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"Can do": can you?

15 October 12

The keynote speakers at the "Law in Scotland" conference posed some challenges, and offered some insights, for solicitors attempting to cope with a changing business environment

by Peter Nicholson

Can you imagine Richard Branson running a firm of Scottish solicitors? No, it’s not easy. But those who attended the Society’s “Law in Scotland” conference last month would probably agree that he would have a go if he thought it worth his while – and that his ability to think differently, coupled with his determination to minimise risks, is a sound foundation for business success in almost any context.

Steering a way forward through a period of rapid change was the theme of the event, and the two keynote speakers, in their different ways, were out to get our habit-bound profession thinking change – or risk seeing the world leave it behind.

Both Roger Flynn, who left Branson’s dynamic enterprise for the lumbering giant that was (is?) British Airways, and Tim Harford, the “Undercover Economist”, who presented some illuminating thoughts on how to experiment when you don’t know what it is you are trying to achieve, pushed us to understand the mental processes that can either help or hinder successful innovation.

Why might Branson even think of running a legal practice? Because of the Virgin mindset, described by Flynn as “Anything is possible”. Even something that didn’t work last year, if circumstances suggest taking a further look. The train business was a different sort of animal for him to take on, but he did it; he invested £50 million in mobile phones and sold the venture a few years later for close to £1 billion.

Basically what he does, Flynn continued, is look for market opportunities – evidenced by confusion in the customer base and complacency in the competition – and ask what will work better for the public, bringing the Virgin customer service ethos to the task.

Barriers in the mind

You may well not have a clear picture of where you should be going. Should that deter you from trying something new? Not according to Harford, who illustrated his point with Unilever’s “trial and error” approach to design – try a number of variations, see what works best, then work on variations on that variation, and so on for three or four stages, until you have something that works infinitely better than your first model even if you can’t explain why.

A particularly pertinent question he posed for a legal audience was “Why do we find it so hard to let go of traditional methods?”, an issue he answered by identifying three barriers to experimentation.

The first is the problem of conformity: if everyone else is convinced that answer A is correct, it’s hard for you to stand up and say you favour answer B, even if you’re sure it’s actually the right one. Secondly, lines of communication may not work well enough to convey the message to the right people about when something works and when it doesn’t. And the third is people’s attitude to risk, and failure – the “Deal or No Deal” mindset that sometimes results in a person reacting to losing by taking ever bigger risks, and most likely losing even more. “You must be comfortable with failing every now and then, in order to succeed”, Harford said.

There was much more about mindsets. Harford opened his talk with the story of epidemiologist Dr Archie Cochrane, who came up with the label “the God complex” for people who think they understand a situation when they don’t – applying it, among other situations, to the leading cardiologists who were convinced their patients stood a better chance of recovery in hospital than at home, until a study by Cochrane proved them wrong.

According to Cochrane, Harford explained, you sometimes have to force people to face the complexity of a situation. The economist added: “The more I study the economy, the more I think his message is true. It’s getting more complex by the day.” Cochrane’s approach was to ask: “What is it I need to learn? What experiment do I need to run?”, as a way of solving problems when you don’t really understand the problem. That led us to the Unilever illustration.

Top players

Flynn, meanwhile, expanded on the attitudes of others in your organisation, grouping them into:

  • the high energy, positive attitude “players” – the inspirational types who are the driving forces for change;
  • the low energy, positive attitude “spectators” – those who like the players’ ideas but claim they are too busy to help make them happen;
  • the low energy, negative attitude “walking dead” – who don’t believe in the proposed actions and have a poor attitude to carrying them out;
  • and the high energy, negative attitude “well poisoners” – who engage in active, but perhaps subtle opposition, or even sabotage, and need to be managed into another set or out of the company.

If you don’t have about a third of your people in the “players” box, Flynn added, you have an uphill task to make any change happen.

And your own qualities, as someone driving change? Are you clear as to your vision and strategy? Have you thought about your business model? Can you convert people into “players”? Are you being the leader that they need you to be?

Branson’s other big strength, Flynn told us, was his ability to “de-risk” – reducing his exposure to a minimum by always pushing for a better deal.

But as Flynn said, Branson isn’t afraid to try things, and Flynn’s concluding quote (from actor Will Rogers) summed up the balance of risk and reward: “You’ve got to go out on a limb sometimes, because that’s where the fruit is.” 

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