficult strategic projects

Nick Jarrett-Kerr

Many law firms of a reasonable size may well have conducted some form of strategy review within the last five to ten years.  This makes many partners of law firms and indeed their leaders somewhat resistant to further reviews, especially if much of the previous strategy remains unfulfilled or in cases where the more intractable strategic initiatives have stubbornly resisted implementation satisfactorily or at all. Failure to implement can become a vicious circle. If the firm has a history of uncompleted projects, partners will tend to keep their heads down when a new project is introduced and bide their time until yet another initiative bites the dust.

There are a number of ways to revive or kickstart stalled projects.  Persistence is certainly necessary, and law firm leaders have often told me that they had to be just like a dog with a bone to see through some of their initiatives. As well as persistence in the face of opposition or indifference, there are three methods which leaders can use to gain or regain impetus.

1. Repaint the vision

Visions do not always have to focus on nirvana. Sometimes, a doom-and-gloom vision is a necessary wake-up call. Bad news can therefore help to kickstart action. The loss of an important client, the defection of a key partner or the prospect of poor financial results have all been used by leaders to start or reinvigorate projects. The implementation of a revised performance management system or actions to resolve a consistently underperforming team or office may have resisted change in good times, but may be easier to solve against a pessimistic backdrop. Conversely, changes to partner profit sharing are always more tricky when profits are going down and not up. Equally, a more positive vision may be needed to introduce the possibility of merger or an acquisition. Here scenario planning may enable the leaders to present the alternative possible future states that the firm may face.

2. Remodel the strategic project

If a project has stalled or remained uncompleted, it sometimes helps to modify the initiative or make substantial changes to it – though just a change of name is not enough. Clearly, duplication of effort should be avoided by utilising the good work that has been done before.  But fresh research, updated financial analysis and further insights into possible downsides can all help to give the project a make-over. Work can also be done to resolve previous obstacles and sticking points.

It can sometimes help to reduce the scope of the project. I have, for example, known some firms that have needed more than one attempt to implement a successful client relationship management program, and this has often been achieved by limiting the scheme initially to a pilot program affecting only a few key clients.

3. Change the project team or leader

Getting busy practising lawyers to take on non-billable projects has never been easy, and when they do agree to head up a project or initiative, they often promise much and deliver little, blaming work overload for their inactivity or lack of success.  Whilst continuity is good, sometimes a complete change of team is necessary to one with fresh ideas and no pre-conceptions or historical baggage. Sometimes changing the project leader is enough.

By way of example, I know several firms that have made several unsuccessful attempts to build or strengthen one of their departments. The building of a successful corporate department, for instance, often falls into the pile of projects that seem too difficult to achieve. It is not easy for regional or mid-sized firms to build thriving commercial departments, and all too easy for partners using the “We have tried before” argument to resist renewed attempts to bolster up groups that lack critical mass, a decent client base or quality partners. The building of a successful corporate department should never be treated as a Holy Grail initiative for a mid-sized firm, and deep research is always needed to see if such a move is strategically necessary, practicably viable or even likely to be welcomed by the firm’s core client base. There has to be a compelling answer to the question of why a capable corporate partner or group of partners should ever be willing to join your firm.  Buoyed up by favourable research, however, an enthusiastic new team or project leader may be able to bring the success that has previously eluded the firm.

The tendency of partners to resist change on the grounds that “We have tried this before and it didn’t work” remains a strong disincentive for a leadership team to consider new ideas, introduce new plans or refresh uncompleted projects – even where plans and projects seem to be critical to success. People often prefer the “certain imperfect,” rather than the risk and uncertainty of change in pursuit of something better. There are however basically only three types of law firm – those that make things happen, those that watch things happening, and those who say “what happened?”  It is better to be in the first category than in the last.


This article first appeared in Managing Partner for December 2014 (Volume 17 Issue 4) and is reproduced with their permission