I’m often asked, what is the most important capability that any management team should focus on developing in its people? My answer is always the same: it is the means to bring about change – to behaviours, practices, systems and structures. Having the ability to adapt to a new set of opportunities or challenges places the firm in a position to control its environment. An inability to change means that the organisation is beholden to the market. 

A firm that is change-able does not just have a good understanding of change management techniques, reinforced with a robust set of tried and tested processes, but also the ability to engage its people in a journey; to move from a current state to a desired one.


The psychology of change


It is this engagement of people which can be most challenging, yet without it any change process will most likely flounder. This is why academic studies, time after time, identify that the key issue at the outset of any change programme is to increase the sense of urgency, create a burning platform, ensuring that everyone understands why staying as we are is not an option. This can take the form of both carrot and stick; painting a picture of the positive benefits of the change that is proposed as well as highlighting the dire consequences of not changing. The psychology of change demonstrates that people will only change when they perceive the pain of moving will be less than the pain of the status quo

John Kotter, the world-renowned change guru, in setting out his eight stage change framework set out in Leading Change is clear about the need for engagement as the next stage of this process. He uses the phrase “build a powerful guiding coalition”; others will use different semantics but the key message remains the same. As pointed out by Jim Collins in From Good to Great, at the outset great businesses recognise that it is crucial to “start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats”.

Only with a clear understanding of the criticality and unsustainability of the current position driving the need for change, coupled with a cohesive group with strong intent and empowered to act, can a plan be developed and communicated.

A structured (and ongoing) communication process is vital.  Any change initiative has the potential to effect morale and performance; indeed research shows that this is often the case as people come to terms with a new reality.  These concerns and tensions are reduced when information, support, guidance and opportunities to feedback at critical stages in the change implementation are factored in.

At the outset the aim, as we have seen, is to raise awareness about what is proposed and why this is necessary. A common human reaction may be denial or frustration; the focus of the leadership team must be on building commitment. Such emotions will often be shared openly and so can be dealt with quickly and effectively.

Maintaining momentum


However, as the change process moves on, it will be vital for the firm to increase levels of understanding among its people – about how the change will happen, how it will improve working practices and the benefits that it will bring. Fischer’s Transition Curve describes the nature of these changes and how they may be experienced by those engaged in the change process. During this part of the change cycle, hidden feelings of anger, confusion and resentment may emerge. It is therefore crucial that transitional support is offered throughout this phase. 

Clear communication, focused on clarifying roles and responsibilities, is key. This is also the point at which investment should be made in equipping people with the new skills that they will need to succeed in the future. By providing support, the firm is able to achieve high levels of engagement and commitment from its people to the change process. When done well, a shift in mind-set is achieved. Those in the vanguard of change become advocates themselves. They have seen the positive effects of working differently and want to help others benefit too. They are actively involved in the change effort.

Creating and maintaining momentum is important. Demonstrating that the climb will be worth the view is a critical factor in bringing about the sorts of behavioural change that is required. This is a key component to maximise the chances of success for any programme; once the initial eagerness has waned it will be vital to deliver incremental evidence of progress in order to refuel ambition and maintain momentum. Creating and communicating these short-term wins is another key characteristic of a successful transformation project.

This is because, for most people involved in a law firm change project, gaining initial intellectual buy in for a new initiative is not the fundamental obstacle which needs to be overcome. Winning the mind is the easy part of the equation. It is winning the heart that represents the more formidable challenge. Progress here rests on the firm’s ability to build and maintain emotional commitment, underpinned with suitable processes and systems, to create a longer-term shift of attitude, approach and delivery. This is the real measure of success.

Andrew Hedley of Hedley Consulting Ltd can be contacted at [email protected] / http://uk.linkedin.com/in/andrewhedley


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