A premise of our “Build Back Better” focus du jour (actually, du l’annee) is that we’ve already drastically changed many things about how we conventionally worked, so we can change more.
McKinsey has also been thinking (and writing) about this topic, and in “Reimagining the post-pandemic organization,” they offer some highly optimistic news (emphasis ours):
It’s said that the worst of times brings out the best in people; as it happens, this is true of organizations as well. All over the world, companies are being challenged by the COVID-19 crisis to find new ways to serve their customers and communities. Many are rising to the occasion. Almost every leader we speak with has an inspiring story of radical, positive change in how work gets done and what it can accomplish. Here are a few examples:
A fast-food chain that had to shutter its operations avoided layoffs by partnering with a health and wellness retailer, thus helping the retailer meet spiking demand in a newly designated “essential business.”
One large retailer dusted off a pre-pandemic initiative to launch a curbside-delivery business. The work plan said 18 months. When the lockdowns hit, it went operational in two days.
A financial-services company transitioned more than 1,000 of its global operations staff to work-from-home arrangements, equipping them with new technology within 72 hours to ensure business continuity.
A retail conglomerate in the Middle East retrained 1,000 people in two days, redeploying them from a suddenly stagnant business (movie theaters) to a booming, critical one (grocery retailing).
Of course, some of these outcomes might simply be from “organizational adrenaline”—heroic efforts that are unsustainable. We know that many people are working harder than ever and risk suffering fatigue and burnout. However, we also see signs that the opposite is happening. Amid the fear and uncertainty, people are energized as companies make good on purpose statements, eliminate bureaucracy, empower previously untested leaders with big responsibilities, and “turbocharge” decision making. As one executive we spoke with observes: “Our senior team meets every morning for 30 minutes. It’s incredibly productive. We make decisions and go. We don’t have full information, but that’s OK—we can’t afford not to move.”
The subtext of comments such as these is a recognition of previous dissatisfaction. Organizations felt too bureaucratic, too insular, too inflexible, too slow, too complicated, and often more focused on profit than on people.
The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic shock have changed none of these things and, at the same time, have changed everything. Inertia is clearly riskier than action right now, so companies are mobilizing to address the immediate threat in ways they may have struggled to when taking on more abstract challenges, such as digital technology, automation, and artificial intelligence (all of which still loom). Bold experiments and new ways of working are now everyone’s business. Will the new mindsets become behaviors that stick? We don’t know. Did it take a pandemic for organizations to focus on change that matters? Too soon to say. Still, as one leader we spoke with puts it, “How can we ever tell ourselves again that we can’t be faster? We have proved that we can. We’re not going back.”
Jeff Bezos (who else) made the same point in a recent article in the WSJ:
“Being wrong might hurt you a bit, but being slow will kill you. If you can increase the number of experiments you try from a hundred to a thousand, you dramatically increase the number of innovations you produce.”
Ten weeks ago I would have declined to present these observations to Law Land, on the ground of presumed futility.
Today I am vastly more hopeful, and, I would like to believe, I have more to base it on than my own incorrigible optimism.
Like how powerfully and immediately everyone stepped up to the plate, not just accommodating to but embracing sudden and drastic changes imposed (essentially) without warning, and has begun performing at new levels.
Another hopeful sign is that people–from leaders on down–are talking openly and unabashedly about their firm’s purpose and identity and their desire to be there for clients and each other. McKinsey urges leaders to “take a stand on purpose,” for many reasons:
- At the risk of treading on Oscar Wilde’s famous remark that “conscience is the still small voice whispering that someone might be watching,” simply because people (clients, professionals, staff, competitors, communities) are watching and memories are long. Hard as it might be to believe on some days lately, we will emerge from this and people will know whether your actions stemmed from short-term greed and fear or long-term empathy and determination.
- Organizations with a strong and shared sense of purpose are virtually certain to weather this better than most. Alain Bejjani, CEO of Majid Al Futtaim (MAF), a Dubai-based conglomerate housing shopping malls, leisure, and entertainment, goes so far as to describe that firm’s organizational vision of “creating great moments for everyone, every day” as a “social contract” based on everyone’s voluntary decision to be at MAF together. “It is like a marriage in this way. A company is not a company unless it is underpinned by this desire to be together.” Did you every think of analogizing your firm to a marriage? I submit it’s worth pondering, if you haven’t.
- Speaking of exercises you can do at home, how’s this:
One simple yet telling exercise we’ve conducted with senior executives goes like this: take scraps of paper and copy down half a dozen corporate statements about culture, lightly anonymize them to remove obvious mentions of products or markets, and then see who can pick their own company’s statement from the pile. The result is often humorous, revealing the extent to which companies “talk a good game” about culture, often using precisely the same language.
No one’s laughing now.
And I’ve saved the most challenging for last.
It has truly become put up or shut up time for making decisions with imperfect information.
As McKinsey puts it in advancing a similar recommendation, “The aha moment for some executives is the realization that when urgency and uncertainty collide, the time spent waiting to decide is a decision in itself.”
trick technique for making faster decisions is to push them (a) down the organization; and (b) out to the “edges” of the firm, where people are interacting with your clients, the local market, competitors, and (as always) potential recruits. Now, let me add the immediate caveat on this: Pushing decisions down and out is a field that has fences around it. On that field are immediate, tactical, hyper-local choices: Should we ask this tech support person to go to the office in order to reboot the servers? Did I detect in that Zoom conversation with local/opposing counsel that one of their talented partners is hankering to move [to our firm]? Is there a very worthy civic organization in town that we could support at effectively low or no cost? Can we accommodate the two associates who want to go part-time by reallocating some of their work in an effective way?
