“Change is the only constant in life,” said the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. In recent years, this is a truth that has become increasingly real for the legal profession. Digital disruption, increasing client expectations, and pressure on fees were already re-shaping traditional norms before the pandemic made radical and rapid change essential and showed it was possible.
Today, change can take many forms, such as adapting to developing economic or political drivers, meeting evolving regulatory or market challenges, implementing new internal systems—or responding to a ‘black swan’ event. Suppose change is a normal and natural feature of the legal landscape today. How can law firms and legal professionals best manage it, turning it from a threat into an opportunity and maximizing the chances that change initiatives will be successful?
Assessing your team’s appetite for workplace change
There is a sense that Covid-19 altered the rules of engagement, as far as change management is concerned, but whether the shift is permanent remains to be seen. As businesses went into lockdown, no established playbook or official guidance covered the new ways of working, suddenly forced upon everyone. Rather than change being carefully planned and led from the top, people just had to adapt, try new things, and see what worked.
That creativity was liberating and opened the door to achievements that may not otherwise have happened—or that would have taken a lot longer to bring to fruition, such as implementing new technologies or working differently. From now on, we may see a blend of this new mindset alongside traditional approaches: mixing experimentation with rigor. Ideally, the idea that everyone is involved in making change happen will lead to a more collaborative culture of learning and sharing ideas, tips, and improved practices in the long run.
After a protracted episode as physically, emotionally, and mentally draining as the pandemic, the first thing to do is assess how resilient your organization is and whether your staff has the energy and appetite to take on a major change initiative.
“If there’s a burning platform, you obviously have to act. If not, ask yourself: why do this now?” says Caroline White-Robinson, Head of Operational Development and Learning & Development at Shoosmiths. “If you’re doing a ‘pulse survey’ (to gauge employee sentiment and drive engagement), don’t just ask about work; consider what is happening in people’s lives. Understand your people, not just your organizational needs.”
Cultural considerations for business change
This strategy matters because any major change initiative requires energy, investment, and enthusiasm on the part of everyone concerned. If you decide to embark on this kind of project, one of the biggest challenges is getting people on board and making sure the right culture exists to embrace change. That means articulating the need and vision for change and then getting staff to support it personally—for example, because they can see how it will make it easier to do their jobs. Addressing issues such as how the change will impact people’s perceptions of status, sense of certainty, feelings of autonomy, relationships, and ideas about fairness at work (known as the SCARF model) can effectively tackle concerns and reassure people of the benefits.
“We often assume that people are like chess pieces that we can move about, but they sometimes react unexpectedly,” says Ian Rodwell, Head of Client Knowledge and Learning at Linklaters. Offering ‘carrots’ can help generate buy-in, but check that incentives encourage the right behaviors or develop valuable contributions. Similarly, be careful with ‘sticks’: putting something into context as to why someone should do something is likely more effective than simply compelling them to do it.
Top-level support for the change initiative is vital, but so too is having champions on the ground, either in a centralized project team or via individuals acting as sponsors within existing groups. Whoever is leading the charge must have credibility so that people have confidence they have their best interests at heart. Resource allocations should ensure that those tasked with driving through change can focus on it and prioritize it. Otherwise, it could get derailed by day-to-day operational necessities. It is also important to ensure that middle managers do not get too much pressure from above and resistance from below.
Create a roadmap for team alignment
Before you start, be clear about what needs to change and why. This mapping process is far harder than it sounds. Too often, there is insufficient consideration about whether change is necessary, what problem it will solve, understanding the issues involved, and what value making such a change will deliver. Once you know the ‘why,’ you can concentrate on the ‘how.’
There are many different models for change management. “The danger is that people take one approach and apply it to every initiative,” warns Rodwell. “It’s always contextual: some things work in some scenarios but not in others.” Having the right framework and processes is vital to ensure that the inputs yield the desired outcomes.
“Think about the end goal, and then you can work out what the journey looks like,” says Helen Lowe, Head of Legal Operations at easyJet. “In the legal profession, it’s not necessarily about making a ‘big bang’ change. It’s easy to think a shiny new technology will make the difference, but this sector is traditionally risk and change-averse. Take baby steps. But maintain the pace. It’s fine to let the pioneers go first and fail fast, but don’t fall too far behind the leading edge.”
Post-Covid, the rationale, and routes for driving change are more nuanced than ever. People may be more open-minded and adaptable, but bear in mind the staff’s personal and professional pressures and balance those against the business’ commercial imperatives. It’s about making the right changes for good reasons and using the correct structures to get the best results. That’s a big challenge even during the best of times.
Tips for a successful change management program through team engagement
- Carefully assess the need and appetite for change.
- Clearly communicate the rationale and vision for change to minimize resistance.
- Engage people early, so they become ambassadors, not detractors.
- Put appropriate structures in place to achieve the right outcomes.
- Ensure everyone is working as a team toward a common goal.
- Allocate resources to prioritize change.
- Set expectations and maintain momentum.
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