Not on that field–outside the fences–are decisions that have firmwide implications or touch upon broader strategic or operational domains: No unilateral exceptions to firmwide billing policies, to client intake, to staff and associate hiring or firing. Here endeth the caveat.
Shall we turn to an even more fertile topic?
Law firms have always been in a war for talent, but never, I submit, as they are now. McKinsey puts it this way: “Talent should underpin every strategic choice and other business decision you’re making right now.”
Consider a golden opportunity that has been right before our eyes for a long time, but only now, as it were, have we pulled away its “invisibility cloak:” Remote working means access to enormously expanded talent pools. As Bejjani at MAF puts it, “being in the Middle East was always a challenge” because people in (say) Scotland or Maine or Tokyo would have had to relocate: Now they don’t have to.
As part of Facebook’s announcement that over the course of the next several years it anticipates as much as half its workforce working remotely on a more or less permanent basis, some of the pluses (diversity of perspective) and minuses (less obvious opportunity for social bonding) were outlined in The Wall Street Journal’s coverage:
A dispersed workforce, Mr. Zuckerberg said, will enable more demographic and ideological diversity if recruits aren’t required to work in tech strongholds like the San Francisco Bay Area.
“I think just more perspective would be helpful,” he said, adding that such diversity would help the company avoid making “basic errors” by misjudging “how large percentages of the world will react or think about something.”
Still, given Facebook’s scale, it has to proceed carefully, he said. “It might be closer to 10 years than five” before half of Facebook’s employees are working remotely, Mr. Zuckerberg said.
He also noted that “some of the softer aspects” of workplace culture needed to stay central to the firm, including instilling and reinforcing culture, and fundamental human bonding.
Yet who doubts for a moment that building out tools for those kinds of activities–whiteboarding, brainstorming, “virtual presence”–is now among the highest priorities of some of the cleverest and most capable networking and tech companies in the world? It’s only a matter of time–and far less time than would have been a likely guesstimate say, 10 weeks ago. The “addressable market,” as the lingo has it, is the entire world: Not just the private sector, but government, nonprofits, elementary/secondary/university education, medium-small-tiny-and-solo businesses, etc. Ooops, almost forgot the grandparents/grandkids audience, clubs, churches and civic organizations, extended families of all kinds, and on and on.
A few closing thoughts.
Just as the vast majority of people and organizations have risen to this surreal occasion, a few have not. We have all just engaged in a massive, unplanned, but incredibly revealing experiment (and it’s not over) exposing who can be counted on and who cannot. In this vein, engage in a keen and unbiased evaluation of the people and firms in your own external supply-and-demand chain and ecosystem. Who has come through for you and who has become silent, defensive, or transactional? Take names.
For many of us, Covid-19 has served up a visceral reaffirmation of why the scientific method is as close to a secular god as there can be, on a global scale, with the monstrous underscore of hundreds of thousands of lives lost.
To rehearse, the scientific method at its core starts with facts, data, and insights and drives from there, informed by judgment, towards decision-making. (I have joked that the “legal method” is the exact opposite of the scientific method; lawyers start with the conclusion they desire to demonstrate and attempt to re-engineer the facts and the data to fit their preferred result. I may stop joking about this.)
What has this to do with managing, or leading, your firm? Everything, I submit. One of the ongoing business crimes law firms have committed over the past few decades, since, say, the dawn of the online world, is to ignore the immense troves of data they possess (or can readily acquire from verifiable and credible public sources [we can suggest some if you’re interested])–or to dismiss it as a tool if they’re reminded of the repository they’re sitting on. (This is perforce a generalization; if you inhabit one of the rare, shining exceptions, apology is hereby extended.)
McKinsey, addressing a non-Law Land audience, formulates the desperate need to capitalize on data in memorable fashion (emphasis ours):
The crisis is reminding companies of the importance of using facts and insights to drive decision making. Yet many companies lack a “single source of truth” when it comes to data, or they don’t have ecosystem partners that can help them look at problems from multiple vantage points. Instead, some organizations face the unenviable task of connecting complex processes and mining data trapped in antiquated data systems. A step-change improvement is needed. The ability to gather, organize, interpret, and act on data and analytics will be the defining competitive differentiator of our lifetimes. Companies that embrace it will have an edge.
Do you (and your firm) know how to learn? I mean really learn, as in: Synthesize, internalize, adopt, and change accordingly? If not, time’s up.
Certainly if you believe the stereotypes, “continuous learning” is the name of the game for millennials and members of Generation Z—those born between 1980 and 2012. This crisis has already had, and will continue to have, profound human, emotional, and intellectual costs. It has changed people and that will continue. In my book, change per se is more than fine as long as one has the tools to adapt and thrive in the new reality. That’s obviously where learning comes in.
The ability to learn is a prerequisite to being resilient. According to innumerable studies, firms that were “resilient” (strong cash reserves, operational flexibility, comfortable with rapid-fire decisionmaking) going into the 2008 global financial crisis boosted their earnings by 10% in 2009 while the nonresilients saw nearly a 15% contraction. My bet is that this time around that disparity will be even larger